“Not Losing” is not the same as “Winning”

I would consider Winning as a state of Not Losing, but I would not consider the opposite as completely true. Being in a state of Not Losing is not the same as Winning, unless you understand every possible way to Not Lose in a given situation (at which point, I would say you just know how to Win). It is more common that we only understand a few instances of how to Not Lose in a given situation; it is when in this state that I claim that knowing how to Not Lose is not the same as knowing how to Win.

Suppose that three students are asked to complete a Math test with 10 problems. These 10 problems vary in difficulty. However, the teacher has created the problems such that the solution is always 42. The teacher also tells them that the correct answers are within the set of counting numbers ranging from 1 to 50.

The first student, who is considered to be a Math Wizard by the other two students, has a firm understanding of all the Math Spells Wizards use to legitimately solve each problem individually, showing the step-by-step process until writing “The answer is 42.” for each of the solutions.

The second student is not as Wizardly as the first. What they lack in Math spells, though, they make up for with clever thinking. They decide to practice their Wisdom, and for each of the 10 problems writes “The answer is not 1”. They know for a fact that this is a true statement about any Math problem whose solution is not equal to 1. They then sit and wait, hoping that the teacher did not provide problems with 1 as their answer.

The third student who sits between the first and second students is also not very Wizardly. But what he lacks in Math Spells he makes up for with Cunning. Utilizing his great skills to the fullest, he shifts his eyes towards both the first and third students’ solutions when the teacher is faced the other way, and writes down “The answer is 42 and the answer is not 1.” for all the problems. They then sit and wait, hoping that the teacher did not notice them looking at the other students’ solutions.

How would these three students be graded? Who can we say is closer to knowing how to Win, and who can we say is closer to only knowing how to Not Lose?

In terms of letter grades, the first student may receive an A for his Intelligence, the second student may receive an A for his Wisdom, and the third student may receive an A for his Cunning. All three students may end up passing the Math test, but I would say that the first student understands more than the second and third students. The first student is aiming at Winning by getting the correct solution, regardless of the specific problem they are handed. The second student is aiming at Not Losing by providing an examples of incorrect solutions. The third student is aiming at Not Losing by using solutions created by others. All three students may happen to be Not Losing in this certain situation, but I would only rate one student as trying to Win.

If, instead, the second student were to write that “The answer is not 1 or 2… or 41 or 43 or 44…or 50”, leaving out only 42 as the correct solution, then I would have to say that they understood as much about the solution as the first student (but chose to write the solution in a “cute way”). If we have an option of 50 choices at a solution, and we can reliably narrow down and remove 49 of the 50 possible choices, then our entire knowledge of what is not correct, of how to Completely Not Lose, is equivalent to the knowledge of Winning. But this is not the common usage of when I hear of learning how to Not Lose, which often refers to only a few examples out of the entire Lose-space.

If, instead, the third student were to observe the solutions provided by the other two students, but then proceeds with trying to figure out how they would solve for the solution themselves, then I would have to say that the third student is also trying to Win (although cheating on a school Math test is questionable). This student is using others as examples, as referents of how to Not Lose, in their path to Win on their own. Outside of this Math test example, we are commonly surrounded by examples of what other people do in given situations and can observe which outcomes don’t work out. If we use these as examples of how to Not Lose, we can fill out and understand more about the Lose-space and get a better grasp of how to Win. However, sometimes we focus only on those examples of Not Losing that we end up just losing in a different way.

It is okay, and it is sometimes necessary, to first focus on learning how to Not Lose while on our path to learning how to Win. In certain problems and situations outside of this example Math test, it is sometimes easier and more effective to see examples of what not to do before figuring out what it is we need to actually do. But this focus on Not Losing should always be accompanied with an impetus towards Winning. It is not enough that we learn of 4 or 42 ways how to Not Lose, if we then proceed to accept another way which also lands in the Lose-space.

If Winning is our purpose, then we must not lose that.

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