How To Be a Loser

A few years ago a man named Benjamin J. Stein produced a magazine article entitled “Mistakes Winners Don’t Make.” In his “sermon,” as he called it, he described traits he saw over and over again in losers—that is, people who don’t achieve their goals.

While I can’t attest to the examples he gave from his background in law and show business, I do see similar mistakes played out again and again in university students. Why do some students achieve so much success as graduates, while others seem to always miss the boat? It’s not only high grades, for sure. One explanation seems to in the way some people think of themselves and their place in the world. To become one of these people is easy. Just follow the principles below.

1. Living in a dream world.
Over and over again I talk to beginning mass communication students, or even glib seniors, who declare they want to “work as a television sportscaster,” or “write a column for a national magazine.” Okay, great, I say, these are lofty goals, but doable. How are you preparing for them? Are you writing sports for the Spectrum? No. Are you trying to intern at a local television station? No. Are you submitting free-lance articles to local magazines? No time, got to work at my Burger King job.

Well, you can dream of being president of the United States, too, if you want, but if you take no steps to make your dream come true, you only annoy me and your friends by carping about how poor you can’t get the job because everybody’s out against you. Sure they are.

2. Not producing anything.
I think a lot of us don’t realize that very few people are going to pay other people for sitting around doing whatever the moment moves them to do. In fact, in our commercialized society, you need to actually produce something that will sell—either free-lance, or through an employer. And you have to produce a lot of it. In the mass media biz, the mediocre writer who cranks out four stories a day, on time, is more valuable than the good writer who produces one a week. You need to prove that you can produce on deadline. The way to do that is to produce on deadline—for the Spectrum, as an intern, or in a class. I’ve had a number of students who constantly talked about the great pictures they took, or the great articles they wrote, or the great research they were doing—but I never actually saw their published photo, an article in print or a research presentation from them. Blah-blah-blah might get you by as a Dilbert-esque manager. It just doesn’t cut it in the real world of mass media.

3. Forgetting your supporters.
You will need others to achieve your goals. Yes, you will, unless you’re the new Mozart or Einstein. A former student once was out looking for mass media work. I offered him several suggestions, even wrote a letter of introduction intended to get him started in free-lance work for an advertising agency that undoubtedly would have hired him. Instead he became angry at me for some perceived slight, and didn’t follow up on my suggestions. For two decades he’s drifted from dead-end minimum wage job to job, never landing a career in the media business because somehow his supervisors, acquaintances or former mentors never met his personal requirements. You need to be nice to people who can do you good—because without them, you’re unlikely to achieve your goals.

4. Rudeness and disrespect.
Again and again I’m flabbergasted—but I should be used to it by now—at how little some students know about treating people with respect. They’re rude to their instructors by showing up late to appointments, or not showing up at all. They’re rude to their class group members by refusing to do their share of the work, by making excuses for missing meetings. They never thank people for free meals, free tickets, tips on job opportunities. I’ve even been invited to graduate student weddings, given them substantial gifts—and received no thank-you note, not even an acknowledgement. Question: why should I—or you—bend over backward for these people? Yeah, I know moneybags tycoons like the late Ralph Engelstad can be obnoxious gasbags. I guess you can get by with that too, when your net worth reaches a few hundred million.

5. Dressing down.
Okay, you can get by with ripped jeans, backward ball cap, and a t-shirt reading “Fcuk”—when you’re a freshman. Women can get by with tiny T-shirts featuring a pierced belly button, and below that, “butt cleavage.” In my classes, well, whatEVER. But seniors have got to gather together some sort of professional image. Every so often I’m astounded to see graduating seniors or graduate students appear at job fairs, professional seminars or capstone paper presentations wearing the same kind of duds they slid in on as late adolescents. I’d like to believe they don’t carry the tradition to their job interviews, but from what I hear, it’s alas all too common. You just can’t dress inappropriately for job interviews—sporting Reeboks and tank top—and expect to be taken seriously. Okay, I’ll admit we faculty sometimes dress like knapsack brigaders fresh from two weeks in the Istanbul youth hostels. But, hey, when was the last time you took a sartorial model from the get-up of your college professor?

6. Whining and challenging.
You might like to argue just for the fun of it, to show that you are no doormat to anybody. But your friends and colleagues won’t likely be impressed by how smart you are in proving them wrong. Arguing alienates, and people who are scrappy “just because” can’t turn around and hope to find a friend behind them when they need the boost. I’ve had students, particularly graduate students, wheedle me on every tiny, gentle suggestion I proffer for their essays, take me to task on every test question they disagreed with. Hey, I appreciate the occasional graceful suggestion that I might consider another option. But the person who questions every single comment I make as a purported “authority figure” will probably do the same thing with his or her professional supervisor. And when you irritate these people for no good reason, don’t count on their help either.

7. Misjudging your priorities.
I just can’t believe this, but I hear it over and over: “No, I can’t take that internship. It conflicts with my hostess job.” “No, I don’t have time to write for the Spectrum. I go home weekends.” “I’d join PRSSA, but they always meet just when I have my fraternity dinners.” “Why should I present at the Red River Communication Conference? I don’t have time to re-write my paper.” Yes, you need a part-time job, many of you, to help pay for education. Yes college life is expensive. But what’s the point of higher education? To gain a greater understanding of our society and the world around us while establishing a long-term relationship with Taco Bell? Maybe when you’re a freshman you can get by with some partying and evenings of “TV Land” fare instead of career-building (well, maybe), but by the time you’re a sophomore, you’d better be setting priorities, or preparing for a life of low-level jobs in retail. No, you can’t find time for everything. That’s why we call them priorities.

—Ross Collins, associate professor of communication

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>

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