Business Is an
Intellectual Sport

If you are smart, you learn from your mistakes. If you are really smart, you learn from the mistakes of others. Wise people learn from the mistakes of others who are brave enough to admit their mistakes when they offer advice.

Which are you?

When someone dismisses the advice of someone else who has failed, his or her ego is in the way. The symptoms of business failure—lack of liquidity, poor capitalization, excessive expenses, or falling revenues—are easy to spot; they are not the root cause of the failure. Dig deeper and you will discover ignorance, stupidity, and ego.

Years ago, I learned from a good business leader that business is a game “to be played,” and to have fun playing. Then Payless Cashways CEO David Stanley told a group of managers, “If you are not having fun; find something to do in business that is fun. This is a team sport and you should have fun playing the game.” Some young managers did not understand, asking, “Isn’t business supposed to be serious?” A few of them cynically dismissed the remark. Ego.

watson_thomas_ibm_think02.jpgIn the 1920s, IBM founder Thomas Watson Sr. developed a one-word slogan campaign:  THINK. The word THINK showed up on ties, desk plates, posters, scarves, shirts (dress shirts mind you, this was IBM in the 60s). Times typeface, multi-colored, capital letters, multiple languages—everywhere you turned was the word THINK. The International Business Machine company spent cash assets to encourage its managers and employees to engage in and think about… THINKING!

Look around at the business landscape. What businesses have survived and prospered over multiple generations? What businesses failed in the first year?


If you look at the ones that failed quickly, they really were not businesses. They were lambs for the slaughter. They did not understand that business is not a bakery, a craft shop, a book store, or a coffee house. Those are nothing but vehicles in which to conduct business. Those business dilettantes went into business because of a passion, a hope, or a dream. They failed to understand that there are rules to business, and in the sport of business, breaking the rules will always result in failure.

The businesses that sustained and grew over multiple generations still had hope, passion, and a dream. They also engaged critical thought and learned the rules of the game. They engaged critical thought and adjusted their vehicle to fit the rules of business. As time progressed and the markets changed, the thinking managers and leaders abandoned the old vehicle for a new one.

I must give respect and recognition to Keith Cunningham for the title of this article. It was in one of his educational presentations that I heard the term “intellectual sport.” Keith should know, for he is one of those brave souls who failed and possesses the courage to admit it. And he can back up his failure story with another one about how he succeeded again. Keith created great wealth and then lost it when he stopped thinking. He fought very hard to recover, only to crash and declare bankruptcy. On a mission to recreate himself as a better man and a better businessman, Keith rose from the ashes and rebuilt his wealth. Keith is the real deal, and is one of the many successful failures I look to for business wisdom.

As Keith teaches us, every sport has its own set of rules and vocabulary. Business is the same way. Restaurant, food distributor, shoe store, bakery, retail store, machine shop—it does not matter; the rules of business apply. The way they apply may be unique to the type of business, but not to the individual business. To think otherwise, to believe that your business is unique and the rules of the sport of business do not apply, is nothing but a fantasy.

Think of it this way: gravity pulls all objects to the ground. If you hold a rock up, and then let go, it falls down. No amount of hope, faith, or prayer will keep the rock in the air. If you use a tool, like an airplane, the rock can defy gravity, as long as the plane carries the rock. The same thing applies to business. There are times that revenue from a specific group of customers can carry your business, but if that customer class “goes away,” like the airplane that carries the rock, your business could fall.

What is the airplane that can keep your business aloft? It is your ability to engage critical thinking. It is critical thinking that you use to determine how you can change the play of the game. Luck gets you just so far.

Business is an intellectual sport.

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