“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”–John Wooden (1910-2010)
John Robert Wooden was hired by UCLA as the head basketball coach in 1948.
In his first season, he took the team from an unimpressive 12-13 prior season to a team record season of 22-7, the most wins for UCLA since they started a basketball program in 1919.
But his success didn’t stop there.
Wooden went on to win 10 out of 12 years of NCAA championships, including a 7-year winning streak. No other team has won more than 4 since that time.
He became know as the Wizard of Westwood after winning an unheard of—88 consecutive games in a row.
Wooden is now widely considered one of the greatest coaches in the history of any sport.
Even before he became a coach, Wooden was the first player to be named All-American three times during his collegiate career. He was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1960, then as a coach in 1973.
Due to his stratospheric achievements, his coaching principles have been extrapolated beyond sports into life, business, and organizational success.
Imbedded within his teachings we find incredible (and counter-cultural) wisdom for how to live.
What can we glean from his principles today that we can apply to our own lives and our work?
How do you measure success?
With few exceptions, the modern world teaches us to create an external scoreboard.
How much money do you make?
What kind of car do you drive?
How big is your house?
What is your net worth?
Whether we consciously believe these things or not, our behavior often tells the story that we live to pursue external success.
Rarely in the modern world, do we encounter messages that tell us to focus on internal measures of success—independent of the results or outcome.
Wooden’s principles did just that.
He encouraged his players through his famous “Pyramid of Success” to build a foundation of character traits that would cause them to feel successful about themselves (internally)—regardless of whether they won games or not.
Zen teaching refers to the idea of nonattachment, which can be helpful in refocusing our perspective on input, instead of outcome.
But nonattachment doesn’t mean not caring about something. It is quite the opposite. It means giving your best effort, and accepting that your best effort is enough. It means walking that fine line between persisting, yet not forcing.
Outcomes are not guaranteed. Most of the time, they are not things we can control.
But what we have much greater control over how much effort we put in, and how we allow life situations to mold and shape our character.
Wooden began with simple ideas like hard work, or Industriousness.
“I have not known, heard of, or read about any individual anywhere who achieved real success without working extremely hard. In fact, the great successes we all know about are individuals who almost always have greatly outworked their competition.”
Wooden knew that teaching his players the core value of hard work would cause them to develop persistence, confidence, and hope—whether or not they won the game.
And those traits would stay with his players for a lifetime, not just a season.
Who you become on the inside is vastly more important than what you appear to achieve on the outside.
This is especially true in the long run.
The great philosopher Marcus Arelius said that “Ambition is tying your well-being to what other people say or do (i.e. external rewards). Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”
How much more peace could you have if you stopped measuring your success based on how other people responded?
I don’t know about you, but I find deep comfort in that statement. I have not lived most of my life that way, but I am beginning to change.
Getting to Pluto
I recently watched an incredible documentary on the New Horizons deep space mission to Pluto.
The initial planning for the mission began in 1992.
The team leader, Alan Stern, spent most of his career devoted to the project.
To say it was a massive undertaking doesn’t even begin to describe the meticulous complexity and scope.
When they finally launched the probe on January 19th, 2006, it would take nearly 10 years for the probe to actually arrive at Pluto, traveling at a speed of about 300 million miles per year, or 36,000 mph.
During the decade-long journey, any number of things could go wrong. Anything from simple equipment malfunctioning (it’s not like you can just send a repair guy up for a quick repair) to solar wind, to collision with space debris like asteroids.
By some miracle, the New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto on July 14, 2015, and began taking the first measures and images of the dwarf planet.
Learning about the planning and execution for this project just blew my mind.
And it teaches a vital lesson.
The work was extremely long and tedious, and the goal was so ambitious, a positive outcome was not only uncertain, but very unlikely!
I couldn’t help but think about the team leader Alan Stern. I wonder how many times he woke up at night worried that his life’s work might not pay off. Or that his beloved spacecraft would be destroyed by some microscopic unforeseen cosmic mishap. Or if they had made the slightest mathematical miscalculation. Or that the onboard computer would simply stop running.
What if he never achieved the external success of the probe reaching Pluto?
But I also wondered what kind of person he became by devoting himself to a project so grand, so difficult, that it required a level of devotion the likes of which most people will never experience.
My guess is that his internal success was extraordinary.
Astonishingly, the New Horizons probe is “still healthy” as of this post (January 2023) and still taking measurements of deep space beyond Pluto.
What if—as humans—we only undertook projects where the odds of success were really high?
If success isn’t guaranteed, should we simply not even bother trying?
How many great human achievements would be lost if we lived that way?
Focusing on internal success does two very important things: First, it allows us to feel successful even when we don’t get the result we wanted. Second, this perspective encourages us to try really hard things.
Conclusion and Action
In what area of your life can you begin to shift your scoreboard from external to internal?
Perhaps you aren’t where you want to be with your career.
Maybe you have a wayward child.
Maybe an important relationship is suffering.
Reflect on this—How do you currently measure success?
Maybe it’s time to take Wooden’s advice and change our definition of success.
Focus on input, not outcome.
Remember this—The process is the destination.
Take today’s post as your challenge to commit to something hard, even seemingly impossible. To focus on how it shapes you, not how you shape it.
May the sheer difficulty develop you into the person you want to become.
Your best effort is enough.
Give your best. Let life teach you. Then let everything else go.
Have a great weekend!
Want more? Suggested Resources
- John Wooden Official Website https://www.coachwooden.com/pyramid-of-success
- NASA page for New Horizons Mission https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/new-horizons/in-depth/#:~:text=New%20Horizons%20is%20a%20NASA,50%20AU%20from%20the%20Sun.
- New Horizon Mission Summary https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Horizons