August 24, 2016
It was 20 years ago, in the 1996 NBA playoffs, and the Orlando Magic squared off against the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The year before, the Magic had knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs, on our way to the NBA Finals. This year was different. The Bulls whipped us twice in Chicago, and now we were in our own arena for two games in Orlando.
Before the start of Game Four, I was at the arena, outside the Bulls locker room, when I spotted the Bulls team physician, Dr. John Heffernon. So I went over and chatted with him. “Doc,” I said, “twenty years from now, what are you going to remember most about Michael Jordan?”
“Aside from the fact that Michael Jordan is the most competitive human being I have ever met,” Dr. Heffernon said, “and aside from the fact that he has total confidence and absolutely no fear of failure, I think the trait I’ll remember most about Michael Jordan is that he respects everybody exactly the same. It doesn’t matter whether he’s with the president of the United States or the equipment manager, talking to the Pope or talking to a kid in a wheelchair, he respects everybody equally.”
I once heard longtime Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski tell a story of when he was an up-and-coming college coach, but still young and not-well-known. He was brought aboard the coaching staff of the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics. It was a Hall of Fame All-Star roster that included Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and David Robinson. My friend Chuck Daly was the head coach. Mike Krzyzewski said that, at that stage in his career, he felt uncomfortable and even intimidated around all these legendary pros.
One day, after practice, Michael Jordan approached Coach Krzyzewski and said, “Coach, would you please stay late today and work with me on my shooting?” Can you imagine being asked by Michael Jordan, who was at the very height of his career, “Would you work with me on my shooting?”
So M.J. and Coach K had an extra shooting session. Afterwards, Michael Jordan said, “Coach, thank you very much, I appreciate your help.”
Mike Krzyzewski later said, “That was a turning point my career. At that moment, I really felt I belonged. The greatest player in the world had called me, ‘Coach,’ and he had said, ‘Please and thank you,’ and treated me with respect. He continued to treat me that way throughout the Olympics. The respect Michael showed me spread to the other players, and was a huge boost to my confidence level.”
It’s amazing how just a demonstration of simple respect can amplify the confidence and abilities of another person. Showing respect to your coaches and teammates can spread, and can have a huge impact on the chemistry of the entire team. And that can make a big difference in winning.
Respect is the first ingredient of the glue that holds great teams together. When players and leaders respect each other, they build a foundation of cooperation, mutual trust, and team cohesion that becomes hard for opponents to break. To build great teams and hold those teams together, everyone on the team must understand the importance of mutual respect.
A collection of talented players truly comes together as a team when those players begin to value each other and accept one another as equals and as teammates. You don’t have to like your teammate, but you have to value him and respect his position on your team. You need each of your teammates in order to reach your goal, so you’d better be able to work together and respect one another.
Michael Jordan needed his teammates to become an NBA champion and Olympic gold medal winner. He was on great teams because he had found the secret to building extraordinary chemistry with his teammates: respect.
Pat Williams is co-founder and senior vice president of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. An author of 100 books, he is an extremely popular corporate speaker. Connect with Pat on twitter at @OrlandoMagicPat or on Facebook at PatWilliams.OrlandoMagic.
July 11, 2016
I arrived in Orlando, FL in June of 1986 to help lay the groundwork for the Orlando Magic’s birth as a National Basketball Association franchise. After arriving here, I became “Disney-ized.” I became particularly fascinated with the life of Walt Disney himself, and was introduced to his five rules for success. Rule number three is to “strive for lasting quality.”
Walt was a fanatic on turning out quality work, and that approach still permeates through everything Disney does today. The fact that Disney strives for such high quality forces the rest of the Orlando business community to live up to Disney’s high quality standards. For the past 20 years, I have been studying the key attributes of quality organizations. I believe that there are ten keys to becoming an organization of quality:
Know your customer: The customer is king or queen; they are always right. You cannot do enough for your customers. Whatever your customers expect, “plus it.” You should always strive to go the second mile for your customers.
Everyone is responsible: Quality organizations believe that you need 100% commitment from everyone in the organization. If 5% of the personnel do not commit, it ruins it for everyone else.
Love what you do: Employees with quality organizations are passionate about what they do. They come to work excited every day, and that energy and enthusiasm radiates into every life that they touch. As Rush Limbaugh says, “Find an opportunity where you can be you, where you can do the things you love, because there you will be the best you can be.”
