Timeless Advice on Success From Coach John Wooden

  • 1
  • April 4, 2016

“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
– John Wooden

March Madness has always been a favorite pastime of mine; I went to my first tournament in 1994, at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, NY near my hometown. There is really nothing like it, especially when one of my teams, Syracuse (my parents are alumni) or now Kentucky or Louisville (I am happy to be a fair-weather fan!) go deep into the Tourney.

While of course the players demonstrate incredible feats of athleticism, what also is on display is coaching — for example, the excellent timing when Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim decided to bring on the full court press in the game against Virginia. So, it was fitting that I was recently forwarded John Wooden’s Ted Talk on the difference between winning and succeeding. Coach Wooden is the most successful NCAA Division I basketball coach of all time, having won 10 NCAA national championships within a 12-year span for the UCLA Bruins. Moreover, he is certainly one of the most revered coaches in the history of sports. However, the more I learn about Coach Wooden and his way of coaching and general philosophies on life, the more I understand how truly unique he was and how timeless his teachings are. I want to share with you some of his inspirational messages as well as an overview of his “Pyramid of Success” concept.

Defining Success

At the time of this TedTalk, Coach Wooden is 90 years old. He eloquently discusses how when he was just 24 years old, he came up with his own definition of success after observing how parents of students in his classroom saw success. As he contemplated his own definition, he thought about what his father taught him, including two key lessons: “Never try to be better than someone else,” and “always learn from others.”

From those teachings, as well his general experience, he coined his own definition of success: “Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” I had a teacher once drill into me the message “do the best and forget the rest,” which is essentially the same definition and is a lot easier said than done! But it is still a worthy goal for which to strive.

Coach Wooden’s definition of success is not the traditional one, which generally refers to the accomplishment of an aim, goal, popularity or profit. Coach Wooden defined success very differently, and this new definition of success allowed him to succeed in the conventional sense as well, which is both ironic and beautiful.

Pyramid of Success

Above all, Coach Wooden was a teacher and, like we talk so much about in the Unstoppable course, he was focused on helping his students/players be the best versions of themselves. Over 14 years, he developed his Pyramid of Success. Here is a quick rundown of the blocks of the pyramid, starting from the foundation and working up to the apex. It’s important to note that Coach Wooden’s faith played a big part in his life and coaching. Many of the building blocks are core values traced back to his faith, which is why he felt the mortar that kept the building blocks together were made up of Patience and Faith.

Row 1

  • Industriousness: In plain and simple English, this means hard work. Very hard work. There is no substitute for very hard work when it comes to success. Coach Wooden also mentioned planning as a key component to industriousness.
  • Friendship: The two qualities of friendship that are so important are respect and camaraderie. To me, these are the most noteworthy characteristics of true friendship as it pertains to leadership. Think how much you’ll give when asked to do so by someone you respect and with whom you share camaraderie. You will give all you’ve got.
  • Loyalty: Loyalty is part of our higher nature and it is also part of the nature of leaders who achieve higher goals. The power of loyalty is the reason it is placed in the center of the Pyramid’s foundation.
  • Cooperation: Sharing ideas, information, responsibilities, creativity and tasks is a priority of good leadership and great teams. This is Cooperation. (The only thing that is not shared is blame. A strong, confident leader gives credit to others, when deserved, and takes blame. A weak leader takes credit and gives blame.)
  • Enthusiasm: The two cornerstones of the Pyramid of Success, Industriousness and Enthusiasm, provide strength individually but much more strength when combined as one.

Row 2

  • Self-control: Getting to the top and staying there (somewhat different tasks) present unique and formidable challenges. To do either requires great self-control. This characteristic within the Pyramid of Success addresses the importance of controlling yourself in all areas, including avoiding temptations, avoiding emotionalism, avoiding peaks and valleys of effort.
  • Alertness: My favorite American hero is Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln once said that he never met a person from whom he did not learn something although most of the time it was something not to do. There is activity going on around us at all times from which we can acquire knowledge if we have alertness.
  • Initiative: Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all. Initiative is the ability to act. Simple as that. You must prepare thoroughly in all ways. If you have done that, you must then summon the wherewithal to apply initiative.
  • Intentness: It is the ability to stay the course even when that course is most difficult and the obstacles seem insurmountable. You do not quit.

