When I woke up on the beautiful morning of April 18, I was ready to debate. My last two tournaments had gone better than they ever had, and I, like many who have risen ranks too fast, felt invincible. This was BB&N’s first tournament in a new league with new rules, so I still checked all my usual debate-day routine boxes: I ground up some coffee beans in my new AeroPress, read up on the latest events, and threw on a winning quarantine outfit of two-day- old sweatpants and a “midnight blue” coat. Winners don’t lose.
At the start of the first round, we introduced ourselves to the opposing team as the judge finished his briefing. They were whip-smart, had better coats, and hailed from a New York City school specializing in American Parliamentary, this tournament’s style of debate. Still, my taste of glory had convinced me that magic was possible; all the movies, the public embarrassment, and the self-help section at the Coop had paid off, and my moment had arrived. So despite the countering facts, I self-indulgently texted my partner under the table, “IDK, I think we got this.” And at the end of the round, we both honestly thought we had. Moments later, the judge said, “I award this debate to [not us].”
How could I, one half of the second-place novice pair at the 2020 Roxbury Latin debate tournament, not have absolutely obliterated my opponents in a format that was fully alien to me? I tuned out the judge, totally upset and in shock; I convinced myself the loss was a one-off because I couldn’t accept what had just happened.
The next round opened, and with undeserved enthusiasm, I clicked into our next breakout room. Despite the judge’s facial expression every time I spoke, I couldn’t wait to bring him to awe with my verbal depiction of the abject amorality of a carbon tax. At the end of an incredibly challenging debate during which my partner and I exchanged over 100 messages, the stoic judge unmuted himself and said, and I quote, “This was a mess on all sides.”
We lost, again.
I remained deluded and unfazed throughout the rest of the competition, somehow convincing myself that I was doing just fine and that this was all just a warmup for the turning point. In my head, I was the golden boy of debate, and everyone else was the problem (“If everyone else is crazy…”). In retrospect, I was completely unprepared for the tournament, and I shot myself in the foot by ignoring feedback from some of the greatest debate judges I’ve ever had because my ego was too bruised to take it. But even after a third round (which we lost), as winner announcements stopped and the judges’ post-round feedback became less critical, my pride allowed itself to rebuild.
Two days dwindled to seconds, and when the tournament was over and the rankings were released, there was nowhere left to hide. Out of everyone in attendance, I, Daniel Katz, came in last place. That’s right: not second-to-last, not bottom quintile, but LAST. On that day I won an award that no one else has: the first-ever on the BB&N speech and debate team (as far as I know) to come in last at a tournament.
So what’s the lesson here, besides my occasional hysterics (which are old news)? While this is an extreme example, it’s far too easy for any of us to self-sabotage by being overly confident. When we chase after our goal, we toil and fail and often hurt ourselves by not being confident enough. But even if/when we finally get the gold, it’s far too easy to become too cocky and mess the next thing up. Success only happens within a complicated and capricious mix of parameters, privileges, and luck; when even one of those is thrown off, we most likely must do some learning the hard way.
My brief pattern of success led me to believe that I was a prophet of debate, but clearly, the judges disagreed. The moment you get too comfortable, you lose. It’s far too easy to miss that moment, but a little embarrassment helps—even if it can only happen when it’s already too late. And if we can’t trust our own perceptions of our competence, how are we supposed to know when we do become any good? Maybe aside from some precedents that eventually calm our subconscious nerves, we never really can.
“Sometimes you’re the dog, sometimes the tree.”