Hard work plus fun: There is no substitute for hard work. Quality does not just happen, it takes a lot of elbow grease and perspiration; but, if you are having fun while you are working, it does not seem like you are working.
Welcome your competition: Competition brings out the very best in all of us and forces us to perform at a higher level. Rather than fight with your competition, embrace it because competition pulls out the very best in all of us. Without competition, there is no progress.
Be consistent: Consistency counts in quality organizations. Consistent organizations demonstrate to the customer they are dependable and will be there in the future. Consistency in your business breeds trust with your customers, and that trust is the foundation for a successful relationship.
Control: Quality organizations focus on what they can control and do not worry about things over which they have no control. Attend to what you have control over so well that those who see what you do are going to come back for you do it again and tell others that they should see you do what you do.
Change will always be a factor: In the next three to five years, all known knowledge will double every day. The world is changing so fast, any company not on the cutting edge of learning will be left behind. Quality companies make it a priority to continue education and to adapt to change.
Take care of the little things: I have learned that the big things do not get fouled up, but it is always the little details that throw you off track. As business writer John L. McCaffrey says, “The mechanics of running a business are not really very complicated when you get down to the essentials. You have to make some stuff and sell it to somebody for more than it cost you. That’s about all there is—except for a few million details.” Pay attention to the details and your company will flourish.
It takes teamwork: A sports team, military unit or business entity cannot function with a crew of lone rangers; everybody must pull together. Extreme dreams do indeed depend on teams.
Phil Crosby was a quality control consultant who lives in Orlando. “The cost of quality,” he says, “is found in the expense associated with doing things wrong. If things were done correctly the first time, companies could do away with rework, sharply reduce inspections, test, and complaint handlers, and thus enjoy real bottom-line savings. Quality isn’t something you pass off to somebody to do for you; it has to be the way you live, work and run the company.”
As the great poet G. Kingsley Ward puts it, “The road to business success is paved by those who continually strive to produce better products or services. It does not have to be a great technological product like television. Ray Kroc of McDonald’s did it with a single hamburger.” Whether you are buying quality or delivering quality, the best is always a bargain – quality is a must.
Pat Williams is co-founder and senior vice president of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. An author of 100 books, he is an extremely popular corporate speaker. Connect with Pat on twitter at @OrlandoMagicPat or on Facebook at PatWilliams.OrlandoMagic.
June 9, 2016
When Basketball Hall-of-Famer Chuck Daly was head coach of the Orlando Magic, he’d sometimes come to me looking flustered. “Pat,” he’d growl, “I’m not a coach—I’m a salesman! All I do is sell. I’m selling these ballplayers on my game plans and strategies. I’m selling the front office on improving our facilities and personnel. Every time I talk to the media, I’m selling them. And I’m constantly selling to the fans. All I do is sell!”
Chuck was right—and former NBA coach Phil Jackson agrees. Jackson, who won eleven NBA titles as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, once observed, “Coaching is salesmanship. Coaching is winning players over and convincing them that they have to play together.”
What Daly and Jackson say about coaches is true of all leaders in every arena. Leadership is selling. Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, and what do you see? The president of the United States is selling his domestic policy agenda, his foreign policy agenda, his health care agenda, or his tax policy. Every time the president makes a public appearance, whether he’s giving the State of the Union address or pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, he’s selling. If the leader of the free world is always selling, shouldn’t you and I become competent salespeople as well?
In our Orlando Magic organization, people sometimes come to me for advice. They say, “I’m in sales, and I really want to get out of sales and into management.” I bet I’ve heard a hundred variations on that statement. I always say, “Oh, you want to get into management. Well, then you’ll really be in sales. Even if you reach the pinnacle of the organization, you will never leave sales—because leadership is all about selling.”
So what are you selling? A message? An idea? A candidate? A product? My friend, it all starts with you. To be a leader, you must sell you. No one person represents a team, a company, a military unit, or a church as much as the leader. You are the personification of your organization. When people think of your organization, they don’t think of a building or a logo, they think of a leader.
If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to be a salesman; and the first thing you must sell is yourself.
Pat Williams is co-founder and senior vice president of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. His 100th book – EXTREME WINNING – is on sale now. Connect with Pat on Facebook a or via twitter @OrlandoMagicPat.
September 23, 2015
Call me an extreme dreamer.
I believe in dreaming big dreams and doing everything on an extreme scale. I could never be a chef, because I couldn’t stick to the recipe. I’d figure if a pinch of salt improves the soup, imagine what a cup of salt would do!
