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Home / Success & Failure  /
It's Not How You Play The Game After All
winner takes all

The only really important thing is who's standing after the fight 


Most 1970's and 1980's sitcoms were not only poorly written, they gave us Generation X kids such a skewed view of reality with their hackneyed mandatory life lessons that, as adults, we have to unlearn while we endeavor to instill our Generation Z children with solid values that actually work in today's world.

The cliché that "it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game" has been spouted more times than some of the planet's corniest pickup lines like "How was heaven when you left it?"  Of the two, the pickup line has more value.  Teach your son that pickup line and he'll have (marginally) more success than teaching him that winning isn't important if you play the game well.

The how-you-play-the-game line has very limited shelf life.  Up until a child is 6, 7, or 8, you can probably shovel that manure down his throat, as you attempt to teach him the basics of teamwork.  At those early ages, as the kid joins little league, every child gets a chance at bat, and everyone gets to play the game.  After age 8 or so, reality slowly sinks in.  In physical education classes back in my day, the gym teacher, always a male, selected two star jocks to be team captains, and these team captains got to alternate picking their draft choices from the rest of the class to fill out their teams.  The best athletes got picked at the beginning; the dorks, doofuses, and uncoordinated at the end.   It was humiliating to be the poor sod picked last.    

I should think in today's more politically correct climate that children are no longer the wielders of the humiliation.  The phys-ed teacher divides up the teams in advance, apportioning an even number of jock types and ‘losers' to each side.  Still, when one side loses against the other because the worst kid on the team fumbled the ball, the rest of his team isn't going to rally to his side and console him with, "Hey, dimwit.  It doesn't matter that we lost.  It's how we played the game."

It's one of the most useless clichés still circulating.  The real adage should be "It doesn't matter how you play the game; it just matters whether you win or lose."  I can illustrate with multiple real life examples. 

Let's take actors.  How many doe-eyed tykes land in Hollywoodville every day to take their stab at the limelight?  Some of these aspirants are very talented.  They've taken voice, speech, dance, and movement classes.  They've been acting in summer stock, repertory, and regional theater.   No one guiding youngsters on the perils of Hollywood could say that this preparation is playing the game incorrectly.  Yet most of these people will spend their entire careers , if they have a career, jumping from guest spot role in one TV show to a guest spot role in another.   In other cases, you have people who were spotted in a bar or noticed from a modeling shoot and got cast in a high profile film immediately, a different game-playing strategy entirely.  At the end of the day, all that matters is who won – that is, who gets the more illustrious career.   Not how they got it.

I can fill in real names if you like.  In the left corner, we have British comedian Simon Pegg.  Never heard of him?  Don't worry.  Plenty of non-Brits haven't.  He started his career in the mid 1990's on several  British television series.  He only really became known in his native Britain with the show Spaced, a production he also co-wrote.  He earned some international acclaim after he co-wrote and starred in the 2004 movie Shaun Of The Dead, a spoof on zombie films.   He's had a nice run since, appearing in small roles in mainstream fare like Mission Impossible and Star Trek and as the star in two more productions he co-wrote, the latest, Paul,  a sci-fi comedy about an alien trying to return home.  The only info I've been able to gather puts his net worth at about US$10 million, nothing to complain about.

In the right corner, we have Kim Kardashian.  She's 10 years younger and was a complete unknown before 2007.  Her claim to fame is being a socialite, much like Paris Hilton, and milking a mint from it.  She currently has a reality show on cable television with her family, netting her millions.  She gets paid up to $10,000 from sponsors for each Twitter tweet she broadcasts.  Her current net worth is almost four times Pegg's. 

I know money isn't everything, and I'm sure Pegg wouldn't want Kardashian's type of career nor would she want or be talented enough to sustain his.   I refer to money in this context only because that seems to be the scorecard most of us resort to when deciding if someone has ‘made it' or has won the game, as it were.  Daniel Day Lewis is a much, much better actor than Tom Cruise, a fact no one would deny.   Cruise though, as the bigger star, with more money, has more power and, as a result, has more options in the game.    

Look at the economic fiasco of 2008 caused by the subprime mortgage collapse.  On the left side of the ring, you have the financial "wizards" who invented financial instruments like mortgaged-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations to bet on mortgage debt for higher returns.  In bygone eras, some of this financial wrangling would be construed as illegal.

When the housing bubble collapsed, Wall Street got hosed . . . temporarily.  The U.S. government via the U.S. taxpayer bailed out most of the financial institutions that should've gotten a spanking.

Lehmann Brothers was one of the notable exceptions left outside to get flayed, along with those in the right side, the homeowners and the U.S. taxpayer, who thought they were playing the game fairly.   Wall Street execs got bonuses that year.  Mr. Everyman lost his home and value in his pension.   Who won here?

