Warner: None of us ‘deserve’ anything, in life or on the wrestling mat

Updated: January 17, 2024

By Tristan Warner

As the holiday season came and went, I started thinking about a potentially troubling word that we all commonly use.

Harmless when interpreted at face value, I started mulling over the possibility that it could be conveying the wrong message. 

If you care to take a plunge down this rabbit hole with me for a moment, it may enlighten you, or perhaps dishearten you, as to how we may be doing a disservice to America’s young people if we allow the usage of this word to become a hindrance. 

The problematic word I am rambling about is “deserve.”

When used in reference to basic human necessities, such as in the case of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, this word serves a legitimate purpose. Let me be clear that I am not questioning its usage in that regard.

This column appeared in the January issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

However, in contemporary context, the word is often unfortunately used in a manner that assumes things always work out the way we desire them to and infuses a sense of entitlement, simultaneously.

Let me elaborate. 

Over the holidays, I heard this word used several different ways, but each time it seemed to insinuate the same underlying principle:

“I deserved that promotion.” 

“You deserve to make more money.” 

“My son deserved to win that match.” 

“She deserves to be recognized for her efforts.”

Notice that the word deserve is often used in instances to offset the fact that what the speaker is saying the subject deserved in fact did not come to fruition. 

Not always, but if you think deeply about this, we often use the word deserve in this way. It implies that everybody should get exactly what they think they have earned in this life, and if they do not, then it is simply not fair. 

Or it can also be used as a sour-grapes projection of bitterness to insinuate that somebody else received an outcome that should rightfully belong to us instead. 

In either case, you can see where the word can become troubling when the message being vocalized to young people is that you are entitled to any sort of status, title, achievement, or accomplishment in life. 

The harsh reality is that you cannot always attain these desires. The sooner you learn that the better. 

This is not meant to sound overly pessimistic, but it is an important concept to be grasped at a young age. 

When kids grow up thinking they deserve to win, they deserve a scholarship, they deserve a spot in the starting lineup, or they deserve a high-paying job as soon as they graduate, it sets them up for failure in the long term. 

Or, more precisely, it sets them up to not know how to handle perceived “failure” in a healthy or productive manner.  

Because when you look at the big picture, losing a match is not a failure if you gained a valuable lesson from it. Likewise, not receiving a promotion or not being hired for the job you wanted is not a failure if you keep pushing forward and may be setting yourself up for something bigger and better in the future. 

What using the word deserve — in this aforementioned troublesome manner — actually does is shift the focus from the process to the outcome. 

When all we focus on is the outcome of an event (example, winning or losing, getting hired or not, receiving an award or somebody else receiving that award), we are placing a tantalizing amount of pressure on ourselves and on our young people to achieve and to perform. 

In other words, the one thing we often cannot control is the outcome. In all of the three examples above, the end result is out of our hands. In many cases, it is ultimately decided by a factor outside of our immediate control.

When we concern ourselves with only the things we can control, thereby shifting the focus back from the outcome to the process, we realize that we don’t really actually deserve any of these achievements. 

We may work our tails off in the pursuit of these lofty ambitions, but ultimately, there are a lot of other people that are doing the same. Only one person can be the state champion or the CEO. 

That doesn’t mean we should work any less hard or devote any less effort into the process of pursuing our aspirations. However, when we repeatedly hear that we deserve outcomes, we start to internalize it and it embeds within our psyche that the world owes us something. 

I like to re-think the old adage that says, “You get what you earn,” and re-imagine it to say, “What you got, you earned.” 

That may be a subtle difference, but the former feels as though it implies you always receive the reward you are seeking if you work for it. That is a nice motivational thought in theory, but as we all know, there is often only one benefactor of a sought-after reward even if many people worked hard for it. 

The latter expression feels like it implies that the one who does acquire that reward, status, title, or accomplishment was awarded it because they earned it, again shifting the focus toward the process and not the outcome. 

In summation, whether it be academics, sports, careers, etc., none of us should approach life with the mentality that we deserve anything. 

Sadly, there are millions of people around the world who place a tremendous amount of effort into their daily endeavors that will never see the tangible rewards that we dole out every day here in America. 

Possessing gratitude for the opportunities that we must pursue our ambitions in the first place is the mentality that sets us up to channel our focus on the things we can control rather than the outcomes. 

So, as I will challenge myself to do the same, I challenge anyone still reading this to think less about what you deserve in this life and more about what this life deserves out of you. 

(Tristan Warner is a former PIAA finalist and three-time NCAA qualifier. The two-time Elite 89 Award recipient and CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American lives in Shippensburg, Pa.)