Row 3

  • Condition: You must be in strong physical condition, but you must also have mental and moral condition. All three are components in this block of the Pyramid because you can’t have one without the others. Weak mental or moral condition precludes top physical condition.
  • Skill: At the very center of the Pyramid of Success is skill. You have to know your stuff and that includes a mastery of details. This is true whether you’re an athlete, a surgeon, or a CEO. You’d better be able to execute properly and quickly, and that requires skill.
  • Team spirit: This block of the Pyramid addresses a most important characteristic: selflessness, which is the opposite of selfishness. I mean by this that you are eager to sacrifice personal glory or gain for the greater good, namely, the welfare and success of your organization, your team, or your group.
  • Poise: Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to be what you are not. Don’t get rattled, thrown off or unbalanced regardless of the circumstance or situation. Leaders with poise do not panic under pressure. Poise means holding fast to your principles and beliefs and acting in accordance with them, regardless of how bad (or good) the situation may be. Know who you are and be true to yourself.
  • Confidence: There is no stronger steel than well-founded belief in yourself; the knowledge that your preparation is fully complete and that you are ready for the competition.
  • Competitive greatness: Competitive greatness is having a real love for the hard battle, knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required.

john wooden pyramid of success

Coach Wooden Quotes

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Coach Wooden with some commentary.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”
I used to get analysis paralysis because of the fear of failure. I finally just started to “jump” because I knew if I did not get in the game more, I would never achieve my goals and purpose in life.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”
We all know those people who are super busy and are proud of this. I regularly question how I spend my time and whether it is truly aligned with my goals and purpose. Being busy for the sake of being busy is amateur to me.

“Reputation is what you are perceived to be and character is what you really are.”
I love this. It’s all about what is inside of you. All you can do is control the character that you have and live be each day. Reputation will follow, but it’s an effect, not a cause.

“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
We all get stuck in our ways. It takes a lot of courage to truly change. I try to remind myself every day that there is probably a better way so listen and learn, and then perhaps change.

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” 
I don’t think this should be confused with the sage advice of “not sweating the small stuff.” For example, I re-read every email I write no matter how big or small or who it is sent to. I often find errors and correct them as well as look to simplify my message. I hope my recipient appreciates this. I know I would.

“It’s not so important who starts the game but who finishes it.”
I have this mantra every time I start to lose steam in perhaps something at work or during one of my hobbies like a triathlon and it goes like this: “Find the strength to finish stronger than how you started.” I find that all of my proudest accomplishments, from building a family to becoming a leader of education technology company to finishing the Ironman, came with many instances of wanting to give up or give in. Fortunately, this feeling never lasts for long.

“All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”
This advice is extremely powerful. Eastern philosophy would agree with this as it discusses accepting what is without judgment. The challenge, of course, is that we are emotional creatures and cannot help getting excited when things are going great and downtrodden when things are going against us. This is why I practice stoicism when things are going great to humble myself and prepare for the inevitable valleys. On the flip side, when things are down, I use this as a great opportunity to create a positive mental image of the future and push towards this. This does not come naturally to me, but I practice a lot.

“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.”
This is similar to the last one. I am certainly guilty of allowing my feelings to be influenced by how others praise or criticize me. Fortunately, I have had great teachers that have worked to “beat” the ego out of me and to focus on looking within for intrinsic value and looking outside for objective feedback on how to make things better.

“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
I’ll start and end with this quote. The sooner you can adopt this definition of success, the sooner you can be set free to lose your fear of failure and focus on being the best version of yourself. This is, as Charlie Sheen so ineloquently said, “Winning” to me.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Timeless Advice on Success From Coach John Wooden"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Samuel Todorich

Love it! The comment on competition really resonated. John Wooden is obviously a very competitive person, but wasn’t trying to be better than anyone else. Being the best was simply a product of doing the best that he possibly could, and by pushing his teams to do the same.

One of my favorite Wooden quotes is “When opportunity knocks, it’s too late to prepare.”


Great Article! I love reading and learning anything by John Wooden. He transcends what a coach, and person should strive to be like. One of my favorite quotes by him is one that my dad had inscribed for me on a bat after I signed my letter of intent to play college softball. It is “I believe ability can get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there” Thank you for sharing Todd