Playing the game fairly and honestly and to the best of your ability doesn't matter in the real world if you don't win.  No one pats you on the back and says you did a good job.   The winners take all.   If you lose a war, you're a loser.  It's immaterial if you fought that war "ethically" while the winning side used biological weapons and torture to score the victory.     

Sir James Dyson is the inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner.  He came up with the first one in 1983.   Electrolux, Philips, and Black & Decker all refused to partner up to manufacture or distribute it.  Major multinational producer Hoover rubbished the idea.   A bagless vacuum cleaner would destroy the market for replacement dust bags, the wisdom went.  Dyson went into debt to design 5,127 prototypes and finally launched his own company in 1993 to manufacture the cleaners.  They flew off the shelves, dominated the market in Britain, and turned Dyson into a pound sterling billionaire.  Hoover and Samsung later tried to infringe on his patents and Dyson successfully sued them. 

He was lucky.  Hoover and Samsung only copied him after his product was a smash success and Dyson's finances were secure.   Had either of the giants pulled their copycat routine much earlier in the game, they probably would have gotten away with it.  The cases could have been dragged along in the courts, mounting up legal costs for Dyson he wouldn't be able to afford.

The inventor of interval windshield wipers, Robert Kearns, got a taste of that treatment.  He received numerous patents for his invention in 1967, then tried to interest the key automakers in a licensing arrangement.  None were keen, yet began to offer intermittent wipers anyway.   Kearns sued Ford in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982.  It took him more than 12 years to win a final judgment of close to $30m.  He was initially granted only $5.1m, when he'd already spent $650,000 and had another $3m in outstanding legal debts.  To appeal that judgment cost him an additional $1m plus.  How many inventors would have the tenacity to exert that kind of energy, losing one's wife and undergoing a nervous breakdown in the process?

How Dyson and Kearns played the game mattered not an iota.  Both were innovators and deserved to make money off their inventions.  This is Business School 101.  Invent a new product or service, bring it to market, and reap the rewards of the innovation.  Rather than try to develop a distribution network from scratch, each inventor tried to work within the system, using existent manufacturers to incorporate the idea for a license fee, the least risky business strategy (you'd think) for an upstart entrepreneur.  But greedy multinationals with financial muscle, able to play the game any way they pleased, attempted to steal something they didn't create and, in most similar situations, would've gotten away with it.

Want to enjoy a near monopolistic position in the marketplace?   Example:  Microsoft Office.  Won the game by:  bundling basic versions of the Office Suite on all Windows systems.    Lotus' spreadsheets and Corel's word processors were left in the dust.  No one cared that the losers couldn't fairly compete in the game. 

Have a product that normally doesn't sell well and want to spark quick sales that leave the competition in the flames while financially enriching your buddies?   Example:  Tamiflu.   Won the game by:  using high level connections at the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control to overhype a Level 6 Pandemic Alert concerning the H1N1 swine flu virus.   Tamiflu sales skyrocketed, and Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. Secretary of Defense and certified legal crook, watched his net worth rise yet again.  Rumsfeld owned shares in the company holding the Tamiflu patent.   The losers – that is, Joe Blow and the U.S. taxpayer – were manipulated to think they needed tamiflu to keep their precious children safe.  As of September 2009, only 40 children had died of H1N1.  Strapping on Junior's seatbelt is cheaper.

Selling a useless and overpriced product that the public should have no reason to buy?  Example: Tamiflu once again.   Won the game by:  Its manufacturer, Roche, fabricating evidence that the drug really works, using this bogus evidence to get the drug approved by various food & drug administrations, generating fear to get consumers to demand it and governments in Roche's back pocket to stockpile it, and shying away from any scientific testing by claiming the drug is already proven to work by referring back to their own fabricated studies.  Roche is forced to display a disclaimer that "tamiflu has not been proven to have a positive impact on the potential consequences of . . . avian or pandemic influenza."   Again, the people who actually bought the baseless product to protect themselves from a threat that didn't really exist and the taxpayers funding the nonessential stockpile are the losers. 

It's as if society has two standards.  We're taught, on the one hand, to respect the laws of sportsmanship.  When two soccer teams show up on the field to compete in the World Cup, it's understood that each will agree to international rules and guidelines and honor the judgments of the referees.  The team with the most points at the end of it all will be pronounced the winner.

But elsewhere, on the playing field of life, it's as if cheating to win is condoned. The spectators can find out you cheated, that you bought off the referees and the sports commentators, but that won't change anything.   You remain the crowned champion and get to enjoy the prize as if you won 'fairly.'

I don't know what fair means anymore.  Those in a position to change the rules to guarantee the victor can also change the definitions of words to suit any particular situation.  Check out a courthouse and/or visit a lawyer for more detailed (but ambiguous) information. 

All that matters when the final score is tallied is if you win, however you get there.  Winners get to rewrite history with their own perspective to say, after the fact, that they played the game fairly anyway.

If you liked reading this, consider:
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 The Complete Article Index