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The Psychology of Winning: An Interview with Dr. Denis Waitley (Part 2)

The Psychology of Winning: An Interview with Dr. Denis Waitley

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Denis Waitley in Dallas to record an interview on Zig Ziglar’s Success 2.0 online video channel. 

Here are just a few highlights of Dr. Waitley's extensive career:

  • Bachelor of Science from US Naval Academy in Annapolis
  • Motivator of Super Bowl athletes
  • Chairman of the psychology committee of the US Olympic Sports Medicine Council, responsible for performance enhancement of American Olympic athletes
  • Conducted US study of Chinese brainwashing techniques
  • Rehabilitation coordinator for US prisoners of war returning from Vietnam
  • Simulation expert for Apollo Program astronauts

Dr. Waitley is the author of 15 books. My personal favorite is The Psychology of Winning. Here's a partial transcript of a conversation I had with Dr. Waitley years ago for Selling Power magazine: 

Gerhard Gschwandtner (GG): You have studied the success patterns of some of the greatest achievers around the world. What are the three most common characteristics these winners share? 

Dr. Waitley: The first would be high self-esteem, the feeling of your own worth. The second, the realization that you have the responsibility for choosing your own destiny. The healthiest, most successful people I've seen exercise their privilege to choose. The power of choosing their destinies puts them in charge of their lives. The third characteristic would be creative imagination to translate dreams into specific goals.

GG: What is your definition of a winner?
Dr. Waitley: A winner is, in my opinion, an individual who is progressively pursuing and having some success at reaching a goal that he has set for him or herself, a goal that is attained for the benefit, rather than at the expense, of others.

GG: Do you think that there is an overemphasis on winning?
Dr. Waitley: The idea of winning has been misunderstood and overexposed. It's associated with flying through airports, driving fast cars, or standing over a fallen adversary. I've seen salespeople who were making six-figure incomes, thinking that they had won. They thought winning was reaching a certain financial level or getting to a certain point. Thinking they have arrived, they stand still and go to the country club. Now their company expects more production but won't get it from them because they had the wrong idea. They didn't realize that winning is a continual process of improvement.

GG: In 1976, two researchers, Thomas Tutko and William Bruns, published a book entitled Winning Is Everything and Other American Myths. They wrote, "Winning, in fact, is like drinking saltwater; it will never quench your thirst. It is an insatiable greed. There are never enough victories, never enough championships or records. If we win, we take another gulp and have even greater fantasies."
Dr. Waitley: It is true. The American version of winning is to come on first at all costs, or expediency rather than integrity.

GG: Are you saying that people tend to get obsessed with winning at the expense of fulfillment?
Dr. Waitley: Definitely. I think athletics is the most dominant of all fields where payoff only comes to the winner, but there are notable exceptions. For example, in interviews with five US former Olympic decathlon winners, I found that their individual goals were to become the best they could, not necessarily the best in the world. These athletes have found fulfillment in recognizing and realizing their potential.

GG: Their gold medals are internal, not external.
Dr. Waitley: Exactly. The secret is to compare yourself against a standard that you have set. You measure yourself only against your last performance, not against another individual's.

GG: What is your definition of a loser?
Dr. Waitley: A loser is a person who has an abundance of opportunities to learn and successful role models everywhere but chooses not to try. I read the other day that only 10 percent of all Americans will ever buy or read a book. This means that 90 percent choose not to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available to everyone in this country. Our libraries are crammed full with enough information for anyone to be an expert in anything.

GG: Do you feel salespeople don't read enough?
Dr. Waitley: To me, the person who chooses not to read is more of a loser than the person who cannot read. I am not suggesting you need to be an intellectual in order to sell; I am just suggesting that if you want to move up, you definitely need the additional vocabulary.

GG: You wrote in your book The Winner's Edge, "Real success in life has no relationship to a gifted birth, talent, or IQ. Would you include gender?
Dr. Waitley: Yes, and I would include race, as well.

GG: Whether you are a saleswoman or a salesman, it doesn't make a difference?
Dr. Waitley: It doesn't make a difference. In fact, there are advantages to both.

GG: Where do you see the edge a woman has in selling?
Dr. Waitley: A woman has the edge of being more gifted earlier in the area of verbal communication. She has a better grasp of nonverbal signals, and she is able to show more empathy in recognizing customer needs. Women are more process oriented. Society, however, has positively conditioned a man to believe that the world is his oyster, and he's been taught to risk in order to get rewards. Women have been taught to seek security. I think women need to be more risk oriented to create security. I also think that men need to learn how to listen more before taking risks.

GG: You have analyzed many winners. I wonder how we can ever know objectively how and why winners win.
Dr. Waitley: I don't think we can put it into a formula. But we can study people who have overcome obstacles. I studied people from every walk of life – hostages, POWs, astronauts, sports figures, and sales achievers – to see if they have anything in common. There are surprising similarities.

GG: Let me rephrase my question. Look at history as an example. The country that wins the war gets to write the history books. History becomes the tale of the winner. If you translate this to people, winners get to tell their stories in interviews. Winners are the most interviewed people in this country. Do you think that they give us an objective picture? Is high performance an objective science or a speculative science?
Dr. Waitley: It's a speculative science. But instead of comparing their methods on achieving success, we need to compare patterns of achievement and see how those patterns overlap. Also, we need to review their thoughts and actions during their worst times. Personally, I've learned more from the worst times than I have from the best moments of my life.

GG: Do you suggest that the strength of winners often depends on how they manage disappointment?
Dr. Waitley: Absolutely. When I studied the adversities faced by leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney, Thomas A. Edison, and Golda Meir, I learned much more than by analyzing some of the great statements or decisions they made. When winners stand on the pedestal, they tend to gloss over what it took to get from the dream to reality.

GG: Why?
Dr. Waitley: It's a human tendency to gloss over the difficulties and remember only the great breakthroughs. Many sales executives focus on the gloss and overlook the real opportunities.

GG: How can we learn from our disappointments in a way that enhances our growth?
Dr. Waitley: Most people never go beyond the adolescent view of failure. They say, "If they laugh at me, it isn't worth learning from the experience." Adolescents tend to believe that performance is the same as the performer. They take individual achievements as marks of their own self-esteem. The healthy individual views failure as a temporary setback. The stumbling block becomes the stepping stone. A better example would be the kid who got new ice skates for Christmas. He goes out on the ice and falls on his head. His mother comforts him by saying, "Why don't you come in and put your skates away," and he says, "Mom, I didn't get my skates to fail with; I got my skates to learn with. What I'll do is keep practicing until I know how to do it right."

GG: Disappointment seems to lead up to a choice between seeking comfort and seeking solutions.
Dr. Waitley: Exactly.

GG: We are reluctant to grow and seek solutions because it's painful.
Dr. Waitley: Right. Eighty percent of all people view growing pain as too uncomfortable or unacceptable. Only 20 percent recognize it as a learning experience.

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