This site is one response to a cultural moment that finds many educated Americans wondering how to succeed at the highest levels. On the one hand, opportunity seems so close at hand, the path from obscurity to ubiquity as short as the time it takes for a video to go viral or a clever idea to lead to a billion-dollar IPO. On the other hand, increasing disparities of wealth in a barely post-recessionary age have made many suspicious of those who do claim the top spots and the lion’s share of the spoils. Do the world-beaters really deserve all that glory? What about the person (or the company, or the idea) who just missed out? What did she do wrong, or fail to do right?
I set out to explore those questions in a manner perhaps ill-suited to their complexity and variability, which is to say anecdotally and with great mirth. In time, some deep lessons may in fact emerge – The Seven Great Mistakes You Must Avoid in Order to Succeed, perhaps, or The Wisdom of History’s Losers or some such. When and if that happens, I’ll publish a book. Until then, I’ll confine my “insights” to a few Afterthoughts on each entry and to some general observations. The stories themselves are the heart of the matter. I hope you enjoy them.
A Few Notes on the Approach
About that Term
The term also-ran connotes loserdom and failure. This site is not about losers. Well, not entirely. There are certainly some tales here where you’d have to consider the subjects to be losers. (I’m looking at you, Betamax.) Not winning is not always the same as losing. In sports, yes, it’s a zero sum game. But in the realm of business, for example, a brand with second-best market share in a category can still be profitable and sustainable. In the arts, you can reach a broad and adoring audience without being an icon. In science, there are many who contribute enormously, honored in the wings while others command the spotlight. So, while the term winner is sometimes used, it doesn’t always imply the existence of losers. And the term also-ran is to be understood in its literal sense: one who, beside the winner, also competed.
Qualifying for Also-Ran Status
There are a lot of also-rans, far more than there are winners. There are many more mid-list authors and actors than A-listers, many more small businesses than Fortune’s 500 or the Dow’s 30. Modest successes far outnumber the smashing ones in all aspects of life.
What qualifies a story for inclusion here, then, is not merely being an also-ran in the senses noted above. For one, I focus on stories where the winner so thoroughly dominates a given space that the very identity of the also-ran is seen as derivative, at best, and in some cases is cast into shadow, where you cannot fairly consider the full story of the also-ran without reference to the winner.
Stories about near misses are particularly appealing. These are cases that, but for a key decision, but for a connection or a good referral, but for a timeline that would allow for a quicker (or in some cases later) launch, but for pure serendipity, the accolades and riches would have flowed in entirely different directions.
Entertainment value also counts for a lot. Stories involving bad luck or incompetence are good. Stories involving karmic-payback levels of misfortune and spectacularly wrong-headed decision-making are better.