When Fleas Win

John Wooden was a truly great teacher. We tend to think of him more as a great basketball coach, and indeed he was one of the best coaches ever, but in fact he was a teacher. His main teaching was about how to live well. Not how to live flamboyantly. But how to live in a way that builds success in life.

The formula is surprisingly simple. There are really just two components. The first is to have an agenda. The second is to stick to it.  This is so simple that you might dismiss the strategy out of hand. If life was so simple, why do so many people end up unhappy? The answer is also simple. It is because being simple does not make a thing easy. And the more we look for the easy way out (the magic bullet), the less we see the simple truth that there is no easy way out.  So, being rather stubborn,  we look harder for something that is not there and we get frustrated in the process and stuck. Ooops.

Here is an example of how Wooden’s agenda setting worked. Wooden bumped into one of his former players and asked how he was doing. The former player said that he was now the proud father of a new baby boy. Wooden asked him “Do you know what the best thing in life that you can give your son?” (Translation – do you have an agenda?)

Hmmm … it is a simple question. And it is obviously a rather important question. Is it love? Money? What is the one thing that a boy needs more than anything else? Wooden’s answer “Show him that you love his mother”.

Notice how this brilliant answer translates an abstract concept — “the best thing in life” — into a concrete, simple and essential thing to do —  “to show love to a mother”. Think about it. Think about how this will open the door for the boy to understand the importance of loving people. It is not just a morally correct way to be, it is a practical way to show a boy how to have a good life. Notice also that just doing this once doesn’t cut it. You need to incorporate it into your life. Notice also that as one does it, one gets better at it and this multiplies the meaning and effect. In other words, one has to stick to the agenda to make it work. There is an intense fusion going on here – a fusion of living and learning. Two sides to the same coin.

Sticking to the agenda is what Wooden called having a “winning attitude”. The winning attitude moves us from abstract dreams to doing concrete things and focusing on doing those concrete things as well as we can.  That is living well. Full stop. If you value the practice you enjoy the practice and learn from it. Nick Saban (another successful coach) calls this his “process”.

But wait a minute! We are fleas, right? Committing to being a flea is an agenda. That agenda is to make other people look good in light of what they do. Say “yes and …” to that agenda and you are on your way.  You have entered the realm of rather sophisticated strategic thinking.

FOLLOW UP –  David Foster Wallace was somewhat obsessed by how “easy” watching TV is. I can understand why. If we are persuaded that things should be easy in order to be “fun”, we lose our appetite for risk and adventure in life.


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