Everything I do, I do to extremes. I’m proud to be an extreme dreamer. The world has been transformed and revolutionized, again and again, by people who dreamed extreme dreams—then assembled dynamic teams to turn those dreams into reality. Dream-builders are team-builders. Extreme dreams really do depend on teams.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. A big part of my job was to help recruit a great coaching staff and great players to the team. The Sixers team I helped assemble in 1983 swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals, winning the NBA Championship.
I moved to Orlando in 1986 to help launch the Orlando Magic. Once again, I was in the dream-building and team-building business. Soon after we got our NBA expansion team up and running, we got a terrific break. As you may know, the NBA lottery is conducted by whirling Ping-Pong balls in a lottery machine. In back-to-back lotteries (1992 and 1993) those Ping-Pong balls bounced our way, allowing us to acquire two young star players—Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.
Suddenly, our little franchise in Orlando was the most up-and-coming young team in sports. We got to the NBA Finals in 1995 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996. Over my NBA career, twenty-three of my teams have made the NBA Playoffs and five have gone to the NBA Finals.
Once you put teamwork into practice, your dreams will begin transforming into reality. Whether you’re building a professional sports team, launching a magazine, starting a dot-com company or growing a nonprofit organization, your dream needs a team. That dream team will challenge and inspire you in a profound and life-changing way.
Encourage everyone in your organization, your office, and your family to dream extreme dreams, then put together teams to make those dreams come true. Let’s go to extremes . . . !
September 16, 2014
As far back as I can remember, I had one dream in life: to become a pro athlete. I grew up in the old steel mill town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I competed in basketball, baseball, football, and track at Liberty High School. I attended Temple University in Philadelphia, where my dream of being a professional athlete was narrowed to football.
In 1981 I signed my first pro football contract. I could bench press more than five hundred pounds, drove a nice car, and had attended a university. However, there was still something missing in my life. I was from a wonderful home and had been brought up going to church, but if someone were to ask me if I was going to go to heaven when I died, I would reply, “I don’t know. I hope so.” When I thought about eternity, I was very insecure. I honestly had no idea where I would end up when I took my last breath.
Most people hope they have done enough good things to outweigh the bad things they have done. This is how I thought and lived my life for twenty-five years. But I never knew if the good things I did would take care of all the bad things I had done the night before.
That all changed on April 30, 1983, just before a game in Tampa, Florida. I was in my third year of professional football, and I took part in what had become somewhat of a pregame ritual for me. I went to “church”—also known as pregame chapel. That day I sat in a hotel room with twenty other players and coaches.
I had done this plenty of times before. But it was different this time. A man called “Doc” came to speak to us, and his message was one I had never heard before. He called it “The Difference between Religion and Biblical Christianity.” He said that religion was man’s greatest effort to reach God and that it was all about doing. Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, was done.
He said that biblical Christianity was not about attending a certain church or about how many good things you had done in a lifetime. Biblical Christianity is about a real person named Jesus Christ— about who He is and what He did. Jesus, God’s Son, had left heaven and come down to earth, where He lived a sinless life for thirty-three years. He never so much as disobeyed His parents or had a bad thought. At the end of His life on earth, Jesus said, “No one takes my life. I lay it down.” Jesus Christ paid the price for all humanity by dying on the cross of Calvary, and three days later He showed Himself to be God by rising from the dead. Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished.” He had done something that humanity could not do for itself. He paid for our sins with His precious blood.
I knew the Good Friday and Easter story. However, that day Doc shared a Bible verse I had never heard before: John 1:12, which says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” He said that means that a person has to individually and by faith receive what Jesus did for him/her on the cross two thousand years ago.
Receive means to appropriate, to take to one’s self and call one’s own at a specific time. That day, by the grace of God, was my day, and by faith I put my trust in what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross of Calvary. Now I know that I am going to heaven when I die, not because of what I have done or what I haven’t done, but because of what Jesus did for me.
My faith in Jesus motivates me to live for Him and to tell others about Him—not because I am trying to work my way to heaven but because heaven is already mine.
August 12, 2014
Ever since I’ve been in a leadership position, my focus has been
the model of Christ as the Servant-Leader. There are different
ways to lead, but I’ve always felt it is better if people follow me
because they want to follow, not because they have to. To lead
like that, you have to earn people’s trust and respect. The way to
do that is to show them you are there to help them.
As a coach it was my job not necessarily just to win championships,
but to help all players, everyone in the organization,
to do their jobs as well as they could. I really tried to, number
one, be a role model and, number two, serve my team spiritually.
