Sometimes the wins aren't pretty

I realized something this week. It turns out that all this time I’ve thought that the “wins” in life, the things worth acknowledging and celebrating, are supposed to be pretty.

I believed that the moments we’re allowed to be proud of are the ones that look like the climactic scene in the movie when everything comes together, everyone says the perfect wise or snappy thing and the lighting makes everyone’s skin look dewy. There might even be fireworks.

I assumed that these moments in our lives were clearly demarcated and obvious—that it would always be clear to me (and everyone else) that I was right, that I’d succeeded; I’d smile magnanimously while friends and colleagues cheered and slapped me on the back; the world forever after would be a happier, gentler, brighter place.

I was SO WRONG!!!

It turns out that some of our biggest wins are hidden in big, messy arguments, somewhere underneath the yelling and the tears. Others are buried in moments of terror, self-doubt and pain. And still more of them are surrounded by everyday frustrations, overwhelm and mess-ups, which is why they’re hard to see, and why it’s hard for so many of us to believe we’ve collected more than a handful of wins throughout our entire lives.

ugly wins

This week I was sharing a “win” in a Women’s Circle run by the wonderful Geoff Laughton. I was talking about something I’d accomplished the week before—I’d had a major, unexpected deadline crop up and knew that if I wanted to have any chance of meeting it before I headed into Passover I’d need to push all other things aside and focus only on this one thing.

Those “other things,” by the way, included cooking three large meals for multiple rounds of company we were hosting over the next two days. Which I love to do, but had sort of been counting on a lot more time in which to do it.

My big win was meeting the deadline, and I was proud that I'd met it. After sharing that celebration, I thought for a moment and added another win: the fact that my husband had disagreed with my choice, and that while I understood the validity of his point (it was going to be a lot more difficult and stressful to get ready for our guests if I pursued this other project) I knew in my gut that this was more important, and I stuck to my decision.

For those of you who don’t know me well, this was actually a pretty big deal. I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like anger much either, or even the suggestion of disappointment, disagreement or frustration. I've had a tendency to back down when I sense it.

In the past if my husband had suggested that my decision would likely not end in the most ideal way, I might have dissolved into tears, doubted myself and changed course, or, most likely, agreed to stop—and then secretly continue to do what I wanted to do, and dealt with the consequences when they came.

This time I considered all the options, thought about the likely effects (both practical and emotional) of my choices, trusted my decision and calmly explained that I was going to do what made the most sense to me. This was not easy for me, and it was not fun. My choice was going to affect my family, and the person on the other end of this conversation was not happy. This was not a pleasant moment. But you know what? It was a big flippin’ win!

When Geoff heard the story he said, “So it’s a win inside a win!”

It wasn’t as simple or sparkly as that. I replied, “It was more like a win inside a miserable conversation inside a win.”

Sometimes wins aren’t pretty. Maybe a lot of times they’re not pretty. If you're wondering where some of your ugly wins are, answer these questions:

  • When was the last time you did something that felt right, even though someone disagreed with you or even told you not to do it?

  • When was the last time you took a risk even though you were terrified?

  • When was the last time you tried something and failed?

  • When was the last time you asked for help?

  • When was the last time you let someone know you were having a hard time and needed a safe space to land?

These are all wins.

Every one of my clients has ugly wins. The trick is to recognize that they’re wins, and not just focus on the parts that disappointed, didn’t work, hurt or didn’t match the fantasy of the magical unicorn win.

It’s much easier to see it in someone else. I get to train people to recognize their wins, to gather evidence of their successes, and to learn to see them in the moment so they don't stay paralyzed by fear or demoralized by perceived failure. The VisionMaker is a fantastic process for this (and now, conveniently, available as a DIY tool!). The questions I asked above will also give you a great head start in uncovering more of your wins.

May your journey be filled with wins, both ugly and pretty, and may you have the wisdom to recognize and celebrate each of them. Joy.

*Image courtesy of Steve Johnson,