Review Category : Careers

Succeeding without Competing

The success most important to you may come not from comparing yourself to others but from doing what you want. Succeeding without competing is possible when we look inward. 


Look at your life. What’s the sweetest success you have experienced?

Bring up the memory of that event or feat. Savor it. Think of what you did to achieve it; think of how you worked, struggled, and risked; think of how you felt when your goal was finally in your grasp. Re-experience your glory, pride, and joy. Let your heart swell and your face smile.

I had an experience like that a few weeks ago. It taught me a lesson about competing.

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The Extraordinary Industry of Literary Agents

Competition among writers has been reviewed on this site in a wonderful piece by Daniel Quinn. This piece looks at the other side – how literary agents compete and how market forces created an extraordinary market with headquarters in…Brooklyn.

Beware, males! Let my personal experience serve as a warning for you who aspire to see your names on a best-selling novel.

Barriers to entry into a market can be obvious: a dominant incumbent, the need for economies of scale, etc. Sometimes they’re less obvious, such as political connections with government officials (e.g., see my article on Elon Musk’s Telsa).

But what do you do, and how do you compete, when the barrier is… sex?

No, not that. Gender.

We all know Silicon Valley is friendliest to males, especially white or Asian, especially young. But sometimes the sex barrier sneaks up on you, or at least on me, when least expected. Specifically, in writing and publishing.

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Best Companies to Work For

How do you create competitive advantage? Elon Musk found the way, and the competitive advantage he enjoys makes his companies the best companies to work for today. Tomorrow may be a different issue.


Today we will look at three best companies, which together I will dub Elon Musk Enterprises. The reason these are the best companies to work for is that they are wonderfully independent of the uncertainties and vagaries of the free market.

Developing strategy is hard. Developing strategy that makes business news is even harder. One way to do it is Willi Robertson’s: work hard, look weird, and promote your brand relentlessly under god. Another is to possess the strategic thinking of Elon Musk.

Launching a new strategy is fraught with unexpected problems since consumer demand is always somewhat unpredictable. Oprah Winfrey can attest to that with her W network. Implementing a strategic plan, however, should be easier if the strategy actually has a coherent, consistent set of activities behind it. It helps further when the set of activities behind a strategy is simple and elegant.

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Are You a Psychopath? Good for You!

“You don’t have to be a psychopath to work here, but it helps.”

Have you suspected your CEO is a psychopath? How about the president? How about the gover­nor of a state that borders Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Atlantic? (Hint: it rhymes with “Boo Jersey.”)

It won’t do you any good to go partisan on me; they probably are psychopaths. Don’t blame me. Blame science. Arthur Fallon, a neuroscientist and author of The Psychopath Inside, recently appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN with the amazing discovery that most successful, famous people, in politics and business, score relatively high on a psychopathy spectrum.

When you think of psychopaths you probably think of serial killers, but only some psychopaths are criminals. Psychopathy is a lack of activity, visible on scans, in the areas in the brain responsible for emotional empathy.  It shows up as a cluster of traits including ruthlessness, fearlessness, narcissism, charm, charisma, impulsivity, persuasiveness, manipulation, and a lack of conscience. Fallon describes those traits as “part of leadership skills.” Now can you start seeing your CEO and it’s-all-about-me politicians (but I am redundant) fitting that profile?

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Competition in the Writing Life

The novel for which I’m best known, Ishmael, began its public life in a competition. In competi­tion for the half-million dollar Turner Tomorrow Award, some 2200 novels were entered from around the world, to be judged by a distinguished panel including names like Nobel-prize winner Nadine Gordimer, Ray Bradbury, William Styron, and others, who (I was told) identified mine as the winner very early on.

By the contest terms, the winner was guaranteed publication—but not, of course, success. In fact, it was rumored that, after the book’s rather tepid initial acceptance by the public, it would be allowed to go out of print without ever appearing in paperback. It did, however, appear in paperback and went on to earn one of publishing’s strangest histories. Without ever having popped up on the New York Times best-seller list, even for a day, Ishmael has sold more than a million and a half copies in more than 25 languages and is used in colleges and universities all over North America in courses as varied as philosophy, geography, history, religion, biology, archeology, zoology, ecology, anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology.

Among my favorite lost quotes (Google finds no trace of it and it appears in none of my many volumes of quotes from writers and others) is this one:

“Literature is not a horse race.”

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If you’re going to compete you might as well know what you’re competing for. “Success,” of course. And success is…?

Here are some ways that people define success:

Money. Fame. Beauty. Survival. Long life. Freedom. Free time. Children.
Marriage. Possessions. Piety. Serenity. High test scores. Being first. Being well-adjusted.
Being loved. Loving. Working. Achieving a goal. Setting a record. Overcoming fear.
Overcoming handicaps. Great effort. Great decisions. Great results. The journey. Applause. Inner satisfaction. Health. Time to relax. Parties!

Success involves tradeoffs. For instance, achieving great works and taking time to relax can be in conflict. For another instance, you probably will find it difficult to pursue everything. You’ve got to choose what you really want.

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