I wanted to teach the players as much as I could about football
and how to be better players, but I also wanted to help them be
better people, to do well in the community, and to do well after
football. I wanted them to know that they are, first and always,
servants of others.
I hope my players saw consistency in my life no matter what
happened. . .good or bad, up or down. I hope they saw someone
who tried to live his Christianity every day.
With anything that comes across my desk, if I pray about
it and ask the Lord’s direction, He’s going to work those situations
for His glory. It will be for the best and it will succeed—
maybe not the success the world will see, but success in His eyes.
Remember, you don’t have to do everything the way the
world says. You don’t have to buy into the belief structure that
is popular right now. You need to be your own person. Young
people are so tempted to follow the crowd, but standing firm in
what you believe gives you significance. I believe the true path
to significance is helping people and doing things that benefit
others and not just yourself. Sure, I’m happy that I had the honor
of winning the Super Bowl as a coach, but I’m happier that I
helped fifty-three guys win the championship.
Sometimes along the way, we encounter roadblocks. During
our Super Bowl season, we lost to Jacksonville 44–17—one of
our worst losses since I became coach at Indianapolis. Fans were
saying, “The Colts are falling apart,” but we dug in as a team and
figured out what happened and learned from it. The end of the
story is that we went on to win the Super Bowl that year. You
usually learn as much or more from a loss than you do from
a win. In life, you have the chance to learn from any negative
situation, be it an illness, the loss of a job, or whatever comes
You’re never going to get anywhere in sports or in life until
you become convinced of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Oh sure, you may become a professional athlete and have
nice cars, houses, and a lot of money, but what you will find
is that all that stuff goes away pretty quickly. You have to
understand that Christ died for your sins, and that He died not
just to be your Savior, but so that He could be the center of your
life. And if you understand that, then you have to be committed
to it. You have to be sold out to it—regardless of the role God
wants you to play.
Being “sold out to Jesus” means you must be steadfast. . .and
a little stubborn. First Corinthians 15:58 says, “Stand firm. Let
nothing move you,” and that’s even when it’s not popular.
I know I’ve lost some jobs because the owners who interviewed
me asked me, “Is getting to the Super Bowl the most
important thing in your life? Can I count on you to be there
twenty-four hours a day and be available around the clock to do
whatever it takes to win a Super Bowl?” And my response was,
“No, you can’t. Because if that’s what it takes to have this job,
then I don’t want it.”
The stands God calls you to take may not be popular. They
may not always get you ahead. But you have to stand firm in
your convictions, because being steadfast and handling adversity
well is what a winner does.
It all starts with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It starts with
May 29, 2014
asking Jesus to be your Savior and then living for Him no matter
Dr. Jack Ramsay is a former basketball coach and the man who gave me my first job in the NBA. When he took over as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1976, Dr. Jack’s first order of business was to talk to his star center Bill Walton. “I met with Bill Walton,” he recalled, “to explain the game I wanted to play and his role in it. He seemed pleased with the theory, and yet I remember his comment as we finished our meeting: ‘Coach, one last thing—don’t assume we know anything.'”
What did Walton mean by that? He was telling his new coach that he and his teammates were eager to learn the fundamentals of playing basketball at the NBA level. Even after four years of playing for Coach Wooden at UCLA, Bill Walton knew that there were still more fundamentals to be learned and mastered at this new and more intense level of competition. When Dr. Jack Ramsay heard that Bill Walton and his teammates were eager students of the fundamentals, he knew he’d have a great team—and he was right. That season, Dr. Jack coached the Trail Blazers to an NBA championship.
Michael Jordan‘s biography on the National Basketball Association’s website says, “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.”[v] Jordan’s individual accomplishments include five MVP awards, fourteen NBA All-Star Game appearances, six NBA Finals MVP awards, and being named the greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century by ESPN. He credits his accomplishments to coaches who taught him early in life to master the fundamentals. “When I was young,” he once said, “I had to learn the fundamentals of basketball. You can have all the physical ability in the world, but you still have to know the fundamentals.”
Tony Dungy has two NFL Championship rings, one as a Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback in Super Bowl XIII, one as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI (the Colts made the playoffs in every season of Dungy’s tenure). He retired from coaching in 2009, and is currently the spokesman for All Pro Dad, a national fatherhood program.
