An Essay on Winning


Note: this essay has been modified from its original form

Growing up, I spent my summers holed up in the gym, training gymnastics for up to 6 hours a day. When I wasn’t in the gym I was doing math problems or practicing Chinese characters. Or preparing for SAT’s (did 10 full tests one summer). Or reading personal development books like 7 Habits for Highly Effective People and writing personal mission statements. That wasn’t normal.

In high school, there were days where I’d:

  • wake up at 7am
  • go to school till 3pm
  • stay after class to work with my high school gymnastics team till 4:30pm
  • drive to my “real” gymnastics practice at 5pm
  • do serious and intense training until 9-9:30pm
  • get home at 10pm
  • shower, eat dinner, and START doing my homework at 11pm.

That wasn’t normal.

Sometimes I wish I had a more normal life growing up. I wanted desperately to watch more TV shows, play video games, and perhaps even get a girlfriend somehow. I wanted to fit in – you know – like a normal kid.

But then I realized that there were other things about my life that weren’t normal. Making the Jr National Team. Being named Boston Globe Gymnast of the Year 3 times in a row. Getting a 1580 out of 1600 on my first (and only) taking of the SATs. Being selected as the graduation speaker for a 2000+ student high school. None of that was normal either.

If you want to win or succeed in something – you’ve got to be willing go against the grain. The truth is, winners do what losers won’t. World champion climber Patxi Usobiaga goes months without a single off day. What kinds of unreasonable, abnormal and irrational things are YOU doing to ensure that you get results that blow people away?

You look at people who are extremely successful and I can almost guarantee there is at least something very weird or different about them They have attitudes, habits, ideas and tendencies that are very abnormal. And that makes total sense. Because [redacted].


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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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  1. Damn straight you gotta do extraordinary things to be a winner, that is not to say however that you can avoid routine and just constantly be awesome.

    You have to work to get yourself to be a winner !

    Good read man !

  2. Great inspiring post. It’s very easy for most people to fall into the general course of going to work then coming home and watching 6 hours of TV a night. Then they see a successful peer and call them “lucky” without seeing the hustle and hard work that went into winning. People easily drift towards doing what’s easy and winning definitely isn’t.

    I think you also inspired me to buy Keith Bell’s book.

    • Thanks for dropping by! Yeah – TV is pretty much a mega win killer. What’s the book you’re talking about?

      • “Excerpted from Winning Isn’t Normal by Dr. Keith Bell”

        I followed that link and it looks like it’s an out of print book, but the quote definitely sparked an interest in hearing more from him (and you).

  3. Great post, great reminder. After spending the majority of the last dozen years an overachiever, I was wiped out in ’08 by the economic freefall and I’ve had to start over.
    As your post suggests, the only real battle occurs between one’s own ears.

    • Are you an independent trader or something? That must have stunk. Hey – if you did it once, you’ve got what it takes to do it again.

    • Pretty late! I routinely stayed up till 1am-ish. This is also when I picked up the habit of getting “most of the way done” and crashing. I never got straight A’s, but I found that the effort needed to get a B+/A- average was much more manageable.

  4. ….wow! lol…

    That’s an excellent point you bring, but I suppose most people who do their best like that do realize the fact that they don’t want to be normal like everyone else; they want to be special. Great entry, though!

    • @chris vos Thanks Chris. My point was exactly that – you have to do the not normal actions/work in order to get the not normal results (winning).

  5. I watched the TV shows, played the video games, had many girlfriends and now it feels like I’m playing catch-up.

    I still do the same things, minus the TV and games.

  6. Winning is usually thought of as a relative concept but I don’t think that’s how you are using it. Winning as you have defined it seems to mean being passionate about something and not worrying too much about the status quo. I’m not sure what to call it but there should be a better name than winning.

  7. That’s definitely true and I certainly agree with what you’re saying. Keep up the great work because this was an interesting read.

  8. I don’t know how you consider yourself a “winner”. You sound like a slave to unrealistic parents expectations.
    “Winning” is a concept, a nebula word. It doesn’t mean anything. I consider “winning” getting the most experience out of life. Sacrificing most of life experiences for a few minutes of egotistical glory just to say, “Look at me!” is not worth sacrificing all the other things that life has to offer. To me that is losing.
    I actually feel sorry for the gold medalist standing on the podium. He/She has sacrificed their very childhood experiences for a metal trinket. Not a “winner” in my book.

    • @required You sound just like the losers being described in the post.

      Until you’ve stood on that podium and received that medal you will never understand the ever lasting experience, joy and confidence it brings. You can probably recite every Seinfeld episode which you think is all “life has to offer”. The goals Jason accomplished to you are “few minutes of egotistical glory” because you cannot comprehend those feats. They will forever stay with him and no one can take those away from him.

      One day when both of you are old you’ll turn to your grandkids and Jason will tell his that he was a champion. You will you tell yours how Kramer started Kramerica. Jason’s grandkids will tell him how cool he is and yours will tell you how senile you are.

