Mediocrity Equates to Winning and Profits

“All my life, man and boy, I’ve operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the race. Naturally, when I became a coach I tried to teach people how to do that. Tried to teach Pre (Steve Prefontaine) how to do that. Tried like hell to teach Pre to do that. And Pre taught me.

Taught me I was wrong. Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that a mediocre effort can win a race and a magnificent effort can lose one. Winning a race wouldn’t necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from start to finish. He never ran any other way. I tried to get him to, God knows I tried… but… Pre was stubborn. He insisted on holding himself to a higher standard than victory. ‘A race is a work of art’; that’s what he said, that’s what he believed and he was out to make it one every step of the way. Of course he wanted to win. Those who saw him compete and those who competed against him were never in any doubt how much he wanted to win. But how he won mattered to him more. Pre thought I was a hard case. But he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn’t to win a race. It’s to test to the limits of the human heart. That he did… Nobody did it more often. Nobody did it better.” — Bill Bowerman

Steve Prefontaine is my favorite athlete of all time. To me he’s more fascinating than Mike Tyson and more inspiring than Lance Armstrong. I gravitate to his legacy the way the masses at Heyward field were mesmerized by his charisma.

Why? Re-read the quote above.

Pause for a second and evaluate where you’re at in your life.

Is getting a new client worth telling a little fib? Is giving 85% effort to your client’s campaign so that you can finish a week ahead of schedule and start on someone else’s request advantageous to your bottom line? Do those shortcuts in the code help you get to market faster? Does manipulating drones into subconsciously consuming your content tickle your fancy?

Even though you’re shaking your head “no” right now the odds that you’ve done something to get ahead at the expense of your integrity in the last year are probably higher than you’d care to admit.

Answering yes to any of those questions above would likely result in more money, higher profit margins, more visitors, and a stronger business. Let’s face facts. Countless people get away with it everyday.

For every person telling harmless white lies, taking short cuts and manipulating their co-workers, clients, etc. for money, power, recognition, etc. there’s someone out there who realizes that in the scheme of things none of that matters. People who realize that getting to the top is great, but how you get there matters more.

We don’t need any more non-profit CEOs using donations to fund their 4000 sq ft flat in London. We need more people like Steve Prefontaine who lived in a trailer and ate pseudo-meat so he could maintain his amateur status to compete in the Olympics and fight the AAU despite fat endorsement offers from every running affiliated company under the sun.

When your boss takes vacation you can play on Facebook all day long, but if you play your politics right you might get promoted soon anyway. I fear this mindset is consuming our society, and is partially responsible for our current state of turmoil.

It may not happen to you specifically and it may not happen in your lifetime, but I assure you that if the foundation isn’t strong, if the appropriate processes weren’t carried out, the whole structure is going to come tumbling down.

You can win with mediocrity. You can get rich with smoke and mirrors, but like Pre, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard than victory, than fancy watches and fast cars.

What say you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, but I’d love it even more if you’d share with me one person who you feel exemplifies the Steve Prefontaine approach. I’d love to highlight them here so that we can all learn from their examples.


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  • In all my sports background, the lesson of how you played the game was so important. I played a lot of team sports, and understood how (as a rower) one person’s behavior affected the other seven. I’ve also been learning that this applies to other sports: sure, we love a good fight in hockey. But it wasn’t until I read The Code that I understood how the fighting essentially came down to defending of a team’s honor.

    In the broader sense, I hate people who almost ignore this idea of being more. How can you be a leader and blatantly lie to your team, then tell another a different lie? How does ignoring the hardships of your people inspire trust? Sure, your 401K might have taken a hit, but half your team declared bankruptcy. If you aren’t actually getting a job done, why should you be rewarded? I like this post. A reminder to be more. That how is more important. We all should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Thanks!
    .-= Emily Jasper´s last blog ..Why It’s Breezy Down There =-.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    Excellent points about how team sports are influenced by the behavior of each individual. I love Herb Brooks’ “It’s not about the best players, it’s about the right players,” quote because he’s right. This is a little off topic I guess, but there’s something to be said for the right fit, and a team that believes in something integral to their core, something that goes beyond winning.

