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A Lesson in Defeat

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"For those with a high level of aptitude...the sooner they know the frustration of defeat, the greater their growth will be."
Koro-sensei, Assassination Classroom

Someone serving as a Mentor Archetype has a student with a great deal of natural talent. Unfortunately, that's a problem because all that talent is going to their head and risks turning them into an Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy or Insufferable Genius. Or it may just be that the student is failing to achieve their full potential because they have become too self-satisfied to put any real work into improving.

The student needs to be brought down a peg, but the student has progressed to the point where typical discipline like lectures or punishments won't do a great deal of long-term good.

To this end, the mentor decides on a different tack: The student needs to fail. The mentor thus arranges a situation where his big fish is taken from his little pond and thrown into the big ocean.

A more benign version of this can sometimes occur if the teacher is doing it less as a preventative or punitive measure, and more because they believe a legitimate defeat will be good for them in the long run. As the saying goes, you learn more in defeat than from success. It could also be done to encourage the student to accept the possibility of losing more easily than he might have otherwise. Or, depending on the instructor, less easily.

The effects on the student can vary. If the student is an antagonist, it may lead to Defeat Equals Friendship with him and the protagonists. He may learn nothing. Or it may backfire and drive him further into the dark side of life. If a protagonist, the student may indeed learn the lesson and grow stronger for it.

This could also lead to a break with the mentor if the student learns about the situation. Possibly even some Rage Against the Mentor.

Compare Unwinnable Training Simulation, which is often done with this trope in mind. The difference is that the Simulation is done in controlled circumstances while a Lesson in Defeat can be done in a real-life scenario. Subtrope of A Taste of Defeat.

See also Necessary Fail and Misery Builds Character.

As this is a Defeat Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The 100 Girlfriends Who Really, Really, Really, Really, Really Love You: When Eira Kaho was in elementary school, she was extraordinarily reckless due to her belief that anything, even catching colds or strong river currents, could be beaten with a kick. Concerned, her father scared her with a Bedsheet Ghost that she couldn't just kick into submission to try and teach her to fear what she should fear. The whole incident ended up working too well; as an adult, Eira has an Absurd Phobia of anything she can't attack with kicks, be it lightning, germs, ghosts, or babies (due to being so fragile that a mere touch would break them, nevermind a kick).
  • The main teaching style of Koro-sensei in Assassination Classroom. With every failed assassination attempt, he explained why the attempt failed so that the students could learn, plan, and relate the failures to their studies. Done by proxy with Karma during the first term finals. Koro-sensei allowed Karma to believe his natural intelligence would prevail where everyone else was cramming under Koro-sensei's tutoring. Karma proceeded to drop in overall class ranking but learned the lesson Koro-sensei hoped he would with the blow to his ego.
  • Toraji, the Kendo Club instructor in Bamboo Blade sought this for Tamaki. He wanted her to discover a rival among her peers who could equal her in order to make her stronger in the long term.
  • The titular villains of Five Most Evil Dead Row Innmates arc in Baki the Grappler seem to invoke this, each one believing he reached peak of his skill and can only advance if he "tastes defeat", which is why they begin antagonizing Baki and Underground Arena fighters. In the end it's subverted as most of them do not take the defeat too well.
  • In Buyuden, Isamu fell hard when Hayato defeated him, discovering that he needs to fight for real if he really wants to improve.
  • This is the primary reason for Master Roshi's assuming his "Jackie Chun" Secret Identity in the World Tournaments in Dragon Ball. He wanted to prevent Goku and Krillin from getting big heads by progressing too far too quickly.
  • During the S-Rank Trials in Fairy Tail, Natsu went head-to-head with Gildarts, the single strongest man in the guild short of possibly their Master. Natsu put in a good effort, but when he got a taste of Gildarts's full power he fell to his knees and gave up on the spot. Gildarts passes him for this since his intent was to determine whether Natsu had the judgement to Know When to Fold 'Em.
  • Yuuma Kousaka in Gundam Build Fighters Try receives one of these at the hands of Tatsuya Yuuki. He challenges Yuuma to a fight, giving Yuuma his own gunpla, and using Yuuma's. The result is a Curb-Stomp Battle in which Yuuma realizes that the problem was never his gunpla, nor his own abilities, but his mentality during combat that was limiting him.
  • Kengan Ashura: Takeru Kiozan is a sumo wrestler who disdains modern Sumo in favor of a more ancient, brutal form called "Primal Sumo". After Kiozan's match with Jun Sekibayashi ends with Kiozan's loss, his boss's secretary Sakura realizes that Kiozan never stood a chance in the Annihilation Tournament. Indeed, it's revealed that Kiozan was entered on his brothers' prompting, in the hopes that seeing his "Primal Sumo" soundly defeated would humble him and make him more amenable to proper Sumo. Kiozan's boss, Magatani, agreed because he's taken care of the three brothers since they were children. In the end, this works, as when Kiozan returns in the Sequel Series Kengan Omega, he has cast aside his "Primal Sumo" in favor of traditional sumo.
  • The spirit if not the specifics can be seen in One Piece when Dracule Mihawk defeats Zoro. Zoro definitely had the "big fish in a little pond" attitude when they met, though he was enough of a Determinator to impress Mihawk. So rather than kill him, Mihawk defeated him thoroughly and encouraged him to see more of the world. Zoro's response to his crushing defeat was a tearful vow to never lose again.
  • The main characters of Seraph of the End receive one of these at the hands of their commander, Guren, when he and his squad curb-stomp them in a 3-on-5 mock battle. Their lack of discipline and teamwork is made clear when their formations are easily broken. Hot-Blooded Yuuichiro takes the lesson seriously and asks questions to make sure they don't repeat those same mistakes.
  • When he was young, Toriko's Yuda wanted to inherit his master's shop, but his master refused. He explained to Yuda that, yes, he was a genius but because of that he'd yet to experience true failure and that would eventually make him overconfident. He ordered Yuda to go Walking the Earth until he understood that. Yuda learned this lesson when preparing medicinal food for a sick village. The only child willing to eat his bitter concoction died because there was a difference of one millimeter in preparing the food for a child compared to an adult. In the present day, Yuda makes references to this measurement a catchphrase, showing he's never forgotten the lesson.
  • Yomi from YuYu Hakusho had to teach his son/clone, Shura this lesson painfully. Shura had all the power of an S-class demon, however, his maturity level was matched by his age. In order to prevent his son from becoming too wild and headstrong like he himself was in the past, Yomi saw it fit to give Shura this lesson very early in life.