In September 2010, Coach Dungy was invited to speak to the New York Yankees before a game against the Red Sox. Reporters asked Coach Dungy what he told the Yankees. He replied, “We talked about some of our experiences, focusing, hanging together down the stretch, important games. It’s not necessarily who has the most talent but what team sticks together and executes their fundamentals the best. Probably nothing they haven’t heard from [Yankees manager] Joe [Girardi]. But I know I have a son who doesn’t listen to anything I say and if he hears the same thing from someone else, sometimes it has a little more impact.”
It’s true. Down deep, we all know that success demands that we master and execute the fundamentals—the little things that give us a big edge against tough competition. Like Coach Dungy’s son, many of us need to hear it again, from a different person, from a different perspective, from a different direction, before it really sinks in.
The importance of mastering and applying the fundamentals is truly ancient wisdom. In Bible times, the apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Most of what Paul says in those verses has to do with self-discipline—yet if you read carefully, you see that Paul is also talking about applying the fundamentals. It does no good to spend hours and hours training in the wrong techniques and building bad habits. If you want to win the prize, you must master the fundamentals. You have to avoid bad habits like over-striding (leg movement too far forward) and over-kicking (leg movement too far behind). You have to avoid clenching your fists or tensing your face. You need to keep your trunk at just the right angle. You must maintain a vertical head position. These are just a few of the many fundamentals a successful runner must learn. If a runner doesn’t master the fundamentals, Paul says, he’ll run aimlessly, like a boxer beating the air.
To win the prize, master the fundamentals and apply them every day.
May 12, 2014
At the time that I was diagnosed with cancer, I was busy promoting my newly released book Coach Wooden: The 7 Principles that Shaped His Life and Will Change Yours—a book on the success secrets of the late, great Coach John Wooden. I sent copies of that book to a number of people, including legendary golfer Arnold Palmer.
Soon afterward, I received a wonderful letter from Arnold in which he referred to his own battle with prostate cancer. He wrote, “Pat, I understand you’re going through a tough time right now. I wish you all the best with your treatment, and would only give you the same advice that people gave me when I was going through my ordeal: listen to what your doctors advise you and keep a positive attitude.”
Every great victory in life begins with optimism and hope. In order to keep fighting against a determined enemy, we must believe that victory is possible, that our problems have a solution. This is especially true when the enemy we face is cancer.
During World War II, Winston Churchill rallied the people of Great Britain, summoning their courage and hard work through speeches that conveyed a tough-minded, realistic hope. Churchill didn’t sugarcoat the sufferings that lay ahead of the British people. In his first speech as prime minister in 1940, he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. . . . What is our aim? . . . It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.” The cancer battle is also a journey of blood, toil, tears, and sweat. The goal of that battle is victory at all costs—victory over cancer.
Dwight Eisenhower once said that having been through a number of military campaigns, he had often seen that in battle there comes a time when the enemy “looks fourteen feet tall and everyone takes alarm. But pessimism never won a battle.” It’s true. And this truth applies to cancer as well as to the battlefield. Sometimes this enemy seems bigger than we are—but pessimism never won a battle.
I don’t want you to enter the battle of your life wearing rose-colored glasses. I want you to be realistically hopeful. I want you to face the challenges ahead armed with sound, reliable knowledge and a positive mental attitude. Whenever you face a major challenge in life, you must make a choice. You can choose to frame your problems as opportunities—or disasters.
Another military leader, General Colin Powell, once said, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” This principle has been proven true countless times, both on the battlefield and in the battle against cancer. Optimism multiplies your strength and resources, increasing your advantage against your opponent. Optimism multiplies the effectiveness of your treatments and medications. Optimism magnifies the benefit you derive from exercise and a healthy diet.
If you choose to face cancer with a positive mental attitude, you will increase your odds of survival and victory over cancer. This doesn’t mean that victory is guaranteed. Optimism is not magic, and a positive outlook is not a cure. But optimism attracts the forces in your life that help to make survival, life, hope, and victory much more likely.
April 24, 2014
Soon after I became acquainted with Coach Wooden, I was surprised to discover that he didn’t consider himself primarily a coach. He saw himself, first and foremost, as a teacher. If you asked him, “How many years have you been coaching?” he would always correct the premise of your question: “I was a teacher for forty years—eleven years in high school, twenty-nine years in college.”
When Coach and I got together over a meal or chatted at his apartment, we rarely talked about coaching or basketball or sports at all. We talked a lot about his faith and values, his heroes (Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa), his love of poetry and literature, and his love of teaching. The great joy of his life was the opportunity he had as a teacher to impact generations of young people. Even when he was coaching basketball, most of his effort was focused not on the game, but on preparing the young men on his team to be effective, productive human beings.
