Icons of Motivation: Ash Ketchum

It’s a grand week. Saturday the 27th marks twenty colorful years with the Pokémon franchise. Of course, you probably already knew that. Nintendo and Game Freak have made plenty of noise to celebrate this milestone, including a Super Bowl spot, re-releases of the Generation I games on 3DS virtual console, the mobile augmented reality adventure Pokémon Go, and a mysterious announcement planned for Friday.


Millions of dollars were spent for airtime for an advertisement that announced nothing.

For the first Icons of Motivation, I’ve chosen the human face of the Pokémon anime, Ash Ketchum. But, not for the reason you might initially expect. Wanting to be the very best like no one ever was is certainly an admirable goal. There’s a lot to be learned from traveling across the land, searching far and wide, and understanding the power that’s inside of each Pokémon. Aside from the obvious messages the anime promotes, those good ol’ standbys teamwork and friendship, Ash teaches another important lesson for young and adult viewers alike: how to accept failure, accept it with dignity, but keep going.

Seriously, this guy just shows up with a Pokémon that fought off Dialga and Palkia.
Seriously, this guy just shows up with a Pokémon that fought off Dialga and Palkia.

From fans who have followed the series since the beginning, one particularly annoying recurring plot point has emerged: Ash overcomes all of the Gym Leaders in a particular region, gives a strong showing in the Pokemon League Tournament, then gets knocked out in the semifinals to some character we just met. Sometimes this recycled plot is taken to ridiculous extents, such as the show throwing a guy packing two Legendary Pokémon at him out of nowhere when he competed in the Sinnoh League.

This, of course, causes frustration among fans who want to see the protagonist succeed. He’s been the butt of many jokes because of this, but it represents a sliver of realism in this world of electric rodents, living garbage, and shrieking chandeliers: Failure happens, a lot. It stings when you try so hard, and get so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.

Or you can just cheat by triggering the sprinkler system.

Oh sure, “never give up!” is a common lesson in kids’ shows, and Pokémon’s anime hammers it home too when Ash must make multiple attempts at a challenging gym battle. A less common, more harsh lesson though is that, sometimes, there is no quick do over. Sometimes failure happens, and it is months, perhaps years, before you can take another shot at the attempted endeavor. Ash spends an entire year (or more) preparing for these Pokémon League Tournaments, battling gym leaders and assembling a fighting force of Pokémon (let’s just ignore for a moment how easy he could have it if he just carried over his best Pokémon from previous seasons), and despite all of the training, blood, sweat, and tears; he still faces failure.

He puts in more than enough effort, and is certainly worthy of winning, but when others are equally worthy and talented, some win, and others have to lose. Ash’s failures at the Pokémon League competitions cannot be quickly undone by a return trip to the stadium the next day. He must live with that failure. He must train again for the next competition, for another shot at greatness.

So how does Ash’s losing streak at major tournaments relate to real life? There are moments in life that we have placed titanic effort and time preparing for. We summon all of our might and motivation to prepare for one moment of greatness, but for one reason or another, it doesn’t work out, and we cannot return immediately to try again.

Sometimes, we must sit with that failure for the long wait until another attempt at this endeavor, or, alternately another path opens that we haven’t seen or considered before. For Ash, he usually pursues the latter option, skirting off to another region instead of remaining in the one he just competed in. In your life, that could mean finding a new relationship when another didn’t work out, or a different job opportunity arising when one is lost. Even in in the depths of pain or disappointment, eyes must be kept open for new opportunities.

Despite holding onto the disappoint of loss, Ash always takes his defeats with dignity and sportsmanship. He takes lessons from those defeats. He incorporates them into his training. One nugget of wisdom a friend always shared with me was, “If you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Loss can be analyzed to determine how things can be done differently the next time, or things to avoid doing entirely. Even in the most miserable of failures, there can usually be something to take away from it.

So, does Ash need to keep learning this lesson of loss with dignity over and over again? My first reaction would be to say no, but if you think about it, Pokémon is constantly being reintroduced to a new audience of kids watching and playing for the first time. It is just as important of a lesson to one generation as it is to the one that follows. Just bear with him guys, the kids need to learn too. But, maybe he’ll get to win in the Kalos league. That funky Greninja Mega Evolution has to mean something.

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