      Don’t mock what you don’t understand.

      You are not a “winner” in any book….on second thought…maybe you are a “winner”…in the Loser book.

  9. I love, love, love this post, Jason. Thanks for starting my day on a very compelling note! I’ve tweeted about it to my followers, and encourage others to do the same! It’s sad to think some believe that for anyone to win, someone else has to lose. Not one person lost anything because of your efforts. Not only, however, did you win because of them — others have been inspired to higher achievements because of your tremendous example. Thanks…

    Scott McKain

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  17. Jason, great post. I hope this comment addresses some of the division between the people enthusiastically supporting your point of view and those thinking this sounds like slavish existence…

    I found it interesting that you included “perhaps even get a girlfriend” amongst the list of “normal” activities because I think that is a fundamentally different sort of activity than watching tv or playing video games. Few people will look back in life and say they wished they spent more time watching tv but many will look back and wish they spent more time with friends, family, and significant others. Furthermore, having really amazing relationships is actually something that takes a lot of work and personal development.

    I absolutely agree with the imperative to be unreasonably good at the things you choose to pursue…to not passively accept the path of least resistance. If anyone was going to legitimately criticize this post I would think it would be on the basis that winning does not necessarily mean dedicating the majority of your time and effort to only one activity. You might instead split your time between several priorities while still being actively committed to making the most of each. You might not become a nationally ranked athlete that way but if you could still be pretty damn good and have a great girlfriend at the same time.

    Are you only winning if you are committing enough time to be the best? I am curious how you approach that question personally and to what degree you think that answer might legitimately vary for others…

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  20. While I applaud your achievements, I think you’ve unfortunately missed out on a lot of life. It is really great for you to have already reached what most people in their lifetimes wont, but to say that giving up your childhood and setting goals that are unrealistically high for humans is winning, you may have already lost. Is there really only room for the top 1% of people to win? Does that mean everyone else loses?

    Maybe winning is making a best friend, or having ice cream with your girlfriend. You’ve chosen to live life based on a check mark system of awards and public merit instead of personal and consistently achievable goals that make you happy.

    I go to the gym once in a while, make love to my girlfriend often. I volunteer once in a while, learn something new every so often. Laugh as often as I can and share conversations and meals with best friends. I consider myself much more of a “winner” than the one you describe in this post.

    Now that I know what goes into being a top tier athlete, or getting a good grade on your SATs, I’d rather push my children to do something they love as long as I know they are good people. It’s not all about winning.


    Allen Bina

    • @AllenBina Hey Allen,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m so glad to have this reader feedback. I want to reply to a couple of your points

      Firstly – I challenge your assertion that I’ve chosen to live a “check mark system of awards”. Certainly my aims as a high school student were guided by parental expectations, but doing well in gymnastics and getting into a top tier school have been personally meaningful. I definitely think the effort was worth it.

      Secondly – in college and in the years since I have made it a priority to do many of the things you mention – volunteer, date, spend time with close friends. Obviously during the time I described in the post, I had little opportunity to do those things. But that was a matter of choice and it was a temporary set of circumstances. As you hit goals, you can transition to new ones.

      Finally – I’m not advocating that people ought to take my specific path or choose the goals I chose. Certainly that life is not for everyone. However, I believe winning at *something(s)* is an important goal to strive for. I don’t win all the time but neither does Lance Armstrong or Apple. But going after the win – making a full-hearted commitment to perform at your absolute best (often in competition with others) – is critical aspect of a full and vibrant life.

      Thanks again for reading and I hope you enjoy my future articles.


  21. You’re an animal! Despite what it may have cost you at the time, I think you set the bar high early for discipline and striving for greatness. You have accomplished a lot of great things in your short life, and they undoubtedly contributed to where you are now; so pat yourself on the back!

    In my opinion, it is much better to go the direction you went as opposed to the opposite – focusing on friends and girlfriends early in life and trying to make up for the rest later. Besides, it’s a lot easier to get a girlfriend when you’re a successful, productive person!

    In the end, I’m sure you’ve realized that the most important factor is balance. Success isn’t worth much if you can’t share it with the people you love. I’m glad you wrote this post, and based on the conversations it sparked in the comments, I think most would agree!

    Keep striving for abnormality and excellence, my friend! You’ve done a great job so far.

  22. Wow I just watched the video on Patxi Usobiaga and it was absolutely amazing and inspiring.

    Everybody should watch it and ask themselves if they apply the same things to their life.

    Thanks again.

  23. Really great post man. I have a feeling that the same can be said for most companies and consulting, trying to force “winning” into cookie cutter strategies and benchmarks–the safe route. Too often the crazy absurd stuff never makes it to the table.

    • @mdaniels Great point man. Most people just don’t want look dumb and would rather lose with a “smart” strategy than win with a “dumb” strategy.

