On Being a High-Performance “Contender”

I recently saw the movie “On the Waterfront“, starring Marlon Brando. It was a phenomenal movie and I can undersand why it’s considered a classic.

In it, Brando’s character delivers his famous line: “I coulda been a contender!” He had been an amateur boxer on the rise, but took a dive in a key match when the local mob boss promised him money on the backside – which caused his boxing career to die on the spot. He never had another shot.

“I coulda been a contender!” The scene and story are memorable because Brando’s character was not really concerned with becoming the champion – meaning, the top 1% of boxers in his class. He simply wanted to be considered a contender. He knew he had what it took to at least be a serious competitor, had he not thrown it all away.

You could say the same of the first “Rocky” movie. Rocky Balboa did not really think he could beat Apollo Creed; he simply wanted to “go the distance” with the champion. Rocky wanted to be taken seriously as a boxer – and he knew that he would be noticed if he could do what nobody else had done and last all 12 rounds with Creed, rather than lose by knockout.


Becoming a real contender is still an achievement – it means getting into the top 20% of the Pareto Distribution. The top 1% is generally reserved for those with God-given talent: Warren Buffett, Michael Jordan, Luciano Pavarotti, etc. These are the people who were destined for greatness in their fields by virtue of irreproducible talent. The regular people like us are never going to beat them at their own games. The top 20%, meanwhile, is an enormously more broad strata – but still exclusive. To be a contender means something significant. It can still pay off handsomely.

I think the “contender” mindset in your professional life is a positive one. In order to be a contender, you have to push yourself – which is not always comfortable. It requires you to put yourself out there and take on responsibilty – volunteering to lead a project, take an important certification test, spearhead the resolution of a major problem, etc. This is what differentiates the high-performance contributors from the worker bees, and it requires initiative.

This can be a painful experience, because it opens you up to larger degrees of failure – which will be public. Your coworkers, bosses, and peers will know it if you drop the ball. Many people are afraid of public failure; they would rather eke out a life in relative mediocrity than risk public failure. This is a mental barrier which you have to cross in order to become a contender – and not just once, but potentially multiple times. You must risk failure – If and when you experience public failure, you’ll need to be able to put yourself out there once again where others will evaluate your performance.

The vast majority of people are content to be invisible – meaning, falling into the bottom 80% of all professionals in their field. They do not stand out as “high performance” workers; on the contrary, they fear standing out. The more they stand out, the higher the risk that they face critical evaluation. Of course, they do not want to end up in the bottom 20% of productivity – this is the ever-present risk of accepting mediocrity. This is when you are not merely invisible but expendable. These are the people who are the first to receive pink slips when times get tough.

The key to becoming a contender in your field is this: How can you provide specific value? What unique talents or skills are at your disposal which can help you be more productive than the average worker in your position? This requires critical self-evaluation and a willingness to recognize your limitations. You need to be able to identify what skills you do NOT excel in so that you can focus on the skills in which you DO excel.

This brings us back to an earlier point – the fear of failure. Identifying your talents may involve identifying areas of a LACK of a talent, which can mean experiencing failure. But you will never identify your skills and shortcomings without being willing to test yourself and step outside of your comfort zone. That acceptance of the risk of failure is what it means to truly be a “contender”.


How can you become a contender? It’s easy to say things like “adopt the contender mindset”, but it’s not always clear what this means in practical terms. If you want to start on the path to becoming a contender, I recommend these steps in order:

1. Identify your skills and capitalize on them. You need to be honest with yourself about what you can, and cannot, do for a living. I think some of the worst career advice I ever received was “Do what you love.” Much better advice is this: “Do what you’re good at that you don’t also hate doing.” It doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it makes more sense. If you’re trying to build a career in country music but can’t sing or play guitar to save your life, then you need to rethink your efforts. You will never be a contender if you are not capitalizing on actual skills.

2. Look for opportunities to take responsibility. Is there a consistent problem that shows up in your workplace over and over? Is there an inefficiency that is worsening productivity? Is there a floundering project that needs real leadership? These are the opportunities that you need to look for. The lowest 80% of employees look at these situations and think, “Someone should take care of this.” The top 20% – the contenders – look at these situations and roll up their sleeves. “I’LL take care of this.

3. Keep learning. You should never stop looking for opportunities to learn and grow your skillset. There is always some new technology, platform, or process you can be learning to make yourself more productive and useful wherever you go. I recommend always having at least one job-related skill you are trying to learn at any given time. The longer you go without pushing yourself to learn, the more your ability to learn atrophies.

4. Start a blog or website. This is an idea that I take with great seriousness. Your own professional website has two purposes: 1) To push you to keep learning about your industry, and 2) to demonstrate your status as a contender to other people. In that sense, think of your website as a highly glorified business card. Pre-internet, high-falutin’ businessmen used fancy business cards as a way of establishing their presence as a contender. (“Gasp! It even has a watermark!”) Zoom ahead to 2021, and business cards are almost quaint – you need a well-designed and regularly updated website.

Follow these 4 steps, and you will be on your way to becoming a true contender.


There is, of course, nothing wrong with striving to be the top 1% in your field – the champions. But realistically, not everyone can be the champion. You should never feel like a failure for not being the champion in spite of truly doing your best, because some people simply have inherent talents which you will not be able to replicate. Such is life.

But you should always strive to be able to call yourself a contender among your peers. When others in the workplace need help, they should view you as someone who can be relied upon to be independently productive. You don’t need to be the champion to be considered someone of high-performance and high-value – you just need to be a contender.

Categories: The IT Philosopher

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