We may not have a “winner take all” culture, but it often feels that way. We have a tendency to overvalue winners and overly devalue losers. A person or a business or an idea that manages to rise to a position of indisputable dominance in their field – business, science, the arts, sports – are frequently considered to be possessed of rare, almost magical qualities. They become case studies into best business practices or the nature of genius.

And rightly so. There are truly insightful innovators at Facebook and Google and Twitter, there are histories of savvy decision-making and brand-building at General Foods and General Motors, there is a burning brilliance that fueled the discoveries of Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur, and the creative achievements of Joyce and Picasso are towering and enduring for a reason.

However, if you look just a notch or two below these undisputed champions, these world-changers, these gold medal winners who bestride their domains like colossi, there are thousands of stories ­– sometimes cautionary, sometimes inspiring – among those who didn’t quite make it to the very pinnacle, those in the silver or bronze medal spots or off the podium entirely, the 80-pound chimps who for one reason or another never became the 800-pound gorilla.

I wanted to hear their stories, and ultimately to tell their stories, because I find them rich, illuminating, entertaining, and instructive. There is much to learn about success, and our relationship to the greatest successes, when seen through the prism of those less great.

These are the stories of the Also-Rans.

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