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.
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.
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.”
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.
Stanford business school professor and researcher Dr. Robert I. Sutton reports that one of the distinguishing marks of a good business leader (a “good boss”) is that he or she is interested in “the little things,” the details of the organization. An ineffective and arrogant business leader (a “bad boss”) is only interested in the “big picture” and considers “the little things” as being unworthy of notice. “Big picture” bosses, says Sutton, tend to “see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs—and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere ‘management work’ best done by ‘the little people.’ . . . [They] avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things.”
Sutton cites the example of a CEO of a major cellular phone company who made a series of disastrous product development and marketing decisions because all he cared about was “the big picture.” This CEO was out of touch with the features consumers really wanted in their phones, the “little things” his customers were looking for—so the marketplace rejected his company’s products.
By contrast, Sutton says, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was able to envision the big picture while also maintaining a focus on the little things. From the time Apple opened its first Apple Store near Jobs’ home in Palo Alto, the CEO himself would often visit the store. Sutton writes, “Jobs constantly fussed over details such as the quality of the shopping bags, where employees stood in the store, and the color of the walls and tables, and what they conveyed about the brand.” One of the keys to Steve Jobs’ brilliance was his ability to focus on the little things within the big picture.
As Sutton concludes, “I am all for big ideas, visions, and dreams. But the best bosses do more than think big thoughts. They have a deep understanding of their industries, organizations, and teams, the people they lead, as well as other mundane things. . . . This ability to go back and forth between the little details and the big picture is evident in the leaders I admire most.”
Leaders can delegate tasks and authority, but leaders cannot delegate responsibility. A leader is responsible for every action and decision made by the people under his command. Great leaders build teams of creative self-starters, then empower their people to make decisions. They set clear objectives and standards, then they check in often to make sure those objectives and standards are met. By paying attention to the little things, great leaders accomplish big things.
Coach John Wooden was the greatest coach who ever lived. That’s not just my opinion. That’s the consensus opinion throughout the sports world.
In July 2009, The Sporting News published a ranking of the fifty greatest coaches of all time, in every sport, at every level, both collegiate and professional. The ranking was made by a blue-ribbon committee of sports writers, coaches, and top athletes. The number one coach on that list was John Wooden, followed by Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant. During his tenure as head basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins (1948-1975), Coach John Wooden won ten NCAA national championships in a twelve-year period, including seven championships in a row. During that time, his Bruins won a record eighty-eight games in a row. His record is unprecedented, and is likely to stand as long as the game of basketball is played.
Coach Wooden always seemed to think three moves ahead of everyone else. Whenever I was with him, I felt like I was a student and he was the master, the mentor, the teacher. And if I needed insight, I needed only to lower my bucket into the well of his wisdom, and there would always be plenty of insight to draw from.
So, on that evening when he told me that the key to success in life is “a lot of little things done well,” I felt I had fallen into a gold mine. Those seven words matched up exactly with everything I had experienced in my own journey toward success—and they matched up with the experience of successful people in many fields.
Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade was named 2006 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. He helped lead the Heat to two NBA championships (2006 and 2012). He also helped lead the 2008 United States men’s basketball “Redeem Team” to a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He ascribes his success to “little things,” saying, “Guys who might not be superstars, but because of their hustle, because of the little things they do, these are the guys who can really mean the difference between winning and losing.”
Swimmer Ryan Lochte, who won two Olympic gold medals in Beijing and two more gold medals in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, also says that the difference between winning and losing is the little things: “I’m going to focus on speed, doing little things like my turns and my starts—just speed.”
But the little things are also important in fields that have nothing to do with athletic competition. Sir Roger Penrose is an English mathematical physicist. He shared the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics with Stephen Hawking. He once explained that the discovery of a grand scientific principle often takes place not as a sudden, huge revelation but as a series of small inklings, one idea building on top of another. “People think of these eureka moments,” he once said, “and my feeling is that they tend to be little things, a little realization, and then a little realization built on that.”
Bruce Barton was an advertising executive, the cofounder of the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) agency. He invented Betty Crocker and named the companies General Electric and General Motors. He also served as a two-term congressman from the state of New York. Barton once observed, “Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century English writer and literary critic, has been called “the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” He understood the importance of little things to the art of living well. He once wrote, “There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”
If you apply Coach Wooden’s greatest secret, big things will happen in your life.
“We need to be visionary; we have to be bold.” —Novelist Angela Hunt
Detroit-born folk-protest singer Sixto Rodriguez performed and recorded in the late 1960s and early ’70’s. His bold songs about racial discrimination and justice for the poor were compared to the social commentary music of Bob Dylan.
Rodriguez’ music failed to gain traction with U.S. audiences, and his performing career ground to a halt. He returned to Detroit and eked out a rough living in the demolition industry.
Meanwhile, an Australian recording label re-released Rodriguez’ albums, which found their way to racially divided South Africa. His songs about the plight of the poor in inner-city Detroit quickly became anti-apartheid anthems all across South Africa.
Rodriguez himself was completely unaware that his music was inspiring peaceful protests in South Africa. He continued to scratch out a living in the rubble of Detroit—and record producers quietly pocketed his royalty checks. According to South African urban legend, Rodriguez had committed suicide during a stage performance.
In 1996, after apartheid ended, Sixto’s daughter discovered a website celebrating his music as a force for change in the peaceful revolution that ended apartheid in South Africa. Only then did Sixto Rodriguez discover that, through the bold message of his music, he had been a leader in a movement he didn’t even know he led.
If you want to lead a great movement, proclaim a bold message.
“Freedom lies in being bold.” ―Robert Frost
“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” —Spencer Johnson
I considered him a hero and a role model. I was fooled.
USA Today‘s Christine Brennan named cyclist Lance Armstrong “2012’s ANTI-sportsman of the year, hands down. He lied, cheated, bullied, and deceived his way to seven Tour de France titles and millions of dollars from those who believed his story was pure and true. It wasn’t. Not even close.” His deception is all the more offensive, Brennan writes, because Armstrong set himself up as “far more than a superb athlete. He had marketed himself as a superb person, too.”[i]
In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Though doctors gave him slim hope of survival, surgery and chemotherapy saved his life. Beating cancer became part of the Lance Armstrong legend.
Allegations of doping dogged him, though he had passed some 600 drug tests. Armstrong called himself “the most tested athlete in the world.” But in 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency released evidence that Armstrong had operated “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”[ii]
Now he’s stripped of his titles and hero image, and being sued for millions. The next time you’re tempted to betray your integrity, remember Lance Armstrong—antihero.
“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.” —King Solomon (Proverbs 10:9)
[ii] BBC, “Lance Armstrong: USADA Report Labels Him ‘A Serial Cheat,'” BBC.co.uk, October 11, 2012.