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Competition is For Losers: What the Story of Richard Williams Can Teach Law Students

One of my main intellectual inspirations is Peter Thiel. Thiel´s book Zero to One is a must read for aspiring entrepreneurs, legal or otherwise. Thiel has a slogan that I have adopted as an article of faith, but that will seem counterintuitive and impossible to fathom for most law students right now – competition is for losers.

Law school can be a horrible experience for many people because almost all the students are super-type A high achievers and they are all put in a hypercompetitive environment that is specifically designed to generate winners and losers. There are only so many A-grades to go around, only so many top jobs at law firms to go around, only so many clerkships to go around, etc. The students are smart and recognize immediately that the system is not set up for everyone to succeed and most, because of their type-A personalities, dive headfirst into the competition and try to win it. 

Unfortunately, most law students cannot fathom the above advice from Thiel. What is worse is that their personalities prevent them from taking a step back and analyzing whether entering the competition is good for them or even what they want. Most law students will never ask themselves questions about this competition, such as:

Do I even want to work on Bay Street?

What kind of lawyer do I want to be?

Where do my unique abilities lie and where, in the very wide field of law, are they most useful?

Do I enjoy crude jokes or am I an asshole who enjoys playing golf?

What do I actually want to do with my life?

Am I living for my own dreams or the dreams of my parents who may not know what the fuck they are talking about?

I did not ask myself any of these questions when I was in law school. I just charged headfirst into the competition without thinking anything other than the fact that if there is a competition, I have to win it.

But years of experience have taught me the wisdom of Peter Thiel´s words. it is my view that the best strategy you can adopt in life is to avoid competition. Create a business, a brand, a strategy – something – that is uniquely yours, using skills and assets that are uniquely yours. That gives you the best chance to both earn the most money you can, but also to avoid the psychological and mental health fallout of being in, as Thiel referred to it at his Wall Street firm, a tournament that never ends.

If you doubt Thiel´s maxim, consider for a moment the story of Richard Williams, father of tennis legends Venus and Serena. The story goes that Richard Williams was watching the 1978 French Open Final and saw Virginia Ruzici win the final and was shocked when he saw the size of the $100,000 cheque handed to her for winning. He then wrote a 78–page plan. Venus was born in 1980 and her stronger and more athletic sister Serena was born just over a year later in 1981. When the two sisters were between four and five years old, he would take a shopping cart and fill it with used tennis balls from a tennis club in Los Angeles, some distance away from where he and his family lived in Compton. He would then take his daughters to the public tennis courts in Compton and teach them to serve big and hit the ball with power from everywhere on the court.

Imagine how most people would have reacted to Richard Williams hauling a shopping cart to a tennis club in a different part of Los Angeles to collect old tennis balls? Or even how most of the people of Compton reacted to this scene as they played basketball, baseball or football? Most people probably thought they were crazy.

For all those people who thought they were crazy, the reality of the genius of Richard Williams cannot be denied. Venus has earned $41.8 million and Serena has earned $92.7 million in their tennis careers and Serena is hands down the best female tennis player of all time. The dissonance between what most people probably thought and reality is very important to take note of if you ever want to have the courage to avoid the competitive fray you are in and have the courage to try something that has not been tried before.

There is one major factor that made Richard Williams´ plan work so well and that is Thiel´s maxim that competition is for losers. I do not know if this was in Richard Williams´ mind when he watched that French Open final in 1978, though I suspect that it was. When Richard Williams formulated his plan, most black Americans did not pursue tennis. Black Americans are very often vastly superior athletes to their white counterparts and have advantages in many sports. Tennis is one of the sports they have advantages in because it relies on speed, athleticism and power, but very few black Americans were taking advantage of this until Richard Williams came along with his 78-page plan in 1978.

If you doubt that this is a major factor in the success of the Williams´ sisters, imagine the alternative if Venus and Serena had joined the most competitive fray in their milieu and had pursued the sports that are most popular amongst black Americans, like basketball or baseball. We almost certainly would never have heard of them. Women´s tennis went through a kind of low period in the late 90s when it was dominated by dainty white girls like Martina Hingis and Justine Henin. Venus and Serena came onto the scene playing a version of power tennis that just blew everyone in the field away. Now, whether it is Serena or #SheTheNorth gem Bianca Andreescu, it is a much more exciting brand of power tennis that dominates the women´s game.

Whether he knew it or not, Richard Williams greatly increased the chances of the success of his plan by pursuing a sport that was not a popular sport among black Americans because competition is for losers. I felt this impulse recently when I went to a hockey arena with my son for a skating lesson and saw a parent pounding on the glass and saying to his six-year old son, “Hustle Matty! Hustle! Hustle! Hustle!” There is no way I can compete with this parent and nor do I wish to. Hockey is the least likely sport that my son will ever achieve anything meaninful because it is the most competitive in Canada.

Law students ought to be aware of this phenomenon. Peter Thiel walked out of his Wall Street law firm after 7 months and started a business that initially involved selling Pez dispensers in an online community. Most people must have thought that he was out of his mind. That business grew to become eBay and turned him into a billionaire. Meanwhile, Wall Street lawyers are mostly miserable labouring away in a tournament that never ends. Similarly, the aspiring basketball, baseball and football players in the Compton area of Los Angeles that Venus and Serena grew up in are very unlikely to have achieved anything of significance in those much more popular sports among black Americans.

Law students: if you are reading this blog, you must understand that there is a way forward other than diving headfirst into the competition and that is to stay away from the competitive fray and try to create something that has not been tried before. Yes there are risks in choosing this path, but what is often not considered is there are also risks in entering the competitive fray and failing or even “succeeding” and being miserable. Very often a problem arises in the analysis for law students because the risks of creating something new are overstated and the risks of entering the competitive fray are understated or not properly understood. Remember that the vast majority of people snickered at Richard Williams with his shopping cart full of used tennis balls and the vast majority of Wall Street lawyers gasped at Thiel walking out of his law firm.

Three things shuold be obvious from the story of Richard Williams: 1) thanks to him, women´s tennis is awesome, 2) most people have no idea what the fuck they are talking about and, most importantly, 3) competition is for losers.




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