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October 15, 2007
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Every Day a Masterpiece

John Wooden is the greatest sports coach in history. He is also a humble man who would no doubt disagree with being described so wonderfully. Nonetheless, this is not only the HR Doctor’s opinion, but the opinion of other people in and out of sports.

John Wooden served as the coach of the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team and led the Bruins to 10 consecutive NCAA championships.

The unathletic HR Doctor had the amazing fortune to be a student at UCLA during this period and to watch how the coach’s magic ignited not only individual basketball players and the basketball team, but the spirit of a school and a much wider community.

Wooden is a leader in making amazing things happens on a basketball court. However, his methods and his philosophies are really what make him an extraordinary life coach for all of us.         

Coach Wooden began every practice with a very important drill. It involved instructing the players about how to properly put on their socks and shoes. What a strange way for a champion coach to treat champion players. What a waste of time, some might argue.

However, the coach made one of his many absolutely critical points by this seemingly trivial routine. That routine was part of an important view; champions not only have high expectations for themselves and their success, but they must pay careful attention to the little things. A sock not put on properly can lead to a blister which, in turn, diminishes the champion’s performance, perhaps at a critical moment. It can substitute pain and being benched for the chance to be in the game and part of a successful team. Establishing a routine in which the little things are secured and managed properly creates a solid foundation for big successes.

Coach Wooden’s philosophies on basketball and winning at life are the subject of many books, videos and lectures. At this writing, the coach is 97 years old and still active, thoughtful and articulate. 

One particular part of his philosophy is really what this article is about.   In a brief moment of interaction with a colleague recently, I greeted him by saying “How are you?” — a phrase many of us robotically spew out dozens of times a day. Almost always, it is answered by a perfunctory response such as “Fine, how are you?”

In reality, most of us don’t really care how the other person is. We’re simply using the phrase to express some form of basic interpersonal recognition. We don’t expect a meaningful answer. If we receive one, we worry that we might become engaged in a serious, protracted conversation which would make us late in arriving at Starbucks to order our iced decaf triple-grande five-pump soy no-whip mocha coffee.

When the HR Doctor asked this question, the person responded with “I’m having a bad day.” The conversation then turned to “What can I do to help your day be much better?” It turned out that the bad day was based on a collection of those small and seemingly insignificant issues in our day-to-day life. He overslept; he had trouble getting online to check his e-mail; he was stuck in traffic; he had a tough day at the office.

The danger was that the recited menu of problems this poor person was encountering could easily have become infectious and spread to anyone else listening. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear a response such as, “I feel the same way. I’ve had the same problem. Traffic was bad on my drive to work; the dog misbehaved. The news broadcast gave bad stock market results,” and on and on.

Buying into this mistake in how we look back at one of the many precious days in our lives is not very different than the blister that slows you down, puts you at risk for infection and doesn’t allow you to contribute to the overall success of everyone on your team. 

Coach Wooden’s advice was simple, articulate and prudent: “Make every day your masterpiece.” Take care of that foundation of daily activity by living your day optimistically and by working hard to solve problems, fix something broken, right a wrong or help another person. The end result is a great day, one that gives you satisfaction as you lie quietly after dark in those moments before you fall asleep. 

Making a concerted effort to make each day a masterpiece lets you look back at an entire month, year, decade or life that also turned out to be a masterpiece. Oct. 14 was Coach Wooden’s birthday. If you could have heard me on that date, dearest readers, you would have heard me singing a sincere “Happy Birthday” to a great man.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor & HR Bruin •



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