Defining Success

Having just watched the 2018 Winter Olympic Games I find myself reflecting on how athletes define success.  Most seem to base success on either 1) winning a medal or, 2) playing their best.

Now I’m a long way from the definition of an Olympic athlete. My claim to fame consists of playing collegiate tennis on the Division III level at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter MN (I’m firmly entrenched in the Hall of Average). However, I was fortunate enough to play for Steve Wilkinson– the winningest tennis coach in NCAA history.

“Wilk” had a theory that once it’s all said and done, the only real way to define success—on the court or in life, is to be able to say you “tried your hardest.” Now think about that—the winningest tennis coach in NCAA history didn’t define success by winning. That’s mind-blowingly counterintuitive.

From Wilk’s perspective, you can’t always count on winning, or even playing your best—there are too many things beyond your control for that to happen. If Tiger Woods plays his best every round on the golf course he’s unbeatable, If Roger Federer plays his best every time on the tennis court, he wins every major every year. If Michael Jordan played his best every time he was on the basketball court he would have never missed a shot. In fact, Michael Jordan has a quote that’s a favorite of mine: “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something.  But I can’t accept not trying.”

The only thing you can control when it comes to most anything in life is how hard you try. You’re not going to win every game, win every deal, or have the perfect family. Trying your hardest will give you the best shot at the best outcome under whatever circumstances you’re facing at that time. Best of all, trying your hardest is completely within your control. Give it a try—your hardest.

If you’d like to read more about the remarkable out of the box life lessons Steve Wilkinson offers up, please pick up his book “Let Love Serve” available on and the book store at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter Minnesota.