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John Wooden: The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of John Wooden’s TED Talk: The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding…

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The difference between winning and succeeding by John Wooden

John Wooden – American basketball player

I coined my own definition of success in 1934, when I was teaching at a high school in South Bend, Indiana, being a little bit disappointed, and disillusioned perhaps, by the way parents of the youngsters in my English classes expected their youngsters to get an A or a B. They thought a C was all right for the neighbors’ children, because they were all average.

But they weren’t satisfied when their own — it would make the teacher feel that they had failed, or the youngster had failed. And that’s not right. The good Lord in his infinite wisdom didn’t create us all equal as far as intelligence is concerned, any more than we’re equal for size, appearance.

Not everybody could earn an A or a B, and I didn’t like that way of judging, and I did know how the alumni of various schools back in the ’30s judged coaches and athletic teams. If you won them all, you were considered to be reasonably successful — not completely.

Because I found out — we had a number of years at UCLA where we didn’t lose a game. But it seemed that we didn’t win each individual game by the margin that some of our alumni had predicted. And quite frequently I really felt that they had backed up their predictions in a more materialistic manner. But that was true back in the 30s, so I understood that.

But I didn’t like it, I didn’t agree with it. I wanted to come up with something I hoped could make me a better teacher, and give the youngsters under my supervision, be it in athletics or the English classroom, something to which to aspire, other than just a higher mark in the classroom, or more points in some athletic contest.

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I thought about that for quite a spell, and I wanted to come up with my own definition. I thought that might help. And I knew how Mr Webster defined it, as the accumulation of material possessions or the attainment of a position of power or prestige, or something of that sort, worthy accomplishments perhaps, but in my opinion, not necessarily indicative of success.

So I wanted to come up with something of my own. And I recalled — I was raised on a small farm in Southern Indiana, and Dad tried to teach me and my brothers that you should never try to be better than someone else. I’m sure at the time he did that, I didn’t — it didn’t — well, somewhere, I guess in the hidden recesses of the mind, it popped out years later. Never try to be better than someone else, always learn from others. Never cease trying to be the best you can be — that’s under your control.

If you get too engrossed and involved and concerned in regard to the things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.

Then I ran across this simple verse that said, “At God’s footstool to confess, a poor soul knelt, and bowed his head. ‘I failed!’ he cried. The Master said, ‘Thou didst thy best, that is success.'” From those things, and one other perhaps, I coined my own definition of success, which is: Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable. I believe that’s true.

If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success, and I don’t think others can judge that; it’s like character and reputation — your reputation is what you’re perceived to be; your character is what you really are.

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And I think that character is much more important than what you are perceived to be. You’d hope they’d both be good, but they won’t necessarily be the same. Well, that was my idea that I was going to try to get across to the youngsters. I ran across other things.

I love to teach, and it was mentioned by the previous speaker that I enjoy poetry, and I dabble in it a bit, and love it. There are some things that helped me, I think, be better than I would have been. I know I’m not what I ought to be, what I should be, but I think I’m better than I would have been if I hadn’t run across certain things.

One was just a little verse that said, “No written word, no spoken plea can teach our youth what they should be; nor all the books on all the shelves — it’s what the teachers are themselves.” That made an impression on me in the 1930s.

And I tried to use that more or less in my teaching, whether it be in sports, or whether it be in the English classroom. I love poetry and always had an interest in that somehow. Maybe it’s because Dad used to read to us at night, by coal oil lamp — we didn’t have electricity in our farm home. And Dad would read poetry to us. So I always liked it.

And about the same time I ran across this one verse, I ran across another one. Someone asked a lady teacher why she taught, and after some time, she said she wanted to think about that. Then she came up and said, “They ask me why I teach, and I reply, ‘Where could I find such splendid company?’

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