When Defeat Becomes Victory

April 1st, 2016 by Kelly Kienzle


“One afternoon, Lucy and I drove down to Cañada Road, our favorite biking spot. (Usually we would bike there, pride forces me to add, but the hills were still too formidable for my lightweight frame.) I managed six wobbly miles. It was a far cry from the breezy, thirty-mile rides of the previous summer, but at least I could balance on two wheels.

Was this a victory or a defeat?”

This passage from “When Breath Becomes Air” describes the author grappling with how to judge his physical capabilities given his terminal cancer diagnosis and severely lessened muscular strength. This incredibly honest narrative of how a relatively young 36-year old man manages to stay mentally and emotionally strong against the cancer while always remembering the inevitably of his demise sparked many questions in me, particularly the one above – – “Was this a victory or a defeat?”

What makes something a victory? Is an accomplishment a victory only if we have accomplished something that we previously have not? Is it like a veteran tennis player who finally achieves an elusive Grand Slam victory? Or are our victories simply when we are able to prevail despite our current circumstances? If so, is it like the author who was able to ride “six wobbly miles” despite having lost a third of his body weight?

Looking to the workplace, is it a victory if we manage to speak up (or hush up) for just one sentence in a meeting where we haven’t previously before?   Is it a victory if we are able to coax only one person to join our new initiative, even if we had gained many followers on our last idea? Is it a victory if we successfully mentor a small group, if in the past we had led a large team?

My answer to each of those questions is yes. Our victories are measured by the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. They are not measured by how much, how far, or how large our gain was previously. Because when will we ever be able to catch up to the past?

So, by which measure are you comparing yourself? Are you measuring yourself (or your organization) to some previous experience where you excelled? Or are you measuring yourself based on the tools and means currently available?

By measuring ourselves in our current circumstances, we can become more attuned and receptive to being present. And with that mindset, we can ride six wobbly miles as a true victory lap.


“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi is a #1 New York Times bestseller and recommended to anyone who wants to spend a few hours reading a short book that provides insights on how to live with meaning and die with dignity.

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