It’s an honor for me to be here. I’ve been sharing this message for over 20 years now, and I primarily have been sharing it with businessmen. But what I have found is that it has incredible application to coaches. It has application, really, to anybody. It has application to women, as they seek to understand men in their lives. My 14-year old son is reading it right now, and it’s been a good thing for him, and for us to discuss. But regardless of who you are and what you do, I think this message has universal application to your life.
I first titled this talk, The Success Trap, How Do You Measure A Man’s Life? And, it’s built on this premise; men today get their sense of worth, value, and significance based solely on how well they perform and achieve in their occupation, in their work. In fact, Dr. Tim Keller went so far as to say,
“We are the first culture in history where men get their sense of worth and significance based on how well they perform and achieve in life.”
And, this was not the case in your more traditional cultures, those of the past. Your sense of worth and identity in the past usually was based on your relationships, particularly your family relationships. What kind of husband were you? Father? Grandfather? Relationships you had with people in your community. And, work, though it was important, it really was a way you provided for your family, and you improve the quality of life in a community.
It’s interesting, and this is not in the book, this is something I just encountered, but it’s so appropriate. It was an analysis of obituaries that were done in Salem, Massachusetts, from the newspapers, from 1786, all the way up to 1990. It was incredibly revealing because it says at the beginning of the 19th Century, most obituaries made some mention of the character of the deceased. By contrast, a person’s occupation was seldom an important detail in obituaries at the beginning of the 19th Century. But by 1990, it had become the key means by which a person was identified. In other words, you got your identity in life based on what you did. And, therefore, I guess, if you were successful at what you did, you were considered a real man. But if you weren’t, what did that mean?
You see, many men measure their lives based on their performance. And, this basically has caused us to become addicted to the approval of others, which, as you’ll see as I share, leads to all types of problems in our lives. It just cascades into our lives. Starting with this main, underlying fear that Chris mentioned. And, that fear is this,
“What do people think about me? What do people think about me?”
I use several illustrations in the book, but it’s funny. As I knew I was coming to speak to coaches, I thought of a situation. I’ve never done much coaching at all in my life. We live in Homewood, and I coached my son in the 3rd and 4th grade in basketball, the only coaching, really, I’ve ever done, other than assistant coaching. In my first year, we won the championship in basketball, and I was feeling pretty good about myself and my abilities. The second-year I took over, and we were not that good. We lost, I think, our first three games. And, I remember I started thinking,
“I wonder what these parents are thinking about me, what kind of coach I am.”
And, it really began to weigh on me. And, then, I’ll never forget, in the quarter-finals of the championship, we got beat by a team that we had drubbed during the year. They beat us, a long shot right at the end of the game. I want to tell you, I still think about that game. And, I always wondered,
“I wonder what those parents thought about me, as their sons’ basketball coach.”
It kind of works like this for us. For so many of us, life is all about what I do, and how successful I am at what I do, which leads me to wonder, “What do you think about what I do? How do you rate what I do?” Which leads, I believe, to the great fear that men, and maybe even women have as well. The great fear, other than maybe the fear of dying or a loved one dying, I believe that the greatest fear that men have is fear of failure. It’s like a psychological death. You see, so many men are not driven by the desire to succeed. It’s amazing how many men are driven by the fear of failing.
I had a man tell me, and if you saw this man’s life, you saw the home he lived in, the second home he has, the cars he drives, just a picture of success in the world of business. And, yet, he told me every day when he gets up, and his feet hit the floor, he’s driven by fear of failing.
David Sokol, who was going to take over for Warren Buffett, the wealthiest man in our country, take over as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. Unfortunately, he lost that opportunity by doing something unethical. But there was a write up about his life. Unbelievably driven, successful man, but he admitted, he said,
“I’m driven by one thing; fear of failure. Fear of failure.”
Now, if you really think about it, why do we fear failing? Again, what are people going to think? What are they going to think about me if I fail? And, you see how this, like I said, just cascades into our lives. Think about this. Think about how it impacts our relationships with others. And, this is where there is a huge divergence between men and women.
For my wife, if you get my wife, and she meets with another woman at Starbucks, and they sit down and have coffee together, it’s amazing how they’ll spill their guts with each other. And, they’ll talk about what’s going on in their lives, even if they don’t know each other very well. But you get two men together in that same situation, and all we really want to talk about is our jobs, sports. As Christians, we may talk about the Christian life, but we never want anybody to know what’s going on in my life, particularly my struggles. What I’m afraid of, that I might get depressed. And, you know, the athletes that you coach will probably never want to do that because men, that’s not supposed to happen to us. It betrays our male identity, fear and worry, and struggles and depression.
