The outlandish success of John Wooden, arguably the greatest college basketball to have ever lived, is mesmerizing. It was a stunning anomaly of consistent dominance and reliable consistency, in a sport otherwise characterized by madness and unpredictability. UCLA’s unparalleled run during the late 60’s and early 70’s will likely never be repeated, a triumph of achievement attained by an unprepossessing figure eminent in modest qualities like humility, industriousness, and patience.
Though the 20th century now seems a distant daydream, legacies deteriorate less fervidly. Wooden won 10 national championships in 12 years, 7 of them consecutively; he won 88 straight games, a record that remains unbroken in men’s college basketball; he won 38 straight NCAA tournament games; he coached the Bruins to 4 perfect seasons. This flurry of achievement, this spell of hardwood magic, was rooted in a simplistic philosophy that is largely summarized in Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success.” As you begin 2024, no doubt with a collation of objectives perambulating about your conscience, consider these quotations from Wooden on your journey forward. Rudimentary, but powerful, all these years later they still ring with the resonance of truth.
“Make each day your masterpiece.”
The genealogy of this quote is convoluted, as many historical figures have made remarks of a similar ilk, including Abraham Lincoln, who Wooden himself was deeply enamored with. Like many of Wooden’s adages, his rumination here is one shrouded in simplistic terminology, but is still nonetheless profoundly powerful. It implicitly beckons others to be observant, alert, and attune to the mundane miracles ceaselessly moving about them.
The word “masterpiece” is a noun, plainly referring to “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.” Achieving such work, living in such a manner, is certainly an ambiguous notion, but it can be clarified by remaining mindful of merely the two footfalls directly in front of you. Dedicating oneself to the moment will not only absolve you of future doubts and past heresies; it will enliven you to the potential of the present, the opportunity to direct your energy toward the immediate fruition of something meaningful.
Here, Wooden is reminding others to live for today; to employ one’s ingenuity into making a masterpiece of one’s immediate landscape, one precious moment at a time.
“Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
In this quote, Wooden espouses what essentially amounts to a personal philosophy deeply indebted to the ideas of the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics. The Stoics, like Wooden, consistently preached how deleterious it was for the soul to dwell incessantly on outside circumstances. They therefore dogmatically preached the significance of moderating the impact of external variables, flitting and unpredictable, through steadfast regulation of individual temperament. The only thing under their control, or anyone’s, was the disposition of their response to environmental vicissitudes.
Wooden was an acolyte to this sentiment, advocating calm even upon the onset of adversity. Wooden’s teams reflected his own unflappability, exemplifying poise and fluidity on the court. Basketball, for Wooden, was a metaphor for life. As in basketball, life too was replete with myriad setbacks. The measure of any person was therefore the choices they elected to make when confronted with such tempests.
“Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.”
It is frightfully easy to enlist pliant subordinates in our service. Especially if one is in a position of authority, a congregation of “yes-men” can be comfortable. Tawdry compliments from eager supplicants is intoxicating, a growing addiction warping one’s ego and sense of self-importance.
Friends, however, who offer nothing but placation and saccharine words are not your friends. A person cannot develop in a small room buffeted by soft walls. When inventorying your relationships, ensure that the people surrounding you are forthright and honest, willing to disagree, outspoken in their critiques. More often than not, you’ll find in them contrasting perspectives far more valuable to your overall welfare than unabashedly sycophantic encomiums from self-seeking individuals.
“Happiness begins where selfishness ends.”
Our current social landscape is one saturated with selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and self-obsession. One need only glance at their social media feed to see that even acts of selflessness, displays of purported altruism, often ironically necessitate broadcasting to the broader world. Even when we seek to give, thus, it becomes more an act of self-validation than genuine concern for the welfare of another individual.
To Wooden, who viewed himself as a teacher, life was imbued with luster only through service to others. Many of us, I’d wager, can relate.
Imagine, for an instant, that you’re caught in the doldrums of a wearisome day, your stresses have accumulated and congealed into an upsetting casserole, and you desire nothing more than the soft comfort of your bedroom pillow. Suddenly, your phone vibrates and begrudgingly, you answer. It’s a close friend, calling in a fright, embroiled in a nest of anxiety, desperately seeking counsel or an eager ear to whisper their travails. Being a loyal friend, you engage in the simple practice of actively listening to their bereavements, offering feedback when appropriate, and promising to remain attendant to your friend should their problems worsen. Your friend thanks you profusely for your time.
Hanging up the phone, you feel slightly concerned, but also relieved. Others, you realize, are engaging with similar, perhaps even more extravagant, problems as you. For a few minutes, you have exited the world of your own apprehensions, entered the domain of another’s, and walked compassionately with them. Even if the feeling is fleeting, you experience a degree of serenity.
Helping others, even through seemingly trifling actions, offers sustenance to the spirit. In a world that often seems purposeless, service offers a sense purpose. Wooden understood that.
“Nothing will work unless you do.”
Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” offers a visual conceptualization of the building blocks necessary for a self-actualized character. While few of us can honestly attest to exhibiting these qualities without error, they are nonetheless a framework for what we ought to strive to be.
Implicit in any journey toward self-improvement is an uncomfortable acknowledgment that sporadically, even frequently, we will fall short of the lofty aspirations we’ve ascribed for ourselves. It is no wonder then, that Wooden’s admonition “nothing will work unless you do” offers some degree of solace. It strums a chord of self-acceptance, a recognition that as long as we put forward our most intrepid exertions, we will ultimately still be satisfied with the outcome.
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