Bates prof examines America's obsession with winning

LEWISTON — For Francesco Duina, something clicked when he saw Michael Jordan moments after he won his fifth NBA championship.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Francesco Duina, associate professor of sociology at Bates College, wrote a new book, "Winning: Reflections of an American Obsession," exploring the American view of winning and losing on a personal level.

If running secondary
Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Francesco Duina, associate professor of sociology at Bates College, speaks about his new book "Winning: Reflections of an American Obsession" in his office Thursday. The book explores the American view of winning and losing on a personal level.

“Confetti was still falling,” Duina said of the scene on the court. “Jordan was still sweating.” A camera zoomed in on the basketball star, who held up six fingers.

Jordan's message: “I'm not resting, yet. I want a sixth championship.”

“Something struck me right there and then,” Duina said. “I said, 'When is enough enough? What must one do in order to quell that desire?'”

Thirteen years later, the Bates College associate professor has authored “Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession.”

The 237-page book published by Princeton University Press is an analysis of competition in modern society, including politics, money, sports and entertainment.

“It's everywhere,” said Duina, who teaches the nation's only college class on the sociology of competition.

“I want people to think about why they compete,” he said.

Duina was introduced to American notions of winning at 14, when he moved to Glenview, Ill., from his childhood home in Italy.

Right away, he was taken aback by the intensity of competition, whether he was playing tennis or trombone.

“I couldn't quite make sense of it,” said Duina, now a fit 41-year-old. He, too, could be competitive but he was baffled by the cost. “It was less about having fun and more about beating the town over.”

“They used to make us drill at 6 in the morning to win marching band competitions,” he said. “You know, I'd want to play the trombone.”

The experience stuck.

He figures his boyhood in Europe may have made him more aware of America's competitive approach.

“I think that positioned me a little differently,” he said. Duina tapped his drive and ambition, schooled as a sociologist at the University of Chicago and Harvard University.

In 2007, he began working on “Winning,” his fourth book.

“My goal was to figure out what the language of competition is all about,” he said. About 90 percent of the book is analysis, looking at winning in politics, business, sports and elsewhere, he said.

He compared European, North American and Asian societies and he broke down different ways of winning, comparing the consistent winners to the ones who won only occasionally and to the steady losers.

“I think it comes with serious implications,” he said. Competition and winning can lead people to great accomplishments, but not everyone can be above average.

“Anxiety can be a great motivator," he said. “But if the trophy's there, you're always going to have failures.”

Find your ambition elsewhere, Duina says. Winning isn't all it's cracked up to be.

“It's best to ask, 'What do you want?'” Duina said.

Maybe that's a win, or maybe it's something else, said the father of two. After a soccer game, he'll ask his 6-year-old, “Did you get out of it what you wanted?”

“I think what's important is not winning, it's to realize what you want and actually getting it,” he said. “And you can be a beast about it.”

Duina himself recently fulfilled a long-term goal.

“I did a triathlon and I did it alone with a friend in a pool without competition,” he said. For him, completing the physical test was more important than his time or beating someone else.

“I am a person with goals and I go after my goals with determination,” Duina said.

The professor is not immune to disappointment, however. He figures he'll be watching his book sales as carefully as any author.

“Of course, I hate not to get the things I want,” he said.

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 's picture

Ultimately, being good at

Ultimately, being good at anything involves more failure than success. It's the discipline, work, and mental focus that allows anyone to win if they commit. I am going to get this book, I wonder if he mentions that MJ was CUT from his senior high school basketball team. We ll see. This is yet another quasi european looking to bash America. At least that s what it sounds like. THEY (Europe) were reading books by whale oil lamps before America. So his electric lamp, word processor, car, electric shaver, and his tenure now that he is published, depends on the very thing he criticizes.

Bob Stone's picture

It will be an interesting read

America was built by people who valued winning. It is being ruined by people who are rolling over to the theory that coming in last is OK.

Europe is currently being over run by people who want to win, at all costs. They have sold themselves down the toilet of a 6th century cult that dominates every aspect of their sorry lives.

People get government they deserve.

 's picture

Hey professor, check out soccer in South America

How many soccer players have been terrorized or killed because they scored an own goal or made a costly mistake on the world stage 'letting their country down.' It's not just America that wants to win. Why do other countries keep medal counts in the Olympics? Why does Japan watch baseball games in the middle of their night when their teams are playing in international competition? I think your premise is flawed. It is not just America's obsession with winning.

 's picture

Playing to win...

In Auburn, during the late 40's, playing on the sandlot, we played baseball and football to win. We were boys and girls of all ages, of different talent in the sports, from the neighborhood. We won and we lost. We went home after losing without tears at night and came back to play the next day. However, when uniforms were handed out, the game was no longer a game, and winning was everything, kids without talent for that sport sat on the sidelines. The sport became a game of a talented elite and our friends in the neighborhood were no longer able to play with us. The game was no longer a game, the sport was no longer a sport. Something healthy, psychologically and physically, was gone. So be it.

Terry Donald's picture

Very interesting article, if

Very interesting article, if you look close you really can see this "win at all cost" attitude in all facets of life.
I've been involved in youth sports for quite some time, and I often hear people say that winning is whole reason for playing the game. Couldn't be further from the truth. And it's the same in politics, do politicians throw their hats in the ring to win at all cost? Will they do anything, say anything to get enough votes to win the election?

 's picture

If you don't strive to win, you may lose

Competitiveness is in the genes of humanity that have been carried forth through evolution. Unfortunately, in this world, others would cut our hearts out if they could. This is not Bambi. Singing Kumbaya does not ward off the marauder. Social policies that discourage competition, punish the winners and incentivize the weak to stay weak will invariably come back to hurt us all. As soon as we decide that it's PC not to win, stick a fork in us.


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