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Where the Winners in Business Come From

By Paul Johnson

1,289 words. Abstract: The A-players in business don’t appear out of thin air. A lot goes into their development as winners. And parents have a lot to do with where the core of their development comes from.

You and I both probably had painful childhood experiences that involved winning and losing. I was always picked last when choosing teams for pick-up basketball games. Perhaps you had YOUR heart set on making a team or winning a contest, and it just didn’t happen. You can still remember the hurt to this day.

Today I’m concerned for our children. Both as a parent and as a member of society, I’m interested in the raising of psychologically healthy and strong children who will one day (sooner than we might like to think) be contributing to society, running our businesses and leading our country. I’m concerned that parents are letting the pain from their past corrupt the children of the present.

Who’s a Loser?
I was listening to a radio talk show this morning when the on-their personalities tossed this controversy into the air: should children be labeled winners and losers? They cited several news stories to fan the flames.

  • One was about children’s sporting events where no score was kept; because no team could be defeated, there could be no losers.
  • Another was about a trend at children’s birthday parties, where everyone got a prize. Playing games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey would be done for entertainment, but no specific price would be awarded because it would be wrong to declare a winner, thus making all the other children losers.
  • Finally, mention was made of the grading scale used in schools, which stratifies students into categories of winners and losers.

As you might imagine, many called into the radio station. A sustained debate ensued about whether children should be allowed to compete when the outcome apparently risks labeling many as losers.

Unfortunately, there was no clear winner. I’d like to change that.

Worth the Debate
I applaud all parents who care enough to have an opinion on this topic, because it’s important. We want to avoid sending ill-equipped offspring into careers where they will fail to reach optimum levels of satisfaction and reward. Parents seem happiest when their children are productive, happy, satisfied, and eventually living purposeful lives as adults. Yet this ongoing debate about whether children should compete seems to leave parents unhappy if not angered.

I happen to agree with both sides of the argument. The points I’ll offer shortly should clarify that apparent contradiction. Now for the disclaimer; I am not a psychologist. I only have two qualifications that qualify me to address this issue: I was once a child (duh), and I also am fortunate to be the parent of several children who are now adults. Hopefully my insights will serve you.

Put the Ending First
I am opposed to labeling anyone, young or old, losers. I’m not really in favor of labeling people at all, but if there must be labels, let them be positive ones like the term “winner.” So how could there be winners but no losers? Because there’s a big difference between winners and losers, and winning and losing.

Losing a game does not automatically earn anyone the label of loser. The term “losing” is simply the reflection of the score of a particular event that took place at a specific instance in time. In other words, winning and losing have nothing to do with being a winner or loser. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Except in basketball; I always lose. But that doesn’t make me a loser. I can win, and do win at lots of other things. And so do our children. It’s the -ING, not the -ER, that we should be concerned with and should be the focus in our use of language.

Winning Requires Luck
We tend to associate the terms winning and losing with all games. However, I contend there is a better word than winning to use in some instances.

Games generally require some combination of luck and skill. Some games are almost pure luck, others almost pure skill. Choosing the winning number on a roulette wheel is almost pure luck. Winning at Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey is also a rather lucky endeavor. However, where sports are concerned, the emphasis shifts to skill. Players in these games can most certainly influence the outcome of the game based on how skillfully they execute the requirements of the game. Where skill is not only encouraged but required, it’s an insult to the players to conclude that one team “won” the game. While we might be able to point to a few exceptions, the reality is that players usually earn the victory.

I made this distinction some years back when I heard my wife talking to one of her friends. I was in sales at the time, and had just qualified for our annual President’s Club incentive trip. She was explaining to her friend how I had won a trip to Hawaii. After she hung up the phone, I explained that I didn’t win anything. After working like a dog and skillfully applying the expertise I had developed over the years, I earned that trip as a reward. Clearly I was winning in my job, and I felt like a winner, but make no mistake about it; it was clear to me and my bosses that I had earned that reward.

Make sure your children can tell the difference between winning and earning. No one can afford to live their lives dependent on luck. If we want our children to develop their skills and learning, we should separate winning from earning.

Born to Earn
It’s obvious that winning is more fun than losing. Success is better than failure. Ideally, we would like to win at everything. But we can’t. We’re each born with a different set of gifts, a different set of strengths. We can develop these into useful and productive skills that will help us earn opportunities to win.

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Dr. Howard Gardner explains in his 1983 book titled Frames of Mind that there are at least seven different forms of human intelligence. In this initial book, he labeled them:

  • Linguistic (spoken and written language)
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Musical
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic
  • Spatial (patterns of space)
  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal

This means that some will be more inclined to win at music while others are inclined to win at math. Or running. Or writing. Or shearing sheep.

I like to see people playing games that they CAN win, even though sometimes they won’t. I get excited when I see young people figure out that they’re really good at something they also really like to do. That is usually the kernel for a productive and satisfying career.

The Business of Growing Winners

So what can parents do to raise happy, healthy children who will become satisfied, productive contributors to the world? First of all, forget about saving your child from pain. They’re going to fall down. They’re going to be disappointed. There will be many unhappy moments. Get over it, because they will. Let your child try stuff. Give them opportunities to discover their strengths and to sample the things that they might be good at.

Even more important, let them figure out how THEY have fun. Not everyone enjoys spelling bees, but some people do. Not everyone enjoys practicing music, but some people do. Not everyone enjoys standing in the outfield when there are no dandelions to pick, but some people do.

Let’s give our children opportunities to try winning and losing; that will make them winners. Let’s help them understand that some games are won, and some victories are earned. Let’s help children explore their gifts and discover their strengths so they will confidently know how they can win in this game of life. One day they may be working in the next office over from you.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who gives teams the courage, motivation, and insight to overcome obstacles and create breakthrough growth opportunities at http://TroubleBreaker.com. Learn about business growth topics at http://Paul-Johnson.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: What game did you win that was really earned?

Posted: under Managing Change (Leadership).
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Comments (0) Oct 01 2009