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 cult of celebrity is not only present in entertainment, sports, and politics, it’s in business as well. CEOs that get the most attention aren’t necessarily competing better than the rest. In the news doesn’t mean in the know.

Here’s a true story. A friend of mine, Bruce Hamilton, won the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) championship some years ago. He laments that his skill is in bowling and not in golf. His prize was nice but the Professional Golf Association (PGA) championship paid seven times as much in that year. Would we say the PGA champ was seven times as skillful as my friend?

In 2013, the PGA champ was paid 28.9 times as much as the PBA champ, up from seven times. Would we say that skill at golfing is growing faster than skill at bowling?

How many top golfers can you name? How many top bowlers? (I can name one.)

We have, in business, a cult of celebrity rather than a cult of strategy. Try this: who’s the CEO of Facebook and who’s the CEO of DuPont?

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“Thank you” is such a simple gesture, a daily occurrence, an acknowledgement of interacting with other humans. “Thanks!” says the person for whom you held the elevator. “Thanks, every­one” concludes the weekly staff meeting. “Thank you” writes the company in its holiday card.

All those thanks are important symbols and expressions of gratitude in our lives and livelihoods. “Thank you” is also part — often underused — of the skill of competing.

Competing and gratitude might appear contradictory. How can we be competitive and thankful at the same time? Isn’t the essence of competition to win or gain advantage? Competing would suggest that we put ourselves and the organization first, think less about others, and stay focus­ed on what we want. On the surface competing is more about “beat you!” than “thank you.”

I submit, though, that to compete well we must seek the help of many. Get­ting the job, on the job, and building the business, employees and employers alike should con­sider how a meaning­ful “thank you” impacts competitive edge both for their organization and for them personally. We’ve all heard (and said) the bitter complaint that someone “didn’t even say ‘thank you.’”  Likewise, people of all kinds, including senior leaders, must be willing to pro­vide support while expecting no more in return than a kind expression of thanks. It doesn’t work when strings are attached.

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Clear expectations inform and motivate. In competition they do more: they signal. That’s why people skilled at competing set expectations deliberately and strategically. Expectations declare boundaries to competitors: “this is my territory, stay away or we battle.” Expectations announce capabilities to customers: “this is what we will do for you.”

There are two ways to set expectations: unconditionally or conditionally. An unconditional expectation is a promise. A conditional expectation depends on something else. The unconditional type looks like this: “You will be able to keep your doctor.” The conditional type looks like this: “If enough young people sign up and pay for insurance then policies will be cheaper than they would be otherwise.” (On the concept of “otherwise,” see my co-editor’s essay “Success Is In a Word.”).

Conditional expectations are cautious and realistic. They spell out circumstances under which something may or may not happen. Given the no-place-to-hide ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter they are also wise. But they are far from exciting. In the age of millions of MBAs in marketing, apparently that is a no-no. We sacrifice the lesser good, wisdom, for the greater, hype! (That’s why I used an exclamation point instead of a period!)

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When Ron Johnson was fired from JC Penney on April 8, 2013, its stock price was $15.87. It’s easy to see why he was fired: a year earlier the stock was worth twice as much.

JCP’s stock floundered to $13.93 the day after Mr. Johnson was fired. But relax, the price “recov­ered” within a couple of weeks. The stock was cured, doubtless by drinking plenty of fluids like Scotch and water, hold the water. Some­what-happy days are here again.

Except that now, as I write, JCP’s stock price is barely half of what it was under Mr. Johnson.

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This essay is not really about Microsoft. I don’t know what Microsoft should do. Neither do you, reader. You think you know more about Microsoft than Steve Ballmer? Bill Gates? The Microsoft engineer living next door? Maybe. Probably not.

Important people commented on the imminent departure of Microsoft CEO Ballmer in USA Today’s Opinionline section. More than the substance of those opinions, which are hardly backed by unequivocal evidence, it is interesting to look at who said what.

The tech community is torn between Microsoft friends and Microsoft enemies-for-life (typically Linux fanatics). Tech Crunch writer Alex Wilhelm sees Ballmer as a good CEO who is exiting at his best. ZDNet writer Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, a staunch Linux worshiper, has criticized Microsoft for years and naturally regards Ballmer as a flop. Both make cases based on technol­ogy, personal preferences, and anecdotal evidence. Of course none of those are the perspective that matters.

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