  24. I love that line – “My talent is being a masochist.” It reminds me of Steve Prefontaine and his pride in being able to withstand more pain than anyone else.

    That was my style too when I was captain of the cross country team. I have big ol soccer quads and am under 6 ft tall, so I definitely didn’t have the body type to be a runner or the fastest guy on the team. The only way I could do it was through sheer stubbornness, which I’m sure isn’t surprising to you after working together :)

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  26. Just read this article in Hacker Monthly (content curated from Hacker News) and enjoyed it. It’s a simple point you make, but very powerful. I’m inspired to put in more effort towards my work now.

  27. Hey Jason,

    Being Jason Shen isn’t normal.

    In the Grand Scheme of things hard work and perseverance are normal. The continuation of the human race has depended upon them for countless thousands of generations. But, being a teenager with a superior intellect and awesome athletic ability and having Mother Teresa as your role model (as you did when you were fifteen) is not normal. Making valentine cards for each and every member of your class after being rejected by most of them (as you did when you were in the third grade) isn’t normal. Maintaining and unending pursuit to change the world isn’t normal.

    Jason, it is your open and alert mind and deep compassion for others that make you the extraordinary person that you are. I hope that rather than wins, you can see your many amazing achievements as stepping stones to total self-awareness, peace of mind, and a joyful life.

    You are my hero.

    Uncle Marion

  28. Jason I really liked this post. It’s true that “winning”, by your definition of it, isn’t normal, nor are the people who do it. I know this personally because my dad is a bit odd at times, and he graduated from RPI Top of his class and his very good at his job in Engineering (though he isn’t that great socially, I’m not trying to stereotype all engineers like that but it’s true in his case).
    However, I believe different people may have different definitions of “winning”. To some people, winning may not mean doing amazing or extraordinary things. To some, it may just be getting a 1200 on the SAT. It may just be making a varsity sport team. It may be graduating from a good college in four years. It may be getting a good job that pays 55k a year. It may be having a happy marriage. It may just be being happy, period. It may be just being a good person and feeling good about who you are. Some people are satisfied with just that. I think what winning really is depends on who you are.

    But what you’re saying is something I’ve heard many times, that people who are different or abnormal, especially in high school, are the ones who end up doing amazing things in life. I find this reassuring because I’m in high school right now (senior, last year before college!) and I sometimes feel as though I’m a bit “different” from other people, like I don’t belong. It can be very difficult to be “different” in high school because people there are often very judgmental or critical of anyone who isn’t like them. Reading things like this helps me like myself more and feel like everything’s going to get a lot better after I graduate this year. Thanks Jason!

  29. I actually just finished this life science course at UCLA taught by Professor Jay Phelan from Harvard. He concluded the course on the last day with a lecture about happiness and its biology.

    Happiness is a tool our genes use to induce us toward behaviors benefitting them. We imagine that achieving our goals will make us happy. In actuality, it is making progress towards them that makes us happy. What we should do is set up reasonable “to-do lists” rather than a large goal that can’t be done within that day, such as “write your dissertation.” If you perhaps put “Write opening statement,” you’ll find yourself always progressing.

    So in terms of winning, I think this lesson could be an invaluable way to achieve for yourself and feel much better about it. I’m sure it would help us all win at whatever game we’re in in our lives.

  30. @Anonimous Thanks for your thoughts (and sorry for the delay in my response!) It’s true that winning means different things to different people. Mainly I mean that if you want to achieve results that are different than others achieve, you’ll have to do things that are different than what other do. Congrats on graduation and I wish you the best with whatever you end up doing!

  31. @StephRWong Good point. A lot of winning is about staying motivated and whatever you can do to stay motivated will keep you on the path to success.

  32. wow very hardcore. where did your motivation come from? the environment you grew up in? or just a willingness to “kick-ass”?

  33. I love this message.  Everyone can’t be the best, but everyone can aspire to be.  Being really good at something REQUIRES that you put more into it than what everyone else is doing.

  34. Sorry,I’m Chinese ,a normal people;My english is not good.I read some comments,some different opinions.I thought “open your feeling” the post that you do is a good job!I know some people just win others,while be a winner alone.And you shared your life and encouraged other people to face their work or study.even though I understood it not completely.but i can feel.Success is different,but the spirit is similar, I think.

  35. I agree, somewhat, what the assertion that “It’s in the preparation” where the satisfaction lies. However, the real trick is to find what one loves, and do that. Then the “hard work” doesn’t seem like work anymore (but still hard). The Puritanic work ethic, and Calvinists (among many other societal edifices) have created the idea of simply “working hard, and achieving”. WHAT we work at, is as important. If one work diligently toward things, only for hope of money and potential satisfaction, then one loses by default. The is no dissatisfaction there (ask the former “Gifted Student” who finds themselves in a daily grind, at an investment firm). We know when something moves us, and how we can be moved by comraderie, example, and the sacrifice for something palpable. The trick is to find those whose idea of “palpable” fit your own.

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