10 More Life and Business Lessons From John Wooden - rocketMBA.com
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10 More Life and Business Lessons From Legendary C...

10 More Life and Business Lessons From Legendary Coach John Wooden

If you missed it, check out Part 1 of our John Wooden lessons. I thought there was still a lot more to UCLA’s legendary basketball coach than I could cover in the first post, so here is a continuation of the list.

11. The only failure is a failure of preparation

Wooden says that mistakes happen, but the only time we have truly failed is if we fail to prepare and fail to give our best effort. Wooden was known to instill discipline in his players, even to tiny points of detail such as the height of their socks.

Wooden writes, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Importantly, he also says, “If you prepare properly, you may be outscored but you will never lose…You always win when you make the full effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

I think the parallel of this is that we often fall into the trap of judging ourselves and others by outcomes, rather than inputs. Outputs are easy to measure, whereas inputs are much harder to measure. Yet, luck plays a much larger role in our lives than we think, and we have no control over the luck we have. Wooden’s thoughts on preparation and failure are therefore liberating because it allows us to focus on the inputs – and what we can control – rather than the outputs, which we have less control over.

12. Take responsibility

This sounds trite, but in addition to not preparing, Wooden describes the other way you can fail – by not taking personal responsibility. He states, “You can make mistakes, but you aren’t a failure until you start blaming others for those mistakes.”

13. Learn from past mistakes, but don’t second guess yourself

Wooden writes, “If I put a substitution in during a game at UCLA and he immediately makes a mistake, even a stupid mistake, was my decision wrong? Absolutely not. It just didn’t work out…Things don’t always work out. It’s also true in life.”

Many of us easily fall into the trap of thinking about past decisions, especially the ones that did not work out and beat ourselves up about not choosing another option. Wooden says this is wasted energy and effort, and that we need to be at peace with our past decisions, accept them, and move on.

14. Goals/dreams should be a mix of idealism and realism

This one really struck me, especially in light of the prevalence of Silicon Valley’s maxims of thinking big and disrupting the world. Wooden writes, “Wanting an unattainable goal will eventually produce a feeling of ‘What’s the use?’ That feeling can carry over into other areas. That is bad.”

Wooden says that dreams should be difficult but achievable, and within the realm of possibility. He writes, “I never dreamed about winning a national championship. It happened before I even thought it was possible. What I was dreaming about each year, if you want to call it that, was trying to produce the best basketball team we could be. My thoughts were directed toward preparation, our journey, not the results of the effort.”

I think this is a much more liberating way to think about life rather than having one overarching dream that we have to achieve in order for us to feel our lives are “fulfilled.” How often do we attain something, thinking that it will make us happy and fulfilled, and that turns out not to be the case? As Wooden says, the journey is the important part.

15. Make mistakes; it means you are doing something

Wooden writes, “My coach at Purdue, Piggy Lambert, constantly reminded us: ‘The team that makes the most mistakes will probably win.’ That sounds a bit odd, but there is a great deal of truth in it. The doer makes mistakes.”

I really liked this point. Taking risks and playing to win means you will make mistakes. That route is much better than trying to win by minimizing mistakes and playing to not lose.

16. Be willing to adapt

Wooden talks about how he initially had a very strict dress code for his UCLA players when they traveled, but he loosened those restrictions as time went on and the culture changed. He realized what he valued was a clean and professional look; he didn’t value his players wearing a coat and tie.

Wooden writes, “Failure to change is often just stubbornness that comes from an unwillingness to learn, an inability to recognize that you’re not perfect.”

17. Avoid comparing yourself to others

What Wooden writes on this truly resonated with me. He says, “If I’m worrying about the other guy and what he’s doing, about what he’s making, about all the attention he’s getting, I’m not going to be able to do what I’m capable of doing. It’s a guaranteed way to make yourself miserable. Envy, jealousy, and criticism can become cancerous. They hurt the person who feels them rather than the person they’re directed toward.”

18. As a leader, treating others fairly does not mean treating them all equally

Wooden writes, “Fairness is giving all people the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone alike. That’s unfair, because everyone doesn’t earn the same treatment…You must begin by determining exactly what is fair. That means you must eliminate prejudice of all types. Can you do it 100 percent? Probably not, but you can try.”

19. Lead with pride as a motivator, not fear

Wooden writes, “Fear may work in the short term to get people to do something, but over the long run I believe personal pride is a much greater motivator. It produces far better results that last for a much longer time.”

One of the most interesting things I have seen that highlights the power of incentives and the importance of people feeling pride occurred in the Singapore airport. In the bathrooms of the airport, the individual responsible for cleaning that bathroom has a picture of his/her face at the bathroom entrance. As a leader of the airport said, this helps the bathroom attendant feel ownership and pride in their work. I think Wooden would be a fan of that idea.

20. Wooden’s definition of success

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

I highly recommend that you get a copy of the book “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court“. I hope it will become a fixture on your bookshelf as it has on mine for so many years.


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Before graduating from Stanford GSB with an MBA in 2016, Alex worked for three years in public equity investing. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Alex enjoys hanging out at the beach with friends, playing basketball, and learning about history. He currently works in Equity Research in Downtown LA.

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