Often, after Coach and I shared a meal together at The Valley Inn, we’d return to his home and the light on his answering machine would be blinking. There was almost always a message from at least one of his former players. Coach had been retired for more than three decades, yet he still received calls from men who had played for him from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Some called simply to keep in touch. Some called for advice. All of them called because of what this man had meant in their lives as a teacher, mentor, and role model. Coach Wooden’s players kept in touch through the years because they loved him. And they loved him because he had always loved them.
As a coach and teacher, John Wooden focused on the little things. He was a teacher of the fundamentals. Coach Wooden once wrote a short opinion piece for Newsweek explaining his approach to the fundamentals:
I think it’s the little things that really count. The first thing I would show our players at our first meeting was how to take a little extra time putting on their shoes and socks properly. The most important part of your equipment is your shoes and socks. You play on a hard floor. So you must have shoes that fit right. And you must not permit your socks to have wrinkles around the little toe—where you generally get blisters—or around the heels. . . . Once I started teaching that many years ago, it did cut down on blisters. It definitely helped. But that’s just a little detail that coaches must take advantage of, because it’s the little details that make the big things come about.
Coach Wooden was a stickler for teaching all of those little details known as the fundamentals. “In my profession,” he once wrote, “fundamentals included such ‘trivial’ issues as insisting on double-tying of shoelaces, seeing that uniforms were properly fitted, and getting players in position to rebound every missed shot. The perfection of those little things—making a habit of doing them right—usually determines if a job is done well or done poorly. It’s true for any organization.”
April 15, 2014
The term “optimism” sometimes gets a bad rap in our culture today. Many people equate optimism with “wishing and hoping.” Sometimes optimists are referred to as “Pollyannas,” after the title character in a 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter and the 1960 Walt Disney movie by that name. If someone calls you a Pollyanna, it’s probably not meant as a compliment. Cynical people use this term to portray optimists as foolishly cheerful, naive, and unable to accept reality.
But if you read Porter’s novel Pollyanna or watch the Disney movie, you’ll see that Pollyanna was not foolish or naive at all. She was an orphan who had experienced trials and losses, who constantly dealt with life’s unfairness and with dour, nasty people, but she had learned to find hope and an optimal attitude in even the most hurtful situations.
If anyone wants to call me a Pollyanna, I will gladly accept the title. I believe it’s a virtue and a strength to look for reasons to be glad and hopeful when you’re going through trials and setbacks. There’s no reason to believe that a pessimist or a cynic is any more realistic than a Pollyanna. In fact, I’ve always found that it is the Pollyannas, the optimists, who are the true realists, the achievers, the ones who get things done. We celebrate go-getting, positive-thinking optimists. After all, when was the last time you saw a statue honoring a pessimist?
In uncertain times, optimists always have the advantage. The optimist looks at his or her uncertain circumstances and says, “I don’t really know how this is going to turn out, but I’m going to expect the best outcome and I’m going to work hard to make good things happen.” By contrast, the pessimist looks at uncertain circumstances and says, “I’m always a victim of Murphy’s Law—if something can go wrong, it will. I always have bad luck. Why even try? Might as well give up.” Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, your attitude frequently becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Numerous scientific studies have shown a clear relationship between an optimistic mental attitude and the state of our physical and mental health. Optimists are statistically healthier people than pessimists with regard to such illnesses as clinical depression, heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and, yes, cancer. There are several obvious reasons for this, some having to do with the lifestyle of an optimist. Positive people tend to be more physically active, consume a more healthy diet, and do not feel the need to alter their moods with alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Because optimists feel more confident and in control of their lives, they feel less stress in difficult situations—and emotional stress is known to play a role in depressing the immune system and other crucial systems in the body.
So when Dr. Reynolds told me that my optimism was going to help me in my battle with cancer, he was not just dispensing platitudes. He was giving me good medical advice. He was offering me a realistic assessment of some of the key factors in my medical prognosis. In my battle against cancer, he said, my positive mental attitude was one of my strongest allies. I latched on to this hope, and Dr. Reynolds’s words have proven reliable again and again throughout my cancer journey.
That’s why I want to pass this insight along to you: Make optimism your first ally. While there are no guarantees in any cancer battle, you have a realistic reason for optimism. Hold on to that hope. Maintain your optimism. Your positive attitude is going to get you through this.
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