    Your examples about a leader are so true as well. Results matter – they always matter, but the best leaders know what to do and what to say to get the most out or their constituents… While it may save themselves some money (a win, yes?) – taking away someone’s benefits probably doesn’t inspire your employees to really get behind you, to believe in the cause and to go the extra mile for the greater good.

    This brings up an interesting question. If a leader adopts the profit/win at all cost philosophy is that something that permeates down the line? (i.e. “Well now that I’m undervalued just so we can increase profit margins I might as well take X shortcut to accomplish Y?”) — I fear that it does.

    Glad you enjoyed the reminder Emily!


  • I really loved the movie “Without Limits.” My roommate during my last semester of bschool had me watch it and I really like how you have taken that message and applied it to our lives. In my career I’ve come alot of people who have gotten far through politics and mediocrity. I promised myself I’d never be one even if it meant a longer path to getting to where I wanted to go. In the end, if you have your integrity that’s worth more than a promotion. I think short term success or instant gratification is like building a house of cards. It’s not going to stay up for very long.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    That’s awesome that you’ve seen “Without Limits” Srinivas. Since it didn’t do much at the box office I find that very few people have actually seen either of the films made about Pre.

    I -love- your perspective and you’re 100% right. So many people sit idly by and watch guys like Chris Brogan and Gary V succeed and they don’t realize the hours those guys put in to get where they’re at. You have to build that strong foundation and it’s often built on integrity. The test for me is simple: “Would this disappoint my parents?” If the answer to that question is “yes,” then I’m going to avoid it like the plague.


  • Really great post, hombre. I like the notion that success isn’t measured by others. You know what you put into something and exactly what the results mean to you. Someone else may think that your 345th place finish in a marathon was a pretty lame accomplishment, a failure even, but you know how you poured all you had into the event, and it was a tremendous success.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that you should determine how you define your successes. Good stuff!
    .-= Jackie Adkins´s last blog ..The North Star of Marketing =-.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    Great example Jackie. Most of us don’t know what other people have been through along the way. There are some people that are so talented that they don’t have to work as hard on the ‘skill’ aspect of their lives to achieve success. See: LeBron. (Not that he doesn’t work hard, but the guy is a genetic freak. He came out of the womb going to the NBA.) There are others that had to scrap and claw, and endure countless hours of sweat equity to accumulate enough skill to overcome their lack of talent. See: David Eckstein.

    One of the hardest things to do is stop caring what others think and to do what you believe in… Maybe that’s why so many people want to get to the top (the status of it all), not because it will make them any happier. It’s an age old dilemma I suspect.


  • Glad you brought up the non-profit aspect – and ironically, Lance Armstrong. I did a case study on the Foundation in college, and was surprised on where the money went and where it was allocated.

    I think you can compare it to blogging – some of the best bloggers out there don’t get as much recognition – but some of the mediocre posts get kudos.

    To me, who exemplifies this: those who are humble, and battle behind the scenes to bust their ass and make it about their brands, not themselves.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    Kind of surprised this is your first comment here, but I’m glad you contributed to this conversation amiga!

    > A lot of people would be shocked and appalled if they saw how funds were allocated from organizations like non-profits, churches, universities, etc.

    > I liken it a bit to singers. There are great bloggers that may never get the recognition they deserve the same way there’s some girl singing in a bar right now who will never get a shot. That’s why HOW we get where we’re going should matter more than actually getting to the top of the proverbial ladder.

    > I’d even say I’d rather see people worry less about their brands, and more about others. Someone who does this as well as anyone I can think of: Danny Brown.


  • I want to find people who inspire me to be successful, not people who just “are.”

    If you do just enough to make a name, or are insincere, or cut corners to get ahead (though you are right…if you say you haven’t you are a lying fool…) then for some reason I’m left with a feeling of emptiness. Wishing that there was something more, some passion or motivation that pushed people instead of just “being good enough.”

    It’s hard to accept that not everyone is like me, however, with a self-sacrificing work ethic and obsession with drive. But the truth is that they are. People succeed all the time without really having to try, and many are happy with that result. Heck, I made a high school academic existence out of it (and graduated with a 3.94 GPA.)

