How Do You Measure Success? Lessons from Coach John Wooden

Monday, September 08 2014

It was an exclusive event in Fall 2007. Only student-athletes at the University of California, Los Angeles, were allowed to attend the private presentation from legendary basketball coach John Wooden about his famous principles in the Pyramid of Success.

20140212 SUCCESS-COACHING-EFFORT coach-woodenI was an undergrad at UCLA at the time but was not a student-athlete. My three friends and my brother, who accompanied me, were not student-athletes either. But with rumors flying around of Coach Wooden’s ailing health and lessening public appearances, we knew we had to find a way to hear him speak. We snuck in to UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and sat in a corner in the back behind all of the student-athletes. Wearing our UCLA sweatshirts, no one seemed to notice us.


I remember he looked so small and fragile then. He spoke very gently, as if the words flowed directly from the kindness in his heart. You could really feel that what he was saying, he said with care.

This demeanor took me by surprise. I thought someone like Coach Wooden, a man who had won so many championships and set incredible athletic records, would be dripping with big fat championship rings on all fingers. I never imagined a person who had accomplished so much, could be so humble, and well, loving.

Maybe this came from his tough childhood years, growing up on a farm in rural Indiana, in a household struggling to make ends meet. Or, maybe it came from living and breathing the leadership principles he developed in his Pyramid of Success.

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

That day, he spoke about the 15 blocks in the Pyramid, which if executed with diligence, will lead to success in any endeavor. These principles are: industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, enthusiasm, self-control, alertness, initiative, intentness, condition, skill, team spirit, poise, confidence, competitive greatness, all united with faith and patience. Each block is equally as important as the next. There are four blocks in particular that made an impression on me during his presentation in Pauley Pavilion that day, and they have stayed with me since:

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

How do you get to this point? How do you “become the best you are capable of becoming”?

Well, for starters, begin with yourself. It never hurt anyone to focus on yourself, your needs, your strengths and weakness, and analyze how to turn them into strong habits or practices. Regardless of the project in front of you, you have the choice to prepare yourself to make sure you are fully ready for what is to come. This dedication, or industriousness, is the first cornerstone of the Pyramids’ foundation. Before games, Coach would tell his team, “Be concerned with your preparation, not theirs; your execution, not theirs; your effort and desire, not theirs. Don’t worry about them. Let them worry about you.” Put the effort into preparing yourself and doing the necessary grunt work. Some people show up at work and go through the motions like a robot, but is that really working? Are you really producing anything? Are you really focused on what you are doing and preparing, researching, and/or practicing to the fullest extent of your abilities? If the answer is no, then you are not being industrious.

The second cornerstone is enthusiasm. Coach would say, “you need to really like what you do”. In fact, why not love what you do. Because if you don’t, then what’s the point of doing it. If you are not enthusiastic and excited about what you are doing, then how will you be industrious? These two cornerstones go hand in hand. Without enthusiasm you won’t put in your total effort into the work in front of you to be industrious. As Coach says, “industriousness and enthusiasm are the engines of your success.”

The next block that made an impression on me and continues to drive the decisions I make when times get tough is self-control. “You cannot function effectively unless your emotions are under control,” Coach would say. This is why Coach Wooden did not do pre-game pep-talks, as former player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar relates in the book The Essential Wooden, “There was never any ‘You gotta go out and kill these guys’ talk from Coach Wooden to get us keyed up. He’d say, ‘I want you to go out there and do your best the way we practiced it.’ There was never any speech telling us to go out and ‘win this game!’ to get us charged up, no [emotional] juice he tried to put in the mix. We understood that if we played up to the standard he had set in practice, we’d probably win. If not, if we lost, he took the blame and tried to fix it the next practice. He was very focused, very intense. Always, always with his emotions under control.”

Think about it – how many times have you gotten angry at work, or frustrated with the way your boss organized the presentation you spent weeks preparing… did you let your emotions get the best of you? Did you say something to your boss, or coworker, out of negative emotion that you regret today? Coach says, “poor emotional control degrades the quality of your thinking, judgment and behavior. Rash decisions flow from emotionalism.” Another former player, Lynn Shackleford, remembers, “He used to tell us to walk out of the locker room after a game in such a way that nobody could tell if we won or lost. Coach wanted us to control our emotions always.” It takes a lot of courage and discipline to control ourselves. But with that self-control, the best decisions, focus, consistency and production can come forth.

The last block is competitive greatness: “A real love for the hard battle, knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required,” says Coach. This one is a constant challenge for me. I get impatient many times when something doesn’t turn out the way I want. Or irritated when it takes too long to finish my work, or reach whatever goal I have set for myself. But it’s that frustration that needs to be turned around. Coach says to reach competitive greatness you must enjoy the process, enjoy the journey you are on. Not everything can be smooth sailing. It’s about the struggle itself, the time when you are in the moment putting all of your skills and preparation to the test and actually enjoy going through a big challenge. Those difficult moments are when your personal best is called upon.

It’s up to you to utilize your effort in whatever shape or form you desire. And it’s up to you to utilize your effort positively to become successful: “The hard struggle is to be welcomed, never feared. In fact, when you define success this way, the only thing to fear is your own unwillingness to make the full 100 percent effort to prepare and perform at the highest level of your ability”, says Coach.

I’ll never forget that day listening to Coach Wooden speak. Pauley Pavilion is a grand athletic facility. You can hear echoes on the court and in the stands. But that day, one man sat in front of the entire student-athlete population at UCLA, about 600 people at the time, and there was a hush over the crowd. No one spoke. Everyone respectfully listened to Coach’s voice. He would even pause and recite, verbatim, passages from poems written by famous poets, and poems his former players had written to him.

Personally, as I make great shifts in my professional career, I constantly encounter challenges along the way. Change is a great thing, and definitely a necessary thing to evolve. But honestly, sometimes it’s scary, and I get frustrated and lose patience. I question everything I’m working for. The dreams I have seem so far out of my reach. I question my ability to lead my own life when there are so many ups and downs and social media tells me everyone is getting married and celebrating a work anniversary.

I remind myself of what Coach said in The Essential Wooden when he would judge his own success, he would judge “on the quality of my effort rather than how I stacked up in comparison to somebody else in basketball, the classroom, or life.”

So, I’m going to keep going. I’m going to execute my work with the highest quality of my effort. And remember what Coach said, “just do your best. That is success.”


Was this story helpful to you? What is your definition of success? Share your insights in the comment section below. We would love to hear from you!

At Womenalia, we encourage all women to enrich their professional and personal lives and to continue their education and development. Womenalia is here to provide you with the best material, resources, courses and books to put you at the top of your game. Work hard, and take care.


To learn more about Coach Wooden’s teachings and various publications, visit:

All about the Pyramid of Success
His TED Talk
UCLA Archives

By Sarah Barbod – find her at @SBarbod, and on her blog.

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