The Great American Maxim: Stand Alone And Win

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The Conqueror“The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. Let the game do its work… If a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose.”

So says Mr. Bartholomew in 1975’s classic film Rollerball. It’s an American tale. An epic retelling of the classic mantra that fills the heart of every red-blooded citizen from the very founding of our country.

Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the most popular books, films, or any other place where a character must confront personal and public obstacles in heroic fashion. The most compelling of those stories are built around a single individual.

No, it doesn’t take a village to succeed, it takes self-discipline, self-reliance, and, ultimately, self-confidence. After all, how many stories do you remember about The Justice League as opposed to tales involving, for example just Superman or just Batman?

Literary writers (as well as psychologists and successful marketing gurus) can give you a very simple explanation as to why this is so. In fact, the answer lies buried in the sentence you just read (and this one, too).

Find it yet?

It’s you. No, not just the word “you,” but the actual you.

Why? Because when you read the word “you,” chances are you immediately think of yourself and place yourself in the place of the word “you.” The writer (or marketer) knows when you see the word “you,” you automatically replace it with the word “me” (or “I”).

Consider this. There’s a million-dollar lottery out there. Now, the odds of any one ticket holder winning are incredibly low. If you’re trying to convince people to buy a ticket, you’ve got your work cut out for you (especially if your audience knows the least bit about math).

You have to make a choice. Which of these headlines should lead your advertisement?

“Someone will win a million dollars tomorrow!” – or – “You can win a million dollars tomorrow!”

At first glance, you might think the certainty of “will” in the first option beats out the ambiguity of “can” in the second choice. That’s true, a bigger contrast overshadows the “will/can” dichotomy.

Look at the first sentence. “Someone will win…” What does your mind conjure up? You probably imagine some random person in a far-off land winning the prize. I mean, face it, you never win the big prize. It’s always somebody else. Why should things change now?

Now look at the second sentence. “You can win…” If you’ve watched too many Jim Carrey movies, you’re probably thinking, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance.” You’re now imagining what it might feel like to actually win that big prize. I mean, face it, you never win the big prize. Sooner or later your luck has got to change. Why not now?

You see how that works? Same set of facts. A subtle difference. Two different outcomes.

Incidentally, by adding the word tomorrow, I’ve made it easier for you to imagine it happening because I’ve given you a definitive (and very close) time the event will happen. Smart marketers will even add the word imagine to the headline to bluntly tell the reader what to think, as in “Imagine, you can win a million dollars tomorrow!”

Now imagine this.

How many times have you found yourself alone, isolated from the people around you? Whether in the class room, at work, or any other group-oriented situation. You have a great idea, but nobody believes you. Or worse, they like your idea but feel it’s too risky for them to stick their necks out for.

Do you remember how bad you felt in those situations, especially when you’ve invested so much effort to show you’re a team player. The team might still need you, but it needs you to lead. By yourself. Alone.

Whether you expected it or not, you’ve become an entrepreneur.

In a way, this makes it easier for you. You don’t have to rely on anyone else. You don’t have to wait for somebody else to make decisions for you. You no longer have to worry about convincing others you’ve got a great idea.

Nope. You’re on your own. You’re free to roam about the cabin, untethered to the will of others.

Said another way, you’re a true pioneer, foraging ahead into an uncharted frontier. When you succeed, when you show everyone it can be done, you’ll have achieved the most admirable recognition you can possibly attain. You’ll be the first one there.

Let’s see how this worked out in Rollerball. As you read through this, think about the “game” in your life that seems to take up a lot of time.

It took a while for Jonathan E. (James Caan’s character in Rollerball) to realize he must win alone. You see, he was the ultimate team player. “The team, they depend on me,” and “If the rule changes stay the same, Mr. Bartholomew, I’m playin’ with my team,” he says.

And he built a dependency on others, letting his relationship with them reinforce his belief he was all about The Justice League. Events, however, would force him to see he was really Superman.

At first, he rejected this notion. His trainer insisted “They’re afraid of you, Jonathan. All the way to the top, they are.” Jonathan naively replied “What are they afraid of me for?”

It took the tragic loss of his best friend and a realization that his wife Ella wasn’t taken from him by “the corporation,” but left for a reason he never considered. “It was the game, Johnny. I mean, it was so important to you. It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she told him.

That’s when he realized the truth. Mr. Bartholomew, the corporate head, told him, “It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan.” Only Ella’s revelation made Jonathan understand he was a man alone. He knew what he had to do.

In the title game against New York, even his team (Houston) didn’t stand with him. Notice how the filmmaker emphasized this. Jonathan comes out first as the crowd chants of “Jonathan! Jonathan!” His team, still not realizing what this “game” is all about, entered the arena with their usual “Houston! Houston!” chant. Meanwhile, their opponents, apparently with more awareness as to what’s expected, walked onto the floor chanting “Jonathan’s Dead! Jonathan’s Dead!”

The final scene has Jonathan – Superman – standing alone, opposed to the two remaining New Yorkers. What happens at the end, though, shows Jonathan realizes his real opponent isn’t the New York Team, or even the corporations. It’s the game itself.

He shuns the new rules and beats the game itself.

What game are you playing? Have you discovered how that game is playing you? How do you plan to stand alone against it and ultimately defeat it?

If you’re reading this online, leave a comment. Let me know your story of victory.

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