I passionately loved to play soccer when I was a kid. Unfortunately for me and the children I played with in our Ghanaian village, we had no soccer balls. We were too poor to afford them so we used whatever round, inanimate objects we could find. Quite often, we squeezed the juice out of oranges and used them for our scrimmages and games. We played barefoot, of course, wearing whatever tattered clothes we had.

Occasionally, some boy would show up with something close to a real soccer ball. In those instances, it was always an uncle or some distant relative of their family visiting from the capital or one of the bigger towns who brought it to the privileged little guy. They weren’t leather balls; those were expensive even for the city folks. They were normally small plastic balls, about four inches in diameter. We organized proper games whenever we had one of those to play with, even singing the national anthem before matches.

There was one thing however that sometimes took a bit of the fun out of those glorious occasions. A few of the ball owners were sore losers. If they had any sense while playing that the team they were on would lose, it was game over. They simply grabbed the ball and left the field, and everyone else went home. Because of that, we were always careful not to score too early against such teams. We withheld otherwise good shots. Even waiting to score goals at the last minute wasn’t safe. The offending player risked banishment from future games. I had my first brushes with dictators on those soccer fields. It is quite likely that the autocrats who rule in several African countries today were playground tyrants in their childhoods.

As I cast my eyes across the globe today, I have a feeling that all of the world’s dictators fit this profile. They have a sense of entitlement that leads them to take rash decisions. Mostly, they acquired power not through competitive processes, but rather via nepotism and other forms of patronage. Because they cannot stand competition, and are not used to being questioned, they resort to force to settle even the most trivial of disputes. That is why we have wars all over the place nowadays.

Any society that has this type of entitlement mentality deeply ingrained in its culture is guaranteed to quickly stagnate. There is no point in honing one’s shooting skills if they cannot be used in games. And why would anyone work hard if promotions and other rewards are not based on merit but on personal connections to decision-makers? Mediocrity then becomes the norm. In such societies, there is also little room for debate. The powerful decide that their view of the world is gospel, end of story.

The only way to prevent such national sclerosis is to teach children how to compete, and show them the proper way to deal with defeat or failure. It is never pleasant to come out at the wrong end of any contest, but it is always best to view those bitter experiences as opportunities for learning and growth. I cannot count the number of stories I have heard from some of the most successful people on planet about how learning from their failures led to their later triumphs.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts is widely considered to be one of the most mature professional athletes in America. He was the losing quarterback in Super Bowl LVII in February 2023. It was one of the most exciting Super Bowl contests in recent years, with the Eagles losing narrowly to the Kansas City Chiefs. Asked by reporters after the game how he was feeling emotionally, Hurts responded that “you either win or you learn.” His answer was really brilliant. It was clear that Hurts was hurting deeply (pun unintended), but he graciously sat through the interview and answered all of the reporters’ questions in a calm, introspective, and respectful manner. Everyone, young and old, should watch that nine-minute interview because there is a lot of wisdom in it.

In her amazing book, The Grit Factor, Shannon Huffman Polson detailed the extensive conversations she had about the benefits of failure with several former U.S. military officers—all female. In one of those conversations, Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, a Marine fighter pilot who was the first woman to fly the F/A-18 in combat, had this to say: “I don’t trust someone who hasn’t failed. How do you know how they will react?” That was quite a profound statement. What I think Lt. Col. McGrath means is that anyone who hasn’t experienced failure and learned from it is unlikely to have the character strength to deal with tough situations, and thus should perhaps not be entrusted with enormous responsibilities.

Nowadays, we are routinely asked on college admissions applications, in job interviews, and in various settings about our past failures and how we have dealt with them. Therefore, most of us have at least had the chance to think about the topic. The little tyrants who terrified me and my friends on those dusty playgrounds in the village had no idea how harmful their attitudes were. We should all teach our youngsters, and indeed ourselves, not to behave in similar fashion.