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

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

John Wooden

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.

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.

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?’

There sits a statesman, strong, unbiased, wise; another Daniel Webster, silver-tongued. A doctor sits beside him, whose quick, steady hand may mend a bone, or stem the life-blood’s flow. And there a builder; upward rise the arch of a church he builds, wherein that minister may speak the word of God, and lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.

And all about, a gathering of teachers, farmers, merchants, laborers — those who work and vote and build and plan and pray into a great tomorrow. And I may say, I may not see the church, or hear the word, or eat the food their hands may grow, but yet again I may.

And later I may say, I knew him once, and he was weak, or strong, or bold or proud or gay. I knew him once, but then he was a boy. They ask me why I teach and I reply, ‘Where could I find such splendid company?’ And I believe the teaching profession — it’s true, you have so many youngsters, and I’ve got to think of my youngsters at UCLA — 30-some attorneys, 11 dentists and doctors, many, many teachers and other professions. And that gives you a great deal of pleasure, to see them go on.

I always tried to make the youngsters feel that they’re there to get an education, number one; basketball was second, because it was paying their way, and they do need a little time for social activities. But you let social activities take a little precedence over the other two, and you’re not going to have any very long.

So that was the idea that I tried to get across to the youngsters under my supervision. I had three rules, pretty much, that I stuck with practically all the time. I’d learned these prior to coming to UCLA, and I decided they were very important. One was “Never be late.”

Later on I said certain things — the players, if we were leaving for somewhere, had to be neat and clean. There was a time when I made them wear jackets and shirts and ties. Then I saw our chancellor coming to school in denims and turtlenecks, and thought, it’s not right for me to keep this other rule, so I let them just — they had to be neat and clean.

I had one of my greatest players that you probably heard of, Bill Walton. He came to catch the bus; we were leaving for somewhere to play. And he wasn’t clean and neat, so I wouldn’t let him go. He couldn’t get on the bus, he had to go home and get cleaned up to get to the airport. So I was a stickler for that. I believed in that. I believe in time; very important.

I believe you should be on time, but I felt at practice, for example — we start on time, we close on time. The youngsters didn’t have to feel that we were going to keep them over. When I speak at coaching clinics, I often tell young coaches — and at coaching clinics, more or less, they’ll be the younger coaches getting in the profession. Most of them are young, you know, and probably newly-married. And I tell them, “Don’t run practices late, because you’ll go home in a bad mood, and that’s not good, for a young married man to go home in a bad mood. When you get older, it doesn’t make any difference, but –”

So I did believe: on time I believe starting on time, and I believe closing on time. And another one I had was, not one word of profanity. One word of profanity, and you are out of here for the day. If I see it in a game, you’re going to come out and sit on the bench.

And the third one was, never criticize a teammate. I didn’t want that I used to tell them, I was paid to do that. That’s my job. I’m paid to do it. Pitifully poor, but I am paid to do it. Not like the coaches today, for gracious sakes, no. It’s a little different than it was in my day. Those were three things that I stuck with pretty closely all the time. And those actually came from my dad.

That’s what he tried to teach me and my brothers at one time. I came up with a pyramid eventually, that I don’t have the time to go on that. But that helped me, I think, become a better teacher. It’s something like this: And I had blocks in the pyramid, and the cornerstones being industriousness and enthusiasm, working hard and enjoying what you’re doing, coming up to the apex, according to my definition of success. And right at the top, faith and patience.

And I say to you, in whatever you’re doing, you must be patient. You have to have patience to — we want things to happen. We talk about our youth being impatient a lot, and they are. They want to change everything. They think all change is progress.

And we get a little older — we sort of let things go. And we forget there is no progress without change. So you must have patience, and I believe that we must have faith. I believe that we must believe, truly believe. Not just give it word service, believe that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should.

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