Americans fail when dealing with success. Winning embodies our all-American sports fantasy, where failure is non-existent. Like our Puritan forebears, we yuppies regard any and all setbacks as irrefutable evidence of one's predestination to everlasting perdition.

Sense, for instance, the present-day "winners-only" aura that dominates sports fields, corporate boardrooms and public school classrooms.As obsessed with success as any American, former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh once proclaimed, "You show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."

Or consider the latest, infallible scores from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, both guaranteed to prove how well our children calculate, read, write, love and live - in almost compulsory comparison with the Japanese.

In matters political, fiscal and educational, we Americans expend unbelievable energy clawing our way to the top of whatever ladder (because it's there) confronts us, driven on by conquering mania. It seems we Americans thrive on success.

Or do we?

Despite the hoopla, I submit that most of us dread success, especially someone else's, as much as we abhor failure, especially our own.

Even while we protest freeloading welfare clients, we bitterly resent housing project residents - single mothers, for example - who finish college, get off food stamps, find a good job and thus encroach upon our once-impregnable self-esteem.

Witness, for instance, our cynical, downright negative regard for aspiring political figures (Gary Hart and Dan Quayle come to mind), lotto winners, religious leaders, lawyers or honest business people.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's treatment of then vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle during their 1988 debate seemed to me more than just a "win-at-all-costs" tactic. It seemed to express a widespread resentment of one young man's success.

Apparently, Quayle didn't have to suffer as much as some of us winners, and what is more to the point, he expressed no guilt about his comfortable upbringing or his education.

We minorities who have made it out of poverty especially like to ascribe our rise to personal qualities. To a large extent, we're right: No one escapes poverty without at least a couple of decades of good old-fashioned grunt work.

Yet the critical factor in any all-American success story lies in what James Fallows, Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly, calls the "American talent for disorder" - our flexibility.

To paraphrase NFL wisdom, "Anybody can go anywhere at any time." But the increasing numbers of Americans who travel from Harlem to Harvard are frightening their inflexible compatriots.

Like Bill Walsh, we're all for success. As long as the (Donald Trump) cards are stacked in our favor. And the other guy doesn't win.