How to REALLY Win at the Life Game (aka Why Courage Is So Important)

Putting Smart to Work

How to REALLY Win at the Life Game (aka Why Courage Is So Important)

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This is old stuff. I’m not going to tell you anything new at all. There are no secret stock tips or how to score the perfect job, nor will I unravel the latest legal conundrum for you. What I shall do, however, is remind you that some things need to be remembered, maintained, practiced; that there is more value in character than what is found in a dusty book from the 1950s or before.

People want to stand out, be different, rise above the crowd. What better way to do that, especially now, than to dare to have character. Despite the demonstrated power of social media, giving equal voice to even those who whose aim is solely to break down others or reduce everything to the least ambitious and most inane, there are traits which WILL make you stand out, in a good way.   Think about these words:

Dependable, …

Reliable, …

Faithful, …


The person has “follow-through”…

Most of them are ignored as archaic. Please do not try to take the high ground by saying they are not– Faithful? Ha… what are the latest divorce statistics?

Reliable? Hmm… how was your last consumer purchase experience?

Trustworthy? … let’s just say litigation attorneys will be in business for a long time.

There is a clear trend in society at large to cast aside difficult choices, to make things easier, to avoid pain. Sometimes pain is good though. It keeps us from continuing to be harmed. It keeps us from making habitual mistakes.

I would be inclined, right about here, to insert all kinds of quotes that I find inspiring.  Often, I believe, people have decoupled the important concepts from tried and true expressions in order to justify laziness, to encourage mediocrity. Why? If I lower the bar (lessen the barrier to entry), then I do not need to put forth as much effort to beat you.

Of course, we should work “smarter” not harder. Does that mean not to work hard? No. It means that, if given a choice, it’s better to use your brain than your back. If something is difficult, it’s better to make it better by using your brain rather than your sweat.

In a race to the bottom, the winners will race to the top.   By way of example, look at the value of exploration, of being a pioneer. The U.S. would not be what it is today if people had stayed on the east coast. If there were not people daring enough to go into the wilderness, into unchartered territory, to risk life and limb, the country would be a very different place than it is. If explorers had not ventured out, whether it was motivated by monetary gain or not, the world would be vastly limited and unrecognizable to modern people.

So am I advocating that just being different is enough? Not hardly.

Many years ago there was a famous B-school case study regarding the contest between video tape recording machines- Sony’s Betamax and VHS[1]. Beta lost. They were different than VHS, not just more expensive with negligible advantages that did not justify that cost, but they were extremely inefficient (the equivalent of having to send 6 files in 4 separate emails because they are “too big”). Different is not enough, better (overall) is better.  Worse is not.   I am absolutely sure that if Sony had its choice, everyone else would have provided systems with shorter recording time, higher cost and worse quality. Then it would have won the “video recording” war.   It didn’t (and luckily Sony learned well from its mistakes).

There are lots of these situations that have happened in history as well, not just business examples.   History is our teacher. If studied, understood and followed, it enables us to avoid the pain without first having to experience it ourselves.

The guiding principles of life that best serve us do not need to be invented or even re-invented, but maybe they do need to be re-discovered.  Right about here I would normally insert all manner of famous quotations from historical figures, writers, and philosophers who I deeply admire and would strive to emulate: Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Seneca, Sun Tzu, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, John Stuart Mill, Kipling, and on and on (all of which, I highly recommend you read).

There is a reason the best people “lead from the front”. First, it’s a bit of an oxymoron to “lead” from anywhere else. I’m including a link to an excellent article on Sir Winston Churchill and leadership.  It really doesn’t matter what you think of the person himself (yes, it’s possible to find flaws in any human being—it comes with the nature), the traits discussed are what is important.

These are the qualities that help us do better. All should be emulated for certain, but I want to focus on just one of these for a moment as an example of what I mean by this paper: courage. Courage is that poetic quality that is exhibited in novels and war movies.   It is the trait that only a hero or a true “leader” has.   While you will see a healthy dose of it in those places, it is not some unattainable or remote quality that only exceptional people possess.[2]  Courage is the “go to” character trait that makes all the other good traits possible.   Responsibility is not easy, but with courage, it can be achieved. Fidelity (faithfulness)? An impossibility without courage.   Honesty is non-existent without courage.  Success in combat, whether on the battlefield or the board room, rests on one single factor: courage. Cleverness, shrewdness, and even from time to time and in the right measure, sarcasm can all be useful tools, but cannot be utilized without courage.

Examine those around you that lack courage. They will tend to tear down, to weaken, to destroy, all for the sake of avoiding summoning up courage to do something better.

I’ll break with my own restriction here to not insert quotations by referring to one that has circulated Facebook and Linkedin, indeed the entire internet I’m sure:

Weak men[3] make hard times,

Hard times make strong men,

Strong men make good times,

Good times make weak men.

If you had to pick one trait to try to advance your life, it’s clearly courage.  With it, all other things are possible. It’s the ability to face a difficulty and still move forward. It’s like trying to take a step after having a leg operation or wanting to write an article when you’ve never written before.  It’s willing to face the possibility of failure but not as “failure” but rather as the valuable education opportunity it is.

As in football, success comes down to the “inch”:  that immeasurable margin separating victors from everyone else.[4] Living is truly having the courage to fight every day for the inch.

Surely, if you want to stand apart and above your peers, you would be better served to engage those characteristics that will raise you up.  Striving to do better, to be better is what it is all about.  I probably should not have said I would not resort to quotations here, but as the author, I suppose I can with impunity. As Churchill once said, humankind should “[go] on swinging bravely forward along the grand high road and already behind the distant mountains is the promise of the sun.”

I wish you success in all your endeavors.

[1] for those of you not into studying ancient history—that is, what came before the year 2000, see .

[2] Now, whether it is something that only heroic people seem to display is the subject for another dissertation.

[3] In full compliance with acceptable standards put forth by those readers who choose to focus on form over substance, please feel free to replace with “women” or any other gender-neutral noun or pronoun that is to your satisfaction.

[4] Regardless of how you feel about Al Pacino and overlooking the hard language, go watch the famous “Inch by Inch” speech from the film, Any Given It’s four minutes you won’t regret.

Photo by Jungwoo Hong

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