If You Want to Succeed, First Define Success


In 1934, an English teacher in South Bend, IN was discouraged by parents who complained when their son or daughter received a “C.”  It seems “C” was perfectly fine for their neighbor’s children, because it was average and the neighbor’s children were, of course, average. However, for their own children, a “C” was disappointing, and the parents would try to make the teacher and student feel like they had failed.

The teacher didn’t feel this was right. He could see that intelligence and academic talent was not distributed equally among the students. Some were extremely talented, and therefore the effort they put forth to get an “A” was small. Other less talented students would work extremely hard to achieve a “C.”

So the teacher started searching for a new definition of success. He was looking for a definition of success that would help him become a better teacher, and could be something for all his students to aspire toward.

The traditional definition of success – the accumulation of material possessions, or the attainment of power and prestige – was utterly inadequate for his purpose.

He was reminded of the advice he had received from his father growing up on a small farm in southern Indiana. His dad told him:


“Never try to be better than someone else.

Always learn from others.

Never cease trying to be the best you can be.”


These three lessons always served the teacher well in his own life. When he lived by these principles, he felt successful. And perhaps most importantly, they were entirely within his own control. He had observed that if he became obsessed with things over which he had no control, eventually it would adversely impact the things over which he did have control.

Then he came across a simple verse:

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.”

The combination of his father’s advice and that simple verse grew into his own definition of success.  It  became a lifelong guide for himself, and the people who were fortunate enough to be his students. Here is what he came up with:

“Success is peace of mind, attained only in self-satisfaction knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

The young teacher’s name was John Wooden. He was also the school’s basketball coach. He went on to coach UCLA Men’s Basketball to 10 National Championships. Later in his career, people would try to define his success by his team’s winning percentage or National Titles, but he would never allow himself or his team to define success in any other way. Winning is a byproduct of success, which is essentially trying your best to do your best, every day.

What then is an appropriate metric of success? There is no metric. The yardstick is internal. Only you know if you “made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” In that way, it is similar to reputation and character. Reputation is what others perceive you to be, while character is what you really are. Reputation is largely beyond your control, but character is squarely within your control. You would like them to be equal, but that’s not guaranteed.

If you truly want to be successful – that is, live a meaningful life – define success by the effort you put forth every day to be the best version of you. The result will take care of itself.

This blog post was adapted from a story John Wooden told here.

About the Author

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management. Learn more at RealTime Performance.

Follow Me on Twitter: @seanpmurray111

Join my mailing list and be updated when I publish new articles.


Join 1000+ people in receiving a monthly email with articles and curated content on leadership, business, decision making and living a meaningful life.

Add comment

Recent Posts