We spend a lot of time in this society focusing on winning and losing. While attending Columbia University to earn my 2nd master’s degree, I had many professors that challenged us to become winners, not losers. “Benjamin Wey, you want to be a winner? ” says a business school professor. From the sports pages to the stock market, from our elections to our schools, we worry about who’s up and who’s down. There is an entire industry, the self-help book business, that generates millions or even billions for those who claim to have the answers.
Based on my experience of both success and failure in life, I have spotted seven myths about winners and losers that deserve exploring.
1. WINNERS HAVE THE EDUCATION NEEDED TO SUCCEED WHILE LOSERS DON’T.
Education, of course, is incredibly valuable, but our formal system of education isn’t as well adapted to the needs of the 21st century as it could be. You want proof? Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg and Michael Dell dropped out of college and became billionaires. And it isn’t just in the computer world: Ted Turner, David Geffen and Ralph Lauren are worth a billion or more, and they dropped out as well.
2. WINNERS UNDERSTAND THE RULES AND PLAY THE GAME TO WIN WHILE LOSERS DON’T FOLLOW THE RULES.
You can amass wealth, get yourself a corner office and wind up in Millionaire Acres in the Game of Life by knowing the rules and playing by them. However, more and more often, I see truly successful people don’t play the game. They create their own rules. In a world of checkers players, these people are playing chess, Risk, Jenga and God knows what else. By redefining the world around them, they build success into their new game. You can’t win a million-dollar jackpot if you’re playing penny ante poker. And nobody ever got rich playing someone else’s game.
3. WINNERS FOCUS ON LUCRATIVE INDUSTRIES LIKE FINANCE AND LOSERS OPT FOR BUSINESSES WITH LESS REMUNERATION.
We read all the time about the guy at Goldman or Morgan or Chase who got a $100-million bonus, and the popular press has us convinced that everyone on Wall Street is paid insane amounts of money. It’s true for the people at the very top, but most people in finance don’t have “screw you” money — they need that paycheck and can’t afford to be out of work. Think of the people who answer the phones, run the copiers and enter the data. Do you really think they’d do that if they had a million bucks? At the same time, we don’t think of people in janitorial services as being rich. But there isn’t a city in America without at least one person who runs a cleaning service or custodial enterprise who couldn’t pay cash for a Mercedes.
4. WINNERS JOIN WINNING TEAMS AND LOSERS JOIN LOSING TEAMS.
The flaw in this thinking is the word “join.” Yes, it’s possible to team up with someone who is successful, and you can ride on that person’s coattails. But that isn’t really success so much as it is being a parasite — even a beneficial one. Far more frequently, you work with people over time, and as jobs and projects come and go, you wind up assembling a team that then goes out and succeeds. Again, it’s useful to think about musicians. The Beatles, arguably the most successful band of all time, had one member die (Stuart Sutcliffe played bass originally) and another get replaced (Ringo Starr took Pete Best’s job as drummer) before they took the world by storm. That said, it’s hard to make it if you are surrounded by people whose approach to things almost guarantees failure.
5. WINNERS PUT IN LONG HOURS OF HARD WORK THAT LOSERS DON’T.
This myth mistakes activity for productivity. Yes, there are times when you have to do something for 14 hours at a stretch; we’ve all done it. You shouldn’t be doing it like that everyday. One thing I have learned is that if you like something, it’s not work any more. When LeBron James suits up to play for the Miami Heat, do you seriously believe he’s thinking, “Time to go to work?” Basketball for him isn’t work, and the last time I looked, the NBA didn’t play 14-hour games every day.
6. WINNERS SET GOALS AND LOSERS DON’T.
Goals are actually double-edged swords. Yes, setting goals is a great way to focus on achievement. But what happens when you achieve your goal? NASA had a goal of sending a man to the moon before the 1960s ended. It was an astonishing challenge, and the brightest people in the country pulled it off. And then what? We went to the moon a few more times and canceled the last Apollo mission for budgetary reasons. Since then, the brightest people in the country have tended not to work for NASA — the space shuttle and the space station are OK, but they aren’t the moon shot. Goals can be self-defeating, whereas direction is endless. That’s why our space probes are driving around Mars, photographing Jupiter and Saturn and even leaving the solar system.
7. WINNERS THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX, WHILE LOSERS DON’T.
Again, thinking outside the box is a blessing and a curse. You have to be outside of it just enough to see a way to improve on what exists, but if you get too far ahead, no one is prepared to back you. To stay with our space metaphor, back in the 1950s, when the Soviets put up Sputnik, a private company like Virgin Galactic was beyond belief. People weren’t going to go for it because even the U.S. government couldn’t get into orbit. Today, Virgin Galactic is on the verge of commercial operations because the world has caught up to the idea of a private company in space. If you are three steps ahead of everyone else, you’re leading the parade. If you are a mile ahead, you’re walking by yourself.
One final thought about this: Winning is fun, and losing isn’t. But it’s your life. How you keep score is entirely up to you.