If you’ve ever watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and who hasn’t?), you know that Indiana Jones doesn’t really have a choice; he must find the Ark of the Covenant (with all its mysterious power) before the bad guys or leave the entire world at dire risk.  For Indy, it’s all or nothing, a one-way trip  — save the world or bust.  There can be no partial success.  

In a similar vein, Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, famously stated: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  He also noted, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”    For Coach Lombardi, winning was all that mattered, and that meant coming in not third and not second, but first, always first. 

But is that the only way of looking at things?   Okay sure, if you’re a iconic hero/adventurer like Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”, or Ben Gates from “National Treasure”), you simply can’t fail; the fate of the world is probably at stake.  And if you play professional sports for a living, you’re most certainly paid by the number of your wins, not by your valiant efforts in a losing cause.  

In the business world, by contrast, the situation isn’t always so black and white.   Let’s say you’re an upstart company in the soft drink industry, looking up (way up) at the mighty Pepsi and Coke.   Would it be nice to be #1 in the industry, to topple the two behemoths?   Absolutely!   But is that an appropriate goal?   What if you make it to #3?   Chances are, as the world’s third-leading soft drink producer, you are making money hand over fist — a billion dollar organization.   Fast cars.   Early retirement.  Rides on the space shuttle.  You get the idea.

Without a doubt, our culture lionizes its winners and disparages its losers.  The only problem is that not everyone can win every time.   Consider the fate of the Buffalo Bills.   From 1990 to 1993, they were one of the two best teams in American football.  Their quarterback, Jim Kelly, became a hall of famer.   They boasted a top-ranked defense and a running back, Thurman Thomas, who was a human tank.  The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls — something that has never been repeated.  And, unfortunately, they failed to win any of those games, leading most of the sporting world to assume that the Bills were a failure.  But were they, really?    Game after game, year after year, Buffalo sold out their stadium. T-shirts with the numbers of Kelly and Thomas were consistent top sellers.   During those years, you can bet that the players received huge salaries, and the ownership happily padded their coffers.  From an emotional standpoint, although they didn’t “win”, the players at least gained the experience of playing in “the Big Game” — not once, mind you, but four times!  Although they didn’t receive the rush of victory, at least the Bills players were there — living a dream that most American children, growing up, can only imagine.    Does this sound like losing to you?

Our task, then, is to consider what would be most appropriate goal setting for us — a very tricky proposition, indeed. After all, how can we give full effort without the motivation of “becoming the best”?    Once our ego gets involved, it’s so difficult to consider a ranking of #2 as a worthy aspiration.  .And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do: give it our all, shoot for the top, attain the top ranking if we can, but take delight with whatever we do achieve — enjoying the journey along the way, regardless of the outcome.   As business people, the chances are that #2 or #3 or even #10 in our industry will also translate into significant profits.  Winning isn’t everything…it’s just one thing.   Success is always how you define it, and how it synchronizes with your quality of life.