    Comic Books 
  • Booster Gold: Rip Hunter tells Booster he needs to try and prevent the events of The Killing Joke to save Ted Kord's life. Booster tries over and over again, no matter how many times the Joker nearly kills him until Hunter admits Booster could never succeed, and that's the point Rip's trying to make. Unfortunately this pisses Booster off tremendously, leaving him easy pickings for another time traveller offering to save Ted.
  • In Usagi Yojimbo, little Usagi is given a lesson by his master. He's ordered to grow some carrots from some seeds. Usagi cannot make them grow at all, and considers stealing some carrots from a neighboring farmer, but his honesty gets the better of him and he reports his failure, expecting to be thrown out. His master was testing Usagi's honesty; the seeds had been boiled and would never have sprouted.
  • Actually subverted in Power Pack. Late in the series' original run the titular team of child superheroes find themselves on the homeworld to the Kymellians, the race of aliens responsible for their superpowers. They're soon forced (against their will) to undertake a training session with the Kymellians' most elite warriors, with the intention of showing them how much further they have to come as heroes. Sure enough, they're up against weapons and strategies meant to directly counter their super-powers and wound up getting subdued. Then just as the Kymellians are giving a speech about the importance of humility and capacity for greater learning, the kids take it as a chance to rally, catch their Heroic Second Wind, and kick the butts of their opponents. The Kymellians are stunned (and quite humiliated).

    Fan Works 
  • build your wings on the way down: After Nina is turned into a chimera, Roy indulges Edward's desire to help her. However, he has no faith whatsoever that Ed will actually succeed; when Hughes confronts him about it, Roy explains that he's hoping that letting Edward try and fail will break him off his arrogance. Hughes is appalled, calling him out on his callousness; however, Roy doesn't relent... and is shocked when Ed manages to restore Nina to her human form, completely subverting his intended "lesson" and causing him to realize that Ed is significantly stronger than he'd given him credit for.
  • Dodging Prison & Stealing Witches: In order to teach Alexandra just why her plan to take a beating isn't that great, Harry beats her up himself.
  • Master Quest: During the first round of the End of Year Tournament, Gary delivers one of these to Melissa.
  • Storm Hawks Fan 3rd Season: Aerrow gets brutally defeated by the Dark Ace, nearly putting the whole squadron in grave danger. This proves to be an incredibly humbling experience for him; in fact, he decides to keep a scar that he got on his face during the fight as a permanent reminder of his failure.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Referred to in The Avengers, when Captain America points out that Iron Man has never had a lesson in defeat... which makes him a less effective leader. It's debatable how true this is, given Tony's character arcs in the first two Iron Man films, especially the horrific Humble Pie he was force-fed when he was kidnapped by terrorists using his own weapons, but there's no way Cap could've known that.
  • In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda sends Luke into the cave to experience the dark side of the Force. He warns Luke that what he will find within is "Only what you take with you", but Luke disregards Yoda's advice that he does not need his weapons. When Luke enters the cave, he gets a vision where he confronts Darth Vader. After he rends Vader's head from his shoulders, the mask explodes, and Luke sees his own face underneath. The lesson to learn from this is that you are your own worst enemy, as well as a warning that not every challenge can be confronted with violence.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduces the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru test as part of Star Fleet officer training. The purpose of the test is explained as part this trope and part observation of how an officer-in-training handles this trope. Kirk, being Kirk, speaks of how, when he was in the Federation Academy, he found a way to beat the test anyway, something that gained him significant praise during his cadet years. Sure enough, no matter how difficult the trials he faced were, Kirk always found a way to win, proving that the test was invalid as far as his abilities were concerned and he could always win. However, the climax sees Kirk faced with being forced into a genuinely unwinnable situation, leading to Spock sacrificing his life to save the crew, with Kirk himself unable to do much. This proved that Kirk was wrong, you can't always win and save everyone; sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
    • In Star Trek (2009) we see a young Kirk, in the new timeline, beat the test (after lots and lots of attempts) by hacking it in advance. Although impressed by his ability to do so, his superiors bring him up on formal charges for cheating. During his hearing, Spock (who had been the test administrator and programmed the simulation) cites this trope as the purpose of the test while Kirk tries to argue that the test itself is a cheat. He starts to make a point similar to his philosophy above, that there's no such thing as a true no-win scenario if one changes the parameters/definition of winning.

  • Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess: Foretold by Agatha when she starts training with Zeetha, refusing to even try going near the warrior princess's swords because she knows the only reason Zeetha would let her touch them is to fail miserably and learn how she wasn't ready. Then, quite suddenly, Zeetha goes berserk and storms off. It's not until hours later she finally returns and explains that back home in Skifander this is the case... and sometimes, the student doesn't survive the lesson, like her much more skilled and experienced cousin, so it's a severe sore spot for her.
  • Brotherhood of the Rose, by David Morrell. Saul and Chris start playing hooky from their orphanage so they can buy stuff from the outside world and sell it to the other kids. Their Parental Substitute Elliot (who has been secretly grooming them as future agents) sends CIA agents to beat them up and steal their money to motivate them to take up martial arts.
  • After Sam Vimes of the Discworld series becomes important to the workings of the city, and after repeatedly failing to kill him, the Assassin's Guild refuses to take contracts on him. They do, however, still send overconfident students on missions to the house he's had Crazy-Prepared with anti-assassin traps to see if they can get him in their sights.
  • Many of his fellow students in Ender's Game think this is being invoked a couple of times against Ender himself by the teachers at Battle School (in truth, the teachers fully expect Ender to win by Loophole Abuse and sheer genius) and try to preemptively offer him consolation. It's never quite the case, and Ender always wins anyway much to his friends' amusement ("They had to cheat to beat you and they still LOST!")
  • Exile's Honor: Herald-Weaponsmaster Dethor is worried about several of his students because he can't give them this lesson due to age and arthritis. The Trainees in question got so many lessons in court fencing that they'd be toast the first time they ever came up against someone who wanted to kill them instead of score points against them. Once he recruits Alberich as Weaponsmaster Second, delivering these lessons becomes Alberich's primary duty.
  • Discussed in Leia, Princess of Alderaan, though failure isn't arranged. When a girl in Leia's pathfinding class breaks her leg and cries about having failed majorly for the first time, another Alderaanian participant tells her that means today's an important lesson - learning and growing comes with failure and it's important to learn how to deal with it. It's brought up again at the end of the book, when Leia's mother tells her that the most important lesson she can learn is how to fall, to survive that fall, and to rise again.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The final lesson to become a new maester is to sit in a dark room with three glass candles, artifacts from Old Valyria made of twisted, sharp-edged obsidian. Many try to light them but are only rewarded with bloody hands and wasted time. The wiser new maesters wait the night. The lesson is that, though maesters strive to understand the world, there are some mysteries that simply cannot be uncovered.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Rock and a Hard Place, this is part of the reason why Commander Skamene wasn't fired after all his awesome actions. That man literally beat Kobayashi Maru without cheating.
  • World of the Five Gods In The Curse of Chalion, new secretary-tutor Cazaril to the Royesse (that is, Princess) Iselle listens patiently as she stumbles through some language exercises, and then tells her bluntly the old tutor flattered her skill, and a native speaker would laugh at her. This not only teaches Iselle that privilege attracts dishonesty, it frustrates her into putting more effort into improving herself. Both of these lessons pay off enormously down the line.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode "The Tale of the Misfortune Cookie", David Lee is pursued by a warrior wearing dark armor after entering an Alternate Universe. After David tells the warrior that he just wants his old life back, the warrior slinks down in defeat telling David that his better half has won. When David removes the warrior's helmet, he discovers his own face underneath.
  • Raven: A recurring theme of the show is dealing with failure; as Raven himself puts it "The only true failure is one that a warrior does not learn from."
  • The Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek is the Unwinnable Training Simulation, designed to test how the students cope with a no-win situation.

  • Red Panda Adventures: The Red Panda challenges the Smug Super Mr. Amazing to a one-on-one fight in "Thirteen at Table" with this in mind. Amazing had been attacking other rookie heroes to prove himself the best, and the Red Panda needed to take him down a peg both to stop his rampage and to try and get his respect long enough to guide the young would-be hero away from his arrogance and potential descent into villainy.

    Web Animation 
  • Doctor Who: Death Comes to Time includes a mission on a planet called Anima Persis that all Time Lords have to go through in their training, where they are meant to fail; in order to teach them what failure feels like so they know that even they are not infallible and the need to avoid the temptation to use their powers. It's a sort of humbling exercise. In the Doctor's words, "You take that memory with you wherever you go."

    Web Comics 
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: The swordmaster Meti ten Ryo once brought her two students to a battlefield and brought forth a rat, telling her students to kill it. One of the students immediately struck the rat dead. When asked who had lost this exchange, the other student pointed out that the first student had struck the rat down without thinking and was therefore the loser. Meti answered that while this was true, the first student had wanted to kill the rat while the second had wanted it to live, and thus in failing to keep the rat alive had lost. Many years later the second student, Maya, views the lesson as both one in defeat and in making Maya realize that there would be a lot of nasty people with swords in her own future — like the first student — and as such it would be necessary to be ready to kill anyone in order to protect those you wish to keep alive.
    Consider: The undefeated swordsman must be exceptionally poor. -Precept 12

    Western Animation 
  • Done in X-Men: Evolution when the X-Men first fight against the Scarlet Witch, who completely trounces them. While the team come out of it okay, they are a bit shaken by the encounter and Xavier muses this defeat may have been good for them in order to grow stronger.
  • In one episode of Xiaolin Showdown, Master Fung stated that there were a thousand lessons in defeat. He proves this point by beating the Chosen Ones in a wager by making it impossible for them to win, instead of fighting to win outright. Omi would use said lesson to prevent the villains from obtaining a powerful Shen Gong Wu. At the end of the episode, he challenges them to a second wager, which the heroes decline- the other lesson they've learned is "Never bet against Fung!"