Winners and losers

by Admin
Updated: July 13, 2018

The concept of winners and losers has different meanings under different sets of conditions

The idea that we might be winners or losers isn’t a universal concept in human societies but it only takes a single alpha to introduce it and it causes a chain reaction that affects the entire group. Competitiveness can bring many benefits but extreme competitiveness can result in destruction.

Competitive behavior has been rewarded throughout evolutionary history and a drive to achieve the most extreme positive position is a natural consequence. This is typically what regarded as winning.

This necessarily puts everyone else lower down the field which is fine until the winners are proclaimed. The effect of this is to make everyone else aware of their potentially weaker position and perceive a threat regarding access to resources.

Most of the population won’t really mind if the top 1% are fantastically rich unless it means they have to be fantastically poor.

This creates an antagonistic dynamic which can be highly destructive, especially if it interferes with productive behavior.

Plotting revolution can be a huge distraction from putting in a good day’s work.

If winning is defined instead as some satisfactory level of gain, there are other options:

When fortunes are independent, i.e. when there is no connection between the activities of the parties involved, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. Everyone can win
  2. Some can win while others lose
  3. Everyone can lose

Separate civilizations living on different planets far apart can probably be described as independent. But current levels of population & communication, make it difficult to say any human activity is truly independent.

When fortunes are interdependent, i.e. when the activities of the parties affect each other’s fortunes, there are three possible sets of conditions:

  1. Positive sum - everyone can win (but some can still lose)
  2. Zero sum - for anyone to win, someone must lose
  3. Negative sum - everyone starts out with a loss, but some can end up with a win


  1. [Positive sum] Trading foodstuffs: If you have all the proteins and I have all the veggies and we trade half-for-half, we both get a tasty dinner.
  2. [Zero sum] Games: A game of poker starts with a fixed amount of money from each player and ends with one player winning all of it.*
  3. [Negative sum] Loss-making business: The value is less than initial investment and any activity actually makes the situation worse, but some participants still get paid.

* In practice, there are few zero sum games. Poker is negative sum when the opportunity cost of the time spent playing it is factored in.

Total value

The value of a position can be measured in terms of money and the power it provides. It can also include intangibles such as influence (and the power it provides) and happiness.


What constitutes a win also depends on timing.

In a game of poker, it’s not necessary to win every single hand. Winning the game is not even related to how many individual hands are won or lost.

If the game is interrupted and brought to a premature close, the fact that you might have gone on to win or lose becomes irrelevant.

Similarly, in the arena of human endeavor, it doesn’t matter how many times you lost before - if you are winning now then, right now, you are winning, period.

Win - Win - Win - Win - Win = WINNER!
lose - lose - lose - lose - Win = WINNER!
[any combination of Win/lose] - lose = Loser
[some previous Win - lose] - Win = ?

Previous [Win followed by lose] events diminish the status of a current Win. Athletes, for example, if unable to end their careers on a win, tend to do better it they retire while they are still remembered as mostly winning.

Of course, if you’re no longer alive then it’s definitely game over. But then it probably no longer matters to you.

The downside is that “now” is not static and it’s dangerous to treat success as a final destination. It’s not uncommon to find that yesterday’s winners are today’s losers.

The upside is that, any amount of failure can be wiped out with a big win.

Winning is relative

Relative to the field: If you can calculate an average position you have technically created a zero-sum condition and if you are above the average - how ever slightly - you are winning.

Occupying the top position makes you a target for others who want it. This can be problematic.

When resources are not scarce (i.e. 2nd, 3rd position etc. can be equally wealthy in all practical senses), it is an arbitrary goal...

Relative to a goal: A goal is something you make up. If not having achieved a goal is bothering you, write down at least two lesser goals you’ve already achieved. This way you’ll immediately be ⅔ - 50% = 17% above average.

If you are struggling with your own goals, it is better to modify them than try to share your pain...

Relative to others’ perceptions: If other people think you are a winner, take it and run with it. Otherwise, you may appear ungrateful and that really would make you a loser.

Relative to past performance: Past performance has value, but I would argue is more about effort than results.

Winning big at first attempt will often be regarded as luck.

Winning after a series of wins, of course, makes you a winner.

But, often, winning after a series of failures is most highly regarded because of the extra effort required to push through.


A winning mentality comes from realizing that any and all failures are precursors to some kind of big win.

The “big win” does not have to be what was originally planned (it rarely is, for anyone).

The toughest psychology to work through is when you’ve won in the past but are currently worse off than before. So, when you do win, protect it!

More info

“No Time for Bullies: Baboons Retool Their Culture” (when all the alpha males died) at

“Positive-Sum / Zero-Sum / Negative-Sum Situations” essay at

If, statistically, 1 in 100 calls results in a sale, a winning mentality says you might have to get through 99 fails before you get a win. “What I Learned from Door-to-Door Sales” at

“The hidden psychology of failure” at

Internal links

The true meaning of success You are making a difference Opportunity cost Break-even Compromise All articles
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