    It comes down to individual values and beliefs, I think. Some will refuse to accept mediocrity in their lives, and some will aim to try.
    .-= Elisa´s last blog ..Clarity On Love =-.


    Elisa Reply:

    I’m gonna reply to myself just to clarify that first line too…I seek out people who inspire me to be the best version of myself. Which I feel is my own definition of success, but I know that the word itself is quite arbitrary.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    I think most times “being the best version of yourself” will lead to great things. Per usual you have great perspective that I think people can (and are) continuing to learn from. “Good enough,” might work for awhile, but I think in most instances, at some point, practicing “good enough,” will inevitably lead to underachieving down the road at some point. Good thoughts Elisa! And thanks for the clarification, but I think you just wanted to pad your comment count. 🙂


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  • You already know what I think. Thanks for this bro.
    .-= Carlos Miceli´s last blog ..Avatar Philosophy =-.


  • Brilliant post Ryan.

    I completely agree. Too many people seem to be focusing on doing as little as possible while taking as much as they can.

    What ever happened to personal excellence and doing your best work just for the sake of the work? Isn’t excellence enough?
    .-= John Bardos -JetSetCitizen´s last blog ..Frequent Flyer Miles Hacking: Tips and Tricks to Fly for Free =-.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    Glad you found your way over from Carlos’ plug (thanks hombre!). You’re so right John, in that everywhere you look there are people online wanting to acquire wealth without putting in the long hours upfront. It just simply doesn’t work that way, but those that put their head down and attempt to do their best work — it’s funny, they do usually end up acquiring solid wealth. If they don’t, they still have something to be proud of. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  • This is a little off topic, but I’m in the middle of reading “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall. Also a great book, filled with inspiring performances and the beauty of the sport rather than the titled acheivements. There was an interesting point about Bill Bowerman in there. He obviously started Nike with Phil Knight and created the modern running show. He later began to catch on to the fact that modern running shoes created more injuries than actually helped and he wanted to change Nike back into a flat soled running show company, but the Nike beast had grown too big at that point.

    I say this in an effort to demonstrate that even those people that may appear to be operating with integrity as they grow their business, may be blind to the negative ripples they create. It is a rare individual that can operate with complete moral security and still succeed in business, but those people serve as inspiration for years to come.
    .-= Jake Rosen´s last blog ..The Importance of Social Media Club =-.


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    That’s why I’m glad I serve as a moral compass for the entire world. Ha.

    First, I love that you found an opportunity to plug that book. Though I suspect I’ll be picking it up after I finish the 5 un-read books already on my shelf, and of course Re-work.

    Second, I think you’re right in that it’s probably virtually impossible not to have missteps along the way, missteps that will inevitably lead to negative repercussions sometimes, but I think there’s a difference in trying to do what’s right, and being completely cognizant of the fact that you’re attempting to take a short cut to achieve something that probably isn’t as important as integrity in the large scheme of things.

    Hope things are going great for you at Fleishman!


  • This is a handy reminder and makes me think of Aristotle’s quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

    Skipping and skimping and cutting corners will get us in the end. It’s like building a house. If the foundation is off level by even a fraction of an inch it won’t matter now. But it will in 50 years.

    I think we need to be reminded that we’re building more than resumes – we’re building legacies. While they can be ruined in an instant, they can never be constructed as quickly.

    Every decision matters and reflects upon us, our values, and our identity. Choose wisely, my friend.


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  • Even though you’re shaking your head “no” right now the odds that you’ve done something to get ahead at the expense of your integrity in the last year are probably higher than you’d care to admit.

    God, this post was incredible, Ryan.

    I think you’ve more than adequately summed up, for me, what I believe sets me apart from a lot of people. My integrity has more value than anything monetary. People may not believe that, but I know it’s true.

    But it wasn’t until reading this post that I really understood what kind of life/business I’m building. That money is great and the bottom line needs to be thought of, but how you go about it matters more. It matters because if you’re not accountable to yourself, then what are you doing? It matters because the things you do when nobody is looking are the things that define you. And the things you do when you think you won’t get caught also define you. Both are formative. Both are terribly important.

    That’s my two cents.