Eric Berne on Winners and Losers

The psychiatrist Eric Berne created transactional analysis for psychotherapy and authored 8 books on psychiatry and human psychology, the most famous is the 1964 Games People Play. Berne defines a winner has having four key qualities:


  1. A winner fulfills his contract with the world and with himself.
  2. A winner says,  “I made a mistake, but it won’t happen again.”
  3. A winner knows what he’ll do next if he loses, but doesn’t talk about it.
  4. A winner says, “I won’t let that happen again,” and doesn’t.

These are taken from a series of lectures on the psychology of sex at UC San Francisco 1966 that were collected in 1970 as “Sex in Human Loving.” There are four asides in the book where Berne talks about winners and losers, here are four excerpts with some additional commentary on applying them to entrepreneurship.

Fulfill Your Contract With The World and Yourself

“A winner is defined as a person who fulfills his contract with the world and with himself. That is, he sets out to do something, says that he is committed to doing it, and in the long run does it. […] If he accomplishes his goal, he is a winner.”
Eric Berne

There are many ways to define success as an entrepreneur. My favorite is creating value for your customers, employees, partner, and community in a way that is sustainable.

Winner Test: What are the promises you made to yourself, your team, and your customers when you started your business? Are they written down? Have you reviewed them in the last three months?

A Winner Says “I Made a Mistake”

A winner says things like: “I made a mistake, but it won’t happen again” or “Now I know the right way to do it.” A loser says, “If only…” or “I should have …” and “Yes, but …”
Eric Berne

If you cannot commit to accurate retrospectives and after action analysis it’s very hard to improve. One formula to remember is to replace “if only” with “next time.” The single biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is to get the value equation backwards and try and capture more value than you create. Sustainable business relationships must offer an advantage to all parties over competing alternatives.

Winner Test: Have you taken a look at mistakes you have made in the last three months? If not find time this week.

A Winner Has A Plan If He Loses

“The best way to tell a winner from a loser is this: a winner is someone who knows what he’ll do next if he loses, but doesn’t talk about it; a loser is one who doesn’t know what he’ll do if he loses, but talks about what he will do if he wins.”
Eric Berne

Ambitious plans energize a team, offer a vision of a possible future that excites prospects and potential partners, and enable you to raise the bar against the status quo. But they have to be tempered by backup plans and well considered alternatives that enable you to make your commitments to yourself and your customers.

Winner Test: What’s Plan A for this year? What’s Plan B? What’s Plan C? What are the three most significant risks you are trying to manage?

A Winner Makes New Mistakes

A winner is a person who sets out to do something he decides to do and gets it done if it’s possible; if he doesn’t get it right the first time, he gets it right the next time. He knows that everybody makes mistakes–except winners. […] A winner says, “I won’t let that happen again,” and doesn’t.
Eric Berne

Nothing new ever works and any successful innovation–reducing an invention to practice in a business culture to have a positive impact–requires experimentation, tinkering,  and trial and error. Sometimes you should try the same again once or twice to make sure that there were not confounding factors you overlooked, but pretty quickly you have to be varying your approach. It’s less out reducing errors than better aligning your solution with your customer’s needs.

Winner Test: What are three mistakes you made last year you don’t want to repeat? What are three new things are you trying this year that may not work?

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