On winning and losing

Three things lead me to today’s blog. The first is the suggestion (attributed to Rick Gekoski) that

Life is about winning and losing.

The second is the announcement that Martha Fox will be Chancellor of my university. Someone who is such an eminent ‘winner’ that she bears an extra name and – just to remind us of her achievements – a jolly title. How we love these things.

The third was an alumni gathering at my old college. A chance to meet up with old friends after 30 years, chew the fat, and think about what has happened to us in the interim. Did we win, or lose? And to what extent? And is there an SI unit for this? If so, I reckon I am at about a pico-Lane-Fox.

Is that it then? Life? It is about winning and losing? About being like Ms Fox on one side, or cleaning the toilets at Heathrow Airport on the other? Note my question is not asking if winning and losing are a part of life. It is the about I am interested in.

more toilets in arrivals hall London Heathrow airport car hire

Possibly my most dreaded place to work

After at, it often seems that our society does agree with this notorious about. There are no gold medals awarded for exceeding-your-personal-best-by-a-good-margin. No Nobel prizes distributed for getting quite-a-nice-result-considering. No Oscars handed out for trying-really-hard-to-make-a-good-movie. No Booker prizes cheerily conferred for really-a-pretty-decent-novel-in-the-circumstances.

Well, if this is what life is about, I advocate a return to the Stone Age. If that is the best we, as a species, can come up with, then let’s give the mice a go. No, really. They probably already run the world anyway. Douglas Adams had inside knowledge.


They also do quantum field theory

Why so? Well I was going to give you a nice, tidy list of neatly bullet-pointed reasons. Discussions about the marginal extent to which the world is meritocratic anyway, about the need for us to – well – look after each other, however talented or not, about the measure with which we utterly depend on those people who clean the toilets at Heathrow airport (but never award them a title), about the caustic psychological effects of winning on the winners.

But I won’t. You will only get bored. No, really. You will. So let’s just say it is deeply unimaginative. Let’s try, just now and then, maybe for five minutes before breakfast, to imagine a world in which we celebrate how things are done, rather than what is done. Prizes and awards to be dished out for character and personality and doggedness and compassion and persistence and thoughtfulness and genuineness and sheer, unalloyed humanity.

At the very least, it would be interesting. A refreshing change. And perhaps a little more just. Perhaps.

PS. My mathematical readers – if they got this far – may be wondering if this has anything to do with Maths. Well, the intersection is non-empty. But probably of zero Lebesgue measure. Here is Lebesgue, just in case you needed convincing.


What a jolly fellow