The MAGNIFICENT LOSER is one of my favourite character archetypes, because their stories explore how to live a brave life in the face of inevitable failure. Such stories were common in my homeland. Australians are as competitive as anybody else, but have a soft spot for noble failures. One of our biggest holidays commemorates a military fiasco. The best known folk song is about a hungry itinerant. And a beloved hero was an outgunned (and ultimately executed) outlaw.
Human beings have been storytellers from the very beginning. Huddled in caves, the fiction-loving ape told stories to each other, to make sense of the hostile world around them and trade survival strategies. Thousands of years before storytelling was a business, it provided wisdom for living a human life, giving comfort to those anxious apes, in times of distress.
These days, storytelling is for profit. Companies prefer to peddle fantasies of winners, because those stories are fun, and sell a lot of tickets. The subtext to most current pop culture stories is “anything is possible if you believe” but the flip side of that message is – if you aren’t a winner it’s your fault. You just didn’t try hard enough. The fiction-loving ape is physically comfortable these days but the anxiety comes from within.
Our shared ideas of ‘success’, are partly formed from the stories we hear. The films, books, jokes, and advertising ‘parables’ we are fed on a daily basis, telling us what winning looks like. That image can become flawed when driven by business. Convincing peasants that they too have a shot at living in the castle might be good for the economy but it’s cruel for the human being.
We all know that it’s possible to give something your best shot and still fail. To work hard and still get fired. To eat right and still have a heart attack. To look that reality in the eye, we must share more stories – both fictional and from real life – about living a satisfying life in reduced circumstances. About navigating defeat & loss. MAGNIFICENT LOSER stories can help in this.
There is so much focus on winning in our culture – stories about winners and how to be one – but it is the stories about losing, and losers themselves, that provide useful information for we fallible human beings. Losing, but doing so with integrity, has resonance with living a real human life.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST told us that, sometimes, we are not the crazy ones. It is the ‘system’ that is broken. Randall Patrick McMurphy kicked against an unjust system and died for it. This was one of the great MAGNIFICENT LOSER stories of the 1970s (when there were many such tales).
Though loss is the constant theme, MAGNIFICENT LOSER stories aren’t always ‘downers’, and can be enjoyable too. Even the success-obsessed fairytale-factory of Hollywood occasionally tells uplifting stories about losers. ROCKY became a franchise about winning, so it can be easy to forget that he actually lost the fight in his first film. It was a box office hit in 1976, and audiences felt good at the end of the film, because although the protagonist lost, it was on his own terms.
Optimism is important, but is not only about winning. In a winner-obsessed culture there is no place for loss, but losing in your own terms may be more satisfying than winning on someone else’s. Once you accept that idea, the word’s meaning shifts. If you can lose, but still have a ‘happy ending’ doesn’t that make you a ‘winner’ too?
The insult ‘loser’ is bandied about, from the schoolyard to the boardroom, despite the fact that most of us are losers most of the time. There are only a tiny few at the head of the class, at the front of the pack, and in the top percentile, and even those ‘winners’ will lose one day. No matter how many ‘likes’ you’ve accumulated, how much money & awards you have, how cosy your mansion or impregnable your bunker, it is inevitable that you too will become enfeebled & irrelevant one day.
You might win but you’ll definitely lose, so at least some of our stories need to prepare us for this truth. Today’s winner is merely a loser-in-waiting. Human beings are all underdogs simply because we are all mortal, and decline is the inevitable end to everyone’s story arc. We all lose eventually. The trick is to own it. Do it with style – be a MAGNIFICENT LOSER: