Success is a Choice


Rick Pitino & Bill Reynolds (

Our self-esteem is the value we put on ourselves. It’s the person we see when we look in the mirror.

I learned a long time ago as a coach that you can expect great things from people who feel good about themselves. They can push themselves. They can set long-term goals. They have dreams that everyone expects to be fulfilled. People with high self-esteem are risk takers, but more important, they are achievers.

Conversely, people with low self-esteem are often unfocused and easily frustrated. They tend to be underachievers, complete with the package that is so characteristic of those kinds of people: lack of discipline, poor organizational skills, an inability to finish things, a sense of discontent, sensitivity to criticism, envy of others–an entire laundry list of negatives. Whether you’re a coach, employee, or co-worker, it’s difficult to work with people with low self-esteem, because they tend to be emotionally fragile and conditioned for failure.

These negatives surrounding low self-esteem can sabotage us. If you become a victim of this condition, every other step in this book becomes meaningless.

None of us wants to be listless and floundering; none of us wants to feel as though life were controlling us. We don’t like feeling powerless to do anything about it–like working on a mystery without any clues–feeling that we are miles away from reaching our true potential and that we have become little more than spectators watching life’s parade go rushing by.

We all want to have more control over our lives. We all want to feel as though we’re on the path to becoming more successful, complete with a road map to get us there. We all need a plan of attack and it starts with self-esteem.

Our plan of attack is the catalyst that jump-starts things and sets them in motion. Once we start to feel better about ourselves, we can then start to learn and practice the art of overachieving.

In real life, we don’t have coaches or cheerleaders praising us to anyone who will listen. Real life isn’t sports, although there are many similarities between the two.

So how do we, as individuals, raise our self-esteem?

First of all, let’s begin by looking closely at that person in the mirror. You’re not going to fool that person. He knows more about you than just how well groomed you are or what your hair and eyes look like. He knows exactly how hard you work, how organized you are, how good your plan of attack is. Much of self-esteem, in fact, is tied to being honest with yourself about whether you deserve victory. Therefore, don’t try to fool the person in the mirror. You’re only wasting time if you do.

You must establish a solid work ethic and a sound strategy in order to believe that you deserve success. Do that and it will make you feel better about yourself. It’s all interrelated.

Consider the person who is overweight and unhappy about it. That person’s self-esteem is almost certain to be low. How does he set about changing that situation?

The first thing he should do to conquer this unhappiness is establish the great work ethic. Set up a plan of attack, then put it in motion. This person might want to aim for something as simple as losing a few pounds over a couple of weeks.

The plan of attack creates the work ethic and the discipline to stay on a weight loss program, the attainable short-term goal. Reach the goal, and the message is sent to the overweight person that he now has a real plan and it’s a successful one.

The message is that if you stick to that plan, you will start to control your weight problem rather than being controlled by it. Once you attain the short-term goal, you will inevitably start to feel better about yourself and your self-esteem will start to rise. The more it rises the more you can demand of yourself.

I have followed this basic approach with all my teams, through Boston University, Providence College, the New York Knicks, and now at Kentucky: Establish the work ethic, verbalize the goals, create the plan of attack, follow the proven methods, and very soon your esteem will start to rise as fast as Michael Jordan exploding to the rim.

Once you’ve created a work ethic second to none, and you’ve learned to motivate yourself, you look in the mirror and you see someone different. And it has nothing to do with appearances.

You see someone of value, someone who is going to be more successful, someone who is going to win. Because you have worked for it. You now deserve it. And that’s what self-esteem is all about.

So let’s understand that the power of self-esteem is the most important determining factor in reaching our potential. Before we can upgrade our skills and fundamentals, before we truly can start to achieve, we must believe that our value is worth improving. We must believe that our actions will make this possible.

We can find many reasons to justify to ourselves why we are failing.

* I didn’t go to the right school.

* The marketplace is too competitive.

* My job’s too tough.

* There are no really good jobs anyway.

* I have too many responsibilities.

* It’s all about contacts anyway, and I don’t have any.

Ever hear any of these?

Ever use any yourself?

Odds are you have, because they are the perennials. At one time or another we all use them.

They are the built-in excuses, the reasons we use to make ourselves feel better. They are easy to conjure up and constitute the classic refrain of defeat.

This is the mentality of underachievers. The mentality that Billy Donovan had to rid himself of before he could start being more successful. The mentality that we all must break or else we’ll look back and see our life as one big excuse.

The other major alibi for underachievement is blaming others for our failures, just as Billy Donovan indirectly blamed his former coach in his first meeting with me.

We do this all the time. The boss doesn’t like me. My wife doesn’t understand me. My co-workers don’t understand the pressures on me. My teammates are jealous.

In other words, it’s always someone else’s fault. Someone else always shares part of the blame.

When Billy eventually realized his malaise was his fault–his and his alone–he had made a significant discovery. When he eventually understood that he controlled what happened to him, he began to feel empowered. That’s a wonderful feeling. It tells us we don’t have to depend on others. We don’t have to be burdened by others’ perceptions of us, whether right or wrong. It tells us our success or failure is up to us. We are the captains of our ship. We determine our own destiny.

For the truth is, we control our life. We control how lucky we are. We create our fortune with our effort.

We alone have the power.

When you’re underachieving it’s easy to think everyone else has the secret except you. You look around at successful people and think they have everything going for them; their lives are always as smooth and easy as a summer afternoon at the beach.

The reality is, though, we all have frustrations and failures. Even the people who, on the surface, appear as if they don’t.

In the summer of 1987 I became the coach of the New York Knicks. I was thirty-four years old; and because I’d been born in New York City and always had been a great Knicks fan, becoming their coach was a dream come true.

But I quickly found out that it was all more complicated than that.

When I wanted to bring to the Knicks the same full-court trapping pressing style of play I had used in college, the media quickly jumped all over me. They said it would never work in the NBA, that the season was too long, there were too many games, and the players simply would not exert the kind of energy on a nightly basis that was essential if the style were to be successful. It seemed to me as if almost every day the New York papers said that our style of play would never work.

Even Al Bianchi, the Knicks’ general manager and my boss, had his doubts, which certainly didn’t make me feel real comfortable or secure in my job.

So here was a job that on the surface was supposed to be my dream but in actuality had quickly become very different.

Eventually, it started bothering me.

Not that I ever thought they were right. But what if they were half-right? What if 50 percent of what they said came true? For the first time I started to question myself. I always have been a very confident person, but all the daily sniping and questioning was taking its toll.

This went on throughout much of the season. Even when we started winning there were still doubters who said our style would eventually burn the players out. In fact, it wasn’t until the last game of the regular season that I began to feel better. That was the night we qualified for the playoffs, the first time in years the Knicks had made it that far. The next day New York Newsday ran a headline that said “Vindicated.”

But I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that you can’t doubt yourself, that you have to maintain confidence that you are fulfilling the role you’ve staked out for yourself. My job wasn’t to go to New York and do what everyone else had done. My role was to get in there and build a winner and not occupy my time with critics and second-guessers.

That’s not to say you can’t tinker with your plan or always try to make it better. You might very well find your plan to be faulty and have to adjust it, which we did my second year with the Knicks when we modified our style a bit, using our press in spots and not as a steady diet.

The point is, you have to be a risk-taker. You must be willing to take chances, to put yourself on the line, to throw yourself into the middle of activity. Even at the cost of people questioning you and doubting you.

Underachievers frequently don’t understand their role in things.

They either don’t know where they fit or they are unwilling to perform the role that’s assigned to them.

Many people nowadays, in this age of instant gratification, don’t have patience. They want everything to happen now. Instant this, instant that, instant success. They don’t understand the value of patience, of waiting your turn, of being ready when the proper time comes.

When we set out to transform our lives, there should be no time limit. We are looking for change over the long haul, change that is going to be with us for the rest of our lives. In order to make this change, we must be aware of our strengths and weaknesses, because we all have them. The key is not only knowing which ones are which but also knowing how to manage them. I learned this by observing athletes, all of whom have to cope with their strengths and liabilities. But it’s not just athletes; we all have to do this. Our job is to define a role for ourselves that maximizes our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses.

So many times in life we see people who don’t understand this. It’s the guy at the party who is always trying to be funny, but isn’t. The person trying to be a salesman who has neither the personality nor the temperament to sell food to a starving man. Young people who wear ridiculous clothes simply because of peer pressure. These are people who don’t understand what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

It happens in sports all the time.

So many players refuse to believe they have any weaknesses at all. When you point them out, they respond, “You’re wrong. I can do that.” They often begin to focus all their efforts proving everyone wrong, and in so doing they move away from their strengths.

Two years ago, I coached a young man named Rodrick Rhodes, who had come to Kentucky as a celebrated prep All-American from St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. Now, Rodrick is a wonderful person, but he became convinced that to become a pro he had to prove he could shoot the basketball with range. No matter that he was a great slasher and had a great post-up game. No matter that he could get to the foul line consistently or hit the fifteen-foot shot. That wasn’t enough anymore. He began focusing on the people who told him he had to show the NBA scouts he could make perimeter shots. He tuned out common sense and wasted his time and energy trying to fulfill a role he never could play. As a result, his game suffered.

How many prize fighters have we seen who know that the only way they can win the fight is to elude their opponent, to dance and jab and stay away from them? Then what do they do? They end up going toe-to-toe trying to show everyone how tough they are. They try to show everyone they don’t have any weaknesses.

That strategy is a losing one.

We have to be honest with ourselves about how we stack up against everyone else. Not everyone can be quarterback, not everyone can be the superstar of a team. The reality is that we’re living and working in a world with a lot of people with different talents and skills. We have to position ourselves to be unique so that we can be the best in our area of expertise. If we try to be the best in an area we’re only mediocre in, we’re setting ourselves up for a self-esteem disaster.

Self-esteem comes with a catch, though.

We must deserve it.

Only when you have your plan of attack, you become organized, have discipline in your life, you’re prepared to win–that’s when you should start to give yourself some credit.

Only when you’ve proven that you deserve victory.

It’s counterproductive to boost someone’s self-esteem when that person doesn’t deserve it.

That’s the mistake many parents and teachers make. They try to constantly raise a child’s self-esteem because self-esteem has become one of the big buzzwords in our culture, and they’ve been led to believe that first and foremost a child has to feel good about himself.


That’s what motivators do. They enable people to dream.

Although that window of opportunity may be open only a crack, getting people to believe that it is indeed open is so important. You let them know they have a long way to go. You let them know how difficult it’s going to be. But you also let them know that the opportunity is there.

To do so you have to recognize that everyone has a need for approval and direction. Everyone wants to be recognized. Give people that opportunity. Make them aware that they’re going to have to work harder than they ever imagined, but help them build that vision of accomplishment. What you’ve created is not false, not an unrealistic hope. There’s a window there; and the more you work, the wider that window opens.

Here are five key rules.

* Help each person see himself or herself as having a significant role, no matter what it might be. Each person has to understand that he or she is essential to the group’s success, that it’s the sum of all the parts that make up the whole.

* Create a significance for the group, whether it’s an organization, a team, or a company. Just being a part of an organization is no longer enough anymore. Each member must feel he or she is a part of something important, and not just putting in time.

* Maintain positive reinforcement for the effort people are giving. Always let them know you are aware of it and how much you appreciate it.

* Recognize the people who get less attention in the group because they’re not in the glamorous positions. The secretaries in the company. The substitutes on a team. Thank them publicly for their unselfishness, and do it in front of their peers. That is their share of the limelight.

* Never forget that it’s imperative to keep people positive, because those who are discontented have the potential to infect others. And eventually that negativity changes the dynamic of the entire group. There’s really truth to the old adage that one bad apple spoils the bunch.

Helping someone build that dream is vital to maintaining their growth and self-confidence.


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