Before Joshua Davis penned “The Underdog: How I Survived the World’s Most Outlandish Competitions” his life was going nowhere. Stuck in a low-paying, dead-end job, Davis was just another frustrated guy searching for a way to make his mark on the world. The 129-pound data entry clerk then made a fateful decision to enter the U.S. National Arm Wrestling Championship. Though Davis lost all his matches in .2 seconds or less, he found the competition invigorating. Feeling inspired, he went on to try sumo wrestling, bullfighting and backwards running before braving a 220-degree sauna in the World Sauna Championship. Although Davis never came close to winning an event, he did manage to parlay his losses into a hit book, making him an inspiration to below-average Joe's the world over. Failure recently spoke with Davis about how failure has been the key to his success.
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about failure?
I do. I’m a proponent of failure. I find it satisfying in some ways. That's not to say that I go out trying to fail. I definitely try to win. In these contests the logical part of me says I am not going to beat a 500-pound man in a sumo ring. But the emotional side of me is one hundred percent invested in trying to win. And after losing I feel like crap because I'm depressed and defeated.
But there is a trajectory or process of becoming accustomed to losing. Usually I rebound a day or so later. In sumo it was only a matter of a half an hour before people started coming up to me asking for my autograph. I would say, “Listen, I just lost every single match. Why do you want my autograph?” They would say, “You shouldn't have been in the ring to begin with and just the fact that you got in there was an inspiration.” It dawned on me that sumo wrestling empowered me. Just getting in there and being open to the idea of failing really empowered me and changed my life.
It was the same thing with arm wrestling. I got my ass kicked. But by placing fourth [out of four] in the U.S., I got to compete in Poland. I never won a match but it really sent my life in a different direction. The fact that I was trying was a reward in itself.
Of the five different competitions you recount in the book, which one was most frightening?
There’s the frightening you know and the frightening you don’t. Bullfighting was the frightening that you know. You can imagine a bull. You know it has horns and you have a sense that it’s very dangerous. That was scary because I had all sorts of assumptions and pre-established fears of what it was going to be like. But once I was in the ring I felt relatively comfortable. The process of dancing with a bull came to me intuitively.
In terms of the fear I didn't know it was definitely the sauna contest in Finland. I knew it was going to be hot but when I got in there I felt like I was going to die. If I stayed in that sauna another 30 seconds I would have passed out, and if they didn't drag me out I would have expired. I had [steam] burns all over my body. When I was sitting in the sauna I was thinking, “This is really, really stupid.” The burns took two weeks to heal.
Are these unusual contests more commonplace in America or foreign countries?
In “The Underdog” I make the argument that these contests are idiosyncratic to America, but I’ve changed my mind. Since the book was released I’ve been getting e-mail from people all over the world telling me about unusual competitions. At underdognation.com I have 50 or so contests listed and I am adding more every week. The Finns are particularly crazy. They have the Sauna World Championship, the cell phone chucking contest, bog soccer and ice swimming.
Is there any money in these contests?
Yeah, skijoring is the first thing that comes to mind. Skijoring is like water skiing but behind a horse in the snow. The skijoring circuit is in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Colorado. It's an established circuit and at the Nationals you can win $15,000. I competed but I never had a chance.
What explains the popularity of these quirky competitions?
I don't have any empirical evidence but one theory I have is that people are always trying to conquer new frontiers. Every society is trying to grow and push the boundaries. But it’s the 21st century now and we've already pushed a lot of boundaries. You can’t go out and climb a mountain and say you’re the first to summit because there aren't any unclimbed mountains. You might be able to climb a new route but that isn’t as satisfying. As you whittle things down you get to increasingly obscure activities. If you cross baseball, football and basketball off your list … eventually you get to cup stacking.
Why are people so competitive that they will do almost anything to be number one?
People want to be the best at something and want to be unique. The worst feeling is to be an anonymous gear in a big system—someone who is just like everyone else. How do you separate yourself? Competition is the best way because when you compete you get ranked. And it doesn't necessarily matter if you're number one, because if you're number three you're still unique. And if you come in last you are very unique. The champion and the failure are the two most unique people in a contest. You can be either one and achieve the goal of differentiating yourself.
Which of these competitions has the best chance of rising to mainstream popularity?
It’s either arm wrestling or backwards running. Backwards running is a great sport. People think it’s funny—ha-ha-ha. But it really is a great workout and it’s very quick in terms of how long it takes you to get to exhaustion. If you go jogging you could jog for 15 or 20 minutes before you start feeling winded. With backwards running you are out for two minutes and you are slammed. I think if people tried backwards running it would catch on. It’s exciting. Plus, you can’t see where you are going so there is an element of danger to it.
Having said that arm wrestling has the best shot. There are a bunch of competing associations right now so it's a question of the organizations coming together so they can pool their resources and spread the word.
How do you define success and how has your conception of success changed since you began competing?
Before it was a pretty standard definition of success—having a house and kids, a happy wife, a car and a decent job. Now success is leading a life where I am constantly feeling challenged.
How has your notion of competition changed?
On a personal level, every time I go to a competition it’s very uncomfortable. I get very strung out, anxious and nervous, because I want to do well. Afterwards, I love reflecting on the experience but at the time it's a very unpleasant feeling. I would like to stop entering these competitions. I feel drawn to them but I am hoping that the process of having written the book and bringing all the experiences together will be cathartic so I can stop trying to get myself killed.
Which one of your achievements in the book are you most proud of?
Surviving. And it’s not just the contests. It's surviving in a positive way. I went from being a guy who didn't have a lot of things going on and not a lot of faith in myself to being more comfortable in my own skin. My life is more exciting than it was before. The journey has been wonderful.