John Wooden’s Lessons and Legacy


I was prepared to post another blog recently, but decided that it was important to post some observations about John Wooden, the great basketball coach of UCLA who died on June 4 at age 99. Like most people passionate about sports at all levels, I admired John Wooden as a coach, a teacher, and a leader.

Wooden won the NCAA championship with a very small, fast team in 1964 and 1965, with two dominant centers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then called Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton, between 1967 and 1973, and with a team of physically strong forwards and guards in 1970 and 1975. He made his team the center of attention rather than himself.

What were his secrets? Every successful college coach has to be a great recruiter, a great team builder, a great teacher, and a great game coach. However, what struck me most about Wooden was a quote about him in the June 14, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated , in an article by Alexander Wolff entitled “Remembering the Wizard, ” as well as a quote on a sign he posted on his office wall.

The quote about him was “His great strength was a knack for knowing when and what to change, and when to leave things be. He let sands shift, but only over bedrock.” The quote on his office wall was “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The combination of these two statements is the essence of a great human being: someone who continuously learns and tests his or her ideas, and, through continuous learning, discovers what changes, as well as what is unchangeable.

The stakes for continuous learning have been raised by the scientific research summarized by David Shenk in his book The Genius in All of Us. The research to which Shenk refers us makes it increasingly clear that what we thought were genetically-determined traits in ourselves and our children and grandchildren may very well be changeable, based on our behaviors and attitudes. Shenk’s point is that, by our actions to learn, grow, and become healthier, we can alter the genetically-expressed traits in future generations, especially for future offspring or for children still under our environmental control.

In this stage of my life, I have transformed myself from a secure corporate executive to a person who is engaged in a number of entrepreneurial pursuits. Although my life is at a more frantic pace than ever before, I feel more energized and healthier than ever. I am making mistakes left and right in my new pursuits, which include investments in health care companies, charity service providers, a reality TV incubator, and even two full-length feature films, one of which is fully produced and is Fog Warning, and the other of which is at the pre-production stage through a newly-formed production company called Gyre Entertainment.

The words describing John Wooden ring true to me because virtually every transformational success that occurred in my life happened because I broke the rules and followed a path different from those who seemed to have mastered conventional paths to success that were no longer working predictably. I am particularly finding that today in the film industry. No one in their right mind would say that anyone in the film industry has a working formula for success. Most films fail, andmost investors never get their money back.

The most successful film industry people with whom I have spoken are respected because they have a less poor record than others, and, perhaps, had a single blockbuster hit or a single Academy Award nomination that validates them. There is an old (and, as expressed, politically incorrect) statement that “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king.” However, I aspire to be consistently successful, not to get a hit 1 in 10 times, so I know that I need to use a radically different approach to making and distributing a movie. Similarly, the person who is successful 10% of the time is a failure in my book.

The movie industry reminds me of the direct mail business, in which direct mailers celebrate a 1% response rate as an exceptional success in an industry in which the average response rate is .25%. To me, a 1% response rate is an abysmal failure. It means that 99% of the people threw the mail into the wastebasket without responding.

What do these two industries have in common and how is John Wooden’s wisdom relevant to both? What they have in common are a lot of relatively successful and wealthy people who depart from Wooden’s maxim that it’s what you learn after you think you know it all that matters. These industries are dominated by people who stop learning after they “know it all” because they achieve a certain level of success.

I am not wired that way. I strive to succeed all of the time, although I know that is impossible, simply because I know that striving for continuous success means that I will approach a problem radically different from the mainstream people in an industry. I also know that many of them will ridicule me, and tell me that what I am trying to do will not succeed. Their deep skepticism often is grounded less in logic or facts, but in a deep-seated need to believe that their approach is unassailable, even if it fail 90% of the time (as it does in entertainment) or 99.75% (as it does in direct mail).

How do we distinguish between what must change and what is foundational, something John Wooden understood in the context of basketball coaching and educating? First, anyone who tells me that they have a consistent playbook or formula for success that has worked for several decades is automatically suspect. Similarly, anyone who tells me that all the rules that have governed the past no longer apply is also suspect. The current and future environments will always be a mix of the new and the time-tested.

Second, I am immediately suspicious of someone who tells me that a product or service that depends for its success on the stupidity and irrationality of the public is also suspect. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “You can fool some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Third, I get suspicious of anyone who tells me success is totally random or totally formulaic and predictable. Fourth, I get suspicious of anyone unreceptive to my ideas because I am new to a field. Someone who judges me based on my track record rather than the strength of my ideas will undervalue what I am saying or proposing. Finally, I value entrepreneurs or thinkers who continually test out their thinking and adapt, based on what they learn. Transformative thinkers are highly secure people who are not scared to admit they might have been wrong.

John Wooden has left this earth, but, fortunately, his example and his teaching will stay with us and be available to inspire and teach us forever.