Want to Push Through Obstacles? Become a Loser.

By Anthony Gold

Have you ever struggled with motivating yourself to complete (or even get started with) an initiative that you know could be extremely beneficial for you?

You know what you need to do, you have all the resources to progress, and you even feel passionate about wanting to make it happen. Yet for some reason you hold yourself back.

Perhaps it’s inertia. Perhaps there’s some underlying fear.

How can you break through?

By becoming a loser.

Yes, a loser.

Before I explain this provocative approach to growth, let me share some research into human psychology that drives much of our behavior.

While we all would like to experience pleasure (gain) and avoid pain (loss), those two drivers are very different in their magnitude. In fact, a loss is far more devastating than the equivalent gain.

If your boss said she was giving you an unexpected raise of $500/month, you’d feel a certain sense of pleasure. But if instead your salary was cut by $500/month, you would very likely feel much more strongly – in the negative direction of course.

It turns out that we hate losing.

Not much of a surprise really. But what is quite surprising is the power of leveraging that concept of loss to achieve dramatic gains.

In a groundbreaking experiment related to merit pay in education, teachers were split into two groups to test out this concept of “losing to gain”. The first group of teachers comprised the traditional “merit pay” group – meaning that their bonus at the end of the year was a function of how well their students performed on standardized tests. Teachers could achieve as much as a 10% bonus if their students did well on the tests.

But the second group of teachers were given a very different incentive plan. These teachers were given a 10% bonus right at the beginning of the school year. Not a single test had been taken, not even a full day of school had completed – and yet these teachers were given a 10% bonus check.

But there was a catch.

Depending on how the students performed on the standardized tests later in the year, the teachers might need to pay back some – or even all – of their bonus pay. If the students did very well, the teachers got to keep the full bonus. Otherwise, they had to pay back part of the bonus – or even the full bonus if the students severely underperformed.

If you step back and look at those two groups of teachers, they had identical bonuses for equivalent performance. The only difference was the timing of the bonus (beginning of the year or end of the year) and the framing of the setup. The first group (traditional merit pay) got a bonus if they performed well. The second group (losing to gain) needed to pay back a bonus if they underperformed.

So, which group do you think performed better?

It’s not even close. The second group – the group that needed to pay back their bonuses if the students did not perform well – blew away the results of the first group.

How can that be?

It bears repeating: we really hate losing. The teachers in the second group were far more focused and dedicated on educating and preparing their students.

Now, bringing this topic back to how we can break through on initiatives that we’d like to move forward but haven’t made the progress we’d like – one solution is to frame it as a loss aversion.

Just like the teachers who were given a bonus up front – but needed to perform well to keep it – we can do the same.

A friend of mine needed to write an article for a publication. Even though there wasn’t a specific deadline, she felt a strong sense of responsibility to write this article. Each week she’d say, “I really need to write that article.” And each week the article went unwritten.

Until I suggested to her that she frame not writing the article as a loss. Here’s what I proposed: if you don’t write the article by this date, you need to contribute $100 to a certain political candidate’s fund. And of course this was a candidate this person absolutely despised.

What happened to the article?

It got written ahead of the deadline, with a strong tenor of purpose, passion, and an exhilarating sense of accomplishment.

It’s that simple. If you want to make something happen, come up with a way to experience a loss if the initiative is not completed.

By framing what we want to achieve within a framework of loss aversion, we might be far more likely to not only excel, but succeed in far greater measure than we deemed possible.

All growth comes from simply removing the obstacles to growth. And one of the best ways to remove an obstacle is to make avoiding, denying, or repressing it so painful that we are certain to transcend it.

Join me in Monday’s class where we’ll explore how we can leverage the concept of loss aversion to not only experience another way of looking at the world, but one that leads to far greater peace. I look forward to seeing you then.

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