Why you are not a loser

A School of Life video but add unnecessary maths notation

Adam Howes (Imperial College London)

Status: draft, last updated 2023-04-12

The School of Life is a YouTube channel which makes nicely animated and, for the most part, feel-good videos. For example, one of them is called “Why You Are Not a Loser” and it’s about how you, the viewer, are not a loser because life isn’t a race, it’s a multitude of races: “those who win in some areas will lose in others – and vice versa”. The message is that life is multidimensional, which seems fair enough.

If the video was aimed at mathematicians it might have started: suppose that I am represented by the vector \(\mathbf{x} = (x_1, \ldots, x_d)\), and another person is represented by \(\mathbf{y} = (y_1, \ldots, y_d)\). We call “losing a race” \(x_i < y_i\) for some \(i\).

The video relies on those who win certain races losing others, but I’m not sure how true that is. For example, it seems possible for me to be a “complete loser” in relation to someone else so that \(x_i \leq y_i\) for all \(i\) and there exists some \(j\) for which \(x_i < y_i\). There are a lot people in the world, so it seems plausible for there to someone to whom I am a complete loser1 in relation to. Well, at least that I’m a loser to on some reasonably small set of “meaningful” variables2. If there is a race called “being Adam Howes, age 25, born in…” then I probably have that one3.

If there exists sufficient negative correlation structure between the variables then we’re more safe from being complete losers. Say that each individual has finite resources \(R\) to allocate across the \(d\) dimensions in a zero-sum way and allocating more resources is guaranteed to increase the variable. If that’s the case then it’s impossible to be a complete loser. Although in reality there are some resources (like time) that are basically finite, this model is still quite lacking.

My main objection to the video is that I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to base your sense of well-being on not being a loser – at least in a global setting4. I’ve noticed that people taking this view sometimes make unpleasant5 generalisations about others, such as thinking that because someone is someone is hard-working that they must not have a social life or that because someone is good-looking they can’t be intelligent. I’m not denying that there will exist inferences of this type which are statistically true, but I’d prefer to steer myself away from this train of thought and towards more cooperative, positive-sum ways of thinking6.

Another way to steer how we think about races is to think about reference classes. Say that I compare myself to individuals \(j \in \mathcal{J}\) with associated variables \(\{ \mathbf{y}_j \}_{j \in \mathcal{J}}\). How we think about our lives can change a lot as a function of this reference class \(\mathcal{J}\), even though nothing is changing about ourselves \(\mathbf{x}\).

For example, one of the variables that I might care about is income. If the reference class is graduates from my masters program then my PhD stipend likely makes me a loser. In fact, in various recent conversations it has come up that London might be a bad place to being doing a PhD for this exact reason. On the other hand, if I make the whole world my reference class then I’m definitely a winner7. So how should I feel about it? Is one framing more valid than the other?

I doubt there is any scientific way to choose the reference class. One view might take a more inclusive approach, extending the reference class outwards by lowering the similarity that’s required for entry. The limit of this view includes all possible beings and likely leaves me feeling grateful to exist at all, which seems like a pretty good place to be left. An alternative is to restrict the reference class to myself, perhaps over time, which also seems like a good strategy.

As I’ve gotten older my reference classes have changed. At school I thought I was good at maths but now that I’m doing a PhD in maths I don’t. Something which once made me feel like a winner no longer does. This feels like a common pattern where as you develop a skill your reference group for comparison narrows.

Another source of difficulty is that by default the reference class is defined by those close to me. Supposing my self esteem rests on not being a loser then this is a source of tension. On one hand I want those close to me to be to be winners, but then that makes me a loser.

What might some practical ways of dealing with this be? Here are some suggestions I’ve seen:

  1. Don’t base your sense of self esteem on being a winner. You are not responsible for \(\mathbf{x}\). You don’t need to be a winner to have a meaningful life.
  2. Run different races to those within your reference class. Have niche interests. Don’t compete along obvious variables.
  3. Consider the arbitrariness of the reference class you are using.
  4. Try to experience moments mindfully, without comparison.

Here are some other ideas I’ve seen around that might be related:

  1. Perhaps I just wanted to post this because I enjoy the phrase complete loser. Pareto-dominated is also an acceptable put-down↩︎

  2. The video doesn’t comment on which things deserve to be variables.↩︎

  3. I think a serious objection to what I’m saying here is that races along the lines of “listening and being present during a conversation over lunch in November” are “meaningful” races.↩︎

  4. Global as in not local, not global as in on the globe.↩︎

  5. Unpleasant in that it just feels unpleasant, not in any deeper sense.↩︎

  6. The zero-sum is bad, positive-sum is good people have burrowed their way into my brain↩︎

  7. Anyone reading this is likely in the global 1% by income.↩︎


For attribution, please cite this work as

Howes (2021, Nov. 4). Adam Howes: Why you are not a loser. Retrieved from https://athowes.github.io/posts/2021-11-04-why-you-are-not-a-loser/

BibTeX citation

  author = {Howes, Adam},
  title = {Adam Howes: Why you are not a loser},
  url = {https://athowes.github.io/posts/2021-11-04-why-you-are-not-a-loser/},
  year = {2021}