Winning

Winning” is one of the many inexplicable (and, one hopes, short-lived) memes to emerge from the Charlie Sheen meltdown porn that has swept pop culture.  Something about the simplicity of the concept and its urgent, manic delivery seems to have struck a chord.  We like winning.  Winning games, winning prizes; even winning vicariously through sports teams.  We tend to think of winning in a clearly-defined and, usually, zero-sum context.  It’s not ambiguous whether you have a winning lottery ticket, or whether you won that game of Monopoly.  But the assertion that one is winning, full stop, has a certain audacity because of its ambiguity: What exactly is this person winning?  Am I playing, too?  Does this mean I’m losing?  And if this is apparently the worldview of a drug-addled celebrity, could there be something messed up about the pursuit of winning-ness?

I’ve been thinking about what a general formula for what winning, full stop, might look like.  I add a few constraints.  First, I think it should be actionable.  “Be happy” or “Reach a level of celebrity where you are sent to ‘Good Morning America’ rather than prison for your drug use” aren’t terribly helpful formulas because they are too vague and too specific, respectively.  Second, I think it should acknowledge the connotation of competition in how we use the word.  The formula: “Develop deep, meaningful, personal relationships throughout your life” seems like unambiguously good advice, but intuitively it feels more like a recipe for win-wins than for winning.  Third, I think it should be sufficient or nearly-sufficient, but it need not be necessary.  Sufficiency is a tough condition to satisfy — it’s hard to imagine how a self-destructive person would win even with a perfect formula — so I see this constraint as something like: “a reasonably well-adjusted person would set him or herself up for winning by following the formula.”  But this would rule out the tried-and-true formula of “Marry rich,” as that path is full of ways to lose (not least of all, the pre-nup).  Finally, I think it should be parsimonious.  Good formulas usually are.

My winning formula, for your consideration: “Possess and commercialize a scarce resource”

If you can do this, you will be equipped to win, full stop.  It’s not a guarantee — money can’t buy happiness, after all; although I think this formula is actually about more than money — but it’s a reflection of the reality that it’s just easier to think about an abstraction like “winning” when one isn’t concerned with the rent or the kids’ college tuition.

I think this formula is pretty self-evident, but I’ll parse it in reverse.

– A scarce resource.  Greater scarcity of a good generally creates a greater premium for it.  In this case, the scarce resource need not be tangible, but it might be.  Natural resources, talent, intellectual property, monopoly power, political influence, even celebrity — all of these count.

– Commercialize.  This is probably the most debatable premise, but I think it’s important.  Winning is about converting a scarce resource into whatever it is one desires.  A starving artist is not winning to the same extent as Damien Hirst because he or she is, well, starving.  He or she may be more talented than Damien Hirst, i.e., in possession of a more scarce resource; but to what end?  He or she may be happier than Damien Hirst, but my formula is not solving for happiness; although I think Damien Hirst is not likely to be less happy as a result of his commercial success.  Similarly, consider Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.  He possesses some incredibly scarce resources (intellectual gifts, academic heft, and the ability to move markets by sneezing).  But I would argue he is not winning because he’s constrained (and, ideally, prohibited) from using those resources for whatever ends he may personally desire.  He will certainly be a bigger winner when his Chairmanship has expired and he is free to pursue intellectual interests unrelated to central banking, become rich on the lecture circuit, or whatever else he actually wants (see: Alan Greenspan).

– Possess.  I was debating whether “control” is a sufficient weaker condition, but I don’t think it is.  Mark Zuckerberg wins in a way a non-executive director of Facebook can’t; he owns and directly benefits from his ability to commercialize numerous scarce resources (the most obvious of which being an extremely valuable (at least for now) internet business).  A member of the Board nominally has more control over the company, since a Board generally has the (theoretical) authority to remove the CEO.  But this power is worth orders of magnitude less than ownership of the company.  Similarly, a musician controls his or her talent, but I’d argue he or she doesn’t really possess it if the record label, agent, iTunes, and the like are all taking huge cuts out of the fruit of his or her efforts to commercialize a scarce resource.

Some obvious conclusions follow from this rule; consider them corollaries to stay a winner. 

First, one stops winning when a scarce resource becomes common.  Business in particular is ruthless about developing ways to commoditize inputs as a way to reduce costs.  Well-compensated financiers, lawyers, and medical professionals may be set up to win today, but it is possible to imagine futures where their proprietary knowledge, powers, and privileges are diminished.  For example, software that is amazingly good at legal document review could conceivably displace the bottom quartile (or more) of legal professionals who currently command the scarce resource of “being better at document review than the best alternative” – but this in turn would create winning opportunities for the lawyers best able to leverage the new technology, and for the technology’s owners.

Second, one stops winning when a scarce resource loses its commercial potential.  The skill to repair a typewriter is very scarce, and it was probably quite valuable at some point to own the world’s greatest typewriter repair business; but good luck winning in that line of work today.

Finally, one stops winning when one dies from a drug overdose.  Food for thought.

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