What Makes A Winner?

It is your attitude, more than your aptitude, that will determine your altitude.

I picked up today’s Tip some twenty years ago when I heard Zig Ziglar say it. When he said it, a lot of people saw it as a catchy phrase or a bit of fluff from a mere “motivational speaker.” Afterall, Zig was a salesman. What did he know?

Apparently quite a bit. The latest research proves he was right. In fact, attitude is a better predictor of success than IQ, grade point average, or almost any other factor you can think of. Dr. Martin Seligman proved that in his monumental, ground-breaking book, Learned Optimism. He found that negative people get sick more often, are divorced more frequently, and raise kids who get in more trouble.

Dr. Seligman even found that negative people make less money. In one long-term study of 1500 people, group A or 83% of the people took their particular jobs because they believed they could make lots of money. Only 17% of them–or group B– took their jobs because they happened to love their jobs.

Twenty years later, the two groups had produced 101 millionaires. The amazing thing is, only one of those millionaires came from group A, but 100 of them came from group B. That’s significant.

Even more amazing, over 70% of these millionaires never went to college. And over 70% of those who became CEO’s graduated in the bottom half of their class. Seligman concluded that it was their attitude, more than their aptitude, which determined their altitude.

I find the same thing to be true in all the audiences and all the organizations where I speak and consult. I’ll ask my audiences to give me the words they would use to describe a winner, and I’ll write down the first ten words they give me.

What do you think they say? Over the years, I’ve found their answers to be quite consistent. They list: positive attitude, enthusiasm, determined, motivated, confident, optimistic, dedicated, happy, good listener, and patient.

I think the list is useful for what it says and what it doesn’t say. None of these qualities has anything to do with physical or mental abilities. They all tie into attitude in some way or other.

Again, that’s significant. Apparently anyone can be a winner, because winning is based on your self-chosen attitude, not your God-given aptitude. You control whether or not you will be a winner in life, regardless of your natural ability.

Unfortunately, the word “winner” has been so overused that it’s lost some of its meaning. So how do you know if you’re a winner or a loser? Perhaps this will help.


The winner is always a part of the answer. The loser is always a part of the problem.

The winner always has a program. The loser always has an excuse.

The winner says, “Let me help you.” The loser says, “That’s not my job.”

The winner sees an answer for every problem. The loser sees a problem in every answer.

The winner sees a green near every sand trap. The loser sees a sand trap near every green.

The winner says, “It may be difficult, but it’s possible.” The loser says, “It may be possible, but it’s too difficult.”

I can’t think of anyone who had more pressures in his life or in his career than Abraham Lincoln. Whether it was his repeated losses in various elections, his difficult marriage, or the nation falling apart, he lived and led with an indomitable positive attitude. He simply chose to be that way. As Lincoln said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

I think of another young man who decided to be quite happy. His story was told by Dr. Charles Garfield. He writes the following.


“If you have ever gone through a toll both, you know that your relationship to the person in the booth is not the most intimate you’ll ever have. It is one of life’s frequent non-encounters. You hand over some money; you might get change; you drive off. I have been through every one of the 17 toll booths on the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge on thousands of occasions, and never had an exchange worth remembering with anybody.

Late one morning in 1984, headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward one of the booths. I heard loud music. It sounded like a party, or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the toll both. Inside it, the man was dancing.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m having a party,” he said. “What about the rest of the people?” I looked over at other booths; nothing moving there. “They’re not invited.”

I had a dozen other questions for him, but somebody in a big hurry to get somewhere started punching his horn behind me and I drove off. But I made a note to myself: Find this guy again. There’s something in his eye that says there’s magic in his toll booth.

Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party. Again I asked, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I remember you from the last time. I’m still dancing. I’m having the same party.” I said, “Look. What about the rest of the people?”

He said, “Stop. What do those look like to you?” He pointed down the row of toll booths. “They look like…toll booths.” “Nooooo imagination!” I said, “Okay, I give up. What do they look like to you?” He said, “Vertical coffins.”

“What are you talking about?” “I can prove it. At 8:30 every morning, live people get in. Then they die for eight hours. At 4:30, like Lazarus from the dead, they reemerge and go home. For eight hours, their brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions.”

I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about his job. I could not help asking the next question: “Why is it different for you? You’re having a good time.”

He looked up at me. “I knew you were going to ask that,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer someday.” He pointed to the administration building. “My bosses are in there, and they’re paying for my training.”

Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live. That man was having a party where you and I would probably not last three days. The boredom! He and I did have lunch later, and he said, “I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the Western world vacations here…and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing.”

I don’t know whatever happened to that young man, but he was already a winner when Dr. Garfield met him years ago. Since then, I suspect the young man’s attitude has taken him to greater altitudes of success.

Action:  Just for today, make up your mind to be happy–no matter what. Just do it. And then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and…