I’m older than most of you. There was a song, back when I was a teenager by Simon and Garfunkel called, it goes like this,
“I am a rock, I am an island. And, a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
That’s a description of what men are supposed to be. And, so we end up hiding ourselves from others. We don’t want anyone to know that we struggle, because you wouldn’t value me. That can make for a very lonely life. Fear of failure causes us to play it safe, to avoid risks in life, maybe to avoid risks in your coaching life, that you would maybe like to do something radical, but
“I’m afraid, I fear failing. I don’t want to do anything that makes me look bad, always seeking to hide my inadequacies.”
There’s a great illustration that’s in the book. It’s about a group of sociologists who did a survey. And, in order to be part of the survey, there was only one requirement; you had to be 95 years old, or over, to be a part of the survey. And, they asked this one question,
“If you could go back and live your life over again, what would you do differently?”
And, they took all of the information that was given, and they realized that there were three primary responses. Not three only, but there were three primary responses.
The first was,
“If I could live my life over again, I would have spent more time,” and this has application to all of us as well, “investing in endeavors that will live on after I am gone.”
The second answer was,
“I would have spent more time reflecting on life. I wouldn’t have spent so much time in frenetic activity. I would have spent more time thinking and reflecting, and being by myself. Being quiet. Reading, reflecting.”
But the third one and the one that gets me is,
“If I could live my life over again, I would have taken more risks in life.”
Now, what these older folks are telling us is,
“I realize that I played it safe in life because I was afraid to fail.”
And, you can just see what it does to our lives. There is so much more, I’m limited on time, but it is in the book, The True Measure of a Man. It explains why we’re always trying to impress other people. It does. We always want to look good in the eye of other people because it makes me feel good about who I am. And, this is a big one. This is why we have such a great tendency, and we don’t think about this a lot. We have an unbelievable tendency to always compare ourselves to others. Isn’t that amazing? In other words, the way we measure our lives, so often, is by looking around and saying, “Well, how is he doing, and he doing, and he doing, and he doing?” We can’t just be content with who we are, doing what we’re doing, knowing we’ve done our best. We always have to look, as the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes says,
“We always have to know, what’s my neighbor doing? How well is he doing? How well do I measure up, compared to him?”
I’m even amazed, if you’re a parent, you start comparing your kids to other kids. It’s always a reflection on me.
C.S. Lewis says,
“This is the heart of pride,”
in his book Mere Christianity. We’re always comparing ourselves. And, he would say to a group of coaches, he would say,
“It’s not that you want to be the greatest coach in America. What you find is that you just want to be a better coach than you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you.”
It’s a comparison thing. It’s a competitive thing. And, that’s where we get our sense of worth and value.
One of my favorites, truly favorite, incidences in the New Testament, it’s a parable that Jesus gives in Luke 18. It’s the Pharisee and tax guy. Remember that parable? They both go into the temple to pray. The Pharisee says,
“Lord, I’m glad I’m not like other men.” And, he starts talking about swindlers and adulterers, then he says, “And, like that tax-gatherer over there.”
The comparison, you see it, the pride, the comparison. And, what does the tax-gatherer doing? It says it can’t even lift his eyes toward heaven. He has his head bowed, he’s beating his breast saying,
“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And God says,
“Only one man left that temple justified.”
This creates envy and jealousy. Do you know what envy is? Wanting somebody else’s life. And, I speak a lot about it. That means that if I want someone else’s life, that means I’m not content with who I am, and what I have and what I’m doing. And, contentment is God’s will for your life, that we would be content with where He has placed us, the abilities He’s given us.
Now, the big question is, and you may be wondering,
“How can I be set free from this? How can I be set free from this trap that I’m in?”
And, I really believe it starts by recognizing this is true in your life, everything that I’ve shared. There’s an element of truth of this in your life. We’re dysfunctional.
I heard Gene Chizik speak back in May, a wonderful talk. And, right toward the end, and his wife was in the audience, he said,
“You know.” And, he talked some great stories about working with his players and what have you. He said, “You know, really when it gets right down to it, we’re all dysfunctional.”
We have all kinds of dysfunction in our lives. But understanding this is so important because this is a major component of being wise. Understanding yourself.
That’s what John Calvin said, that opens that massive work, The Institutes Of The Christian Religion. He opens it with these words,
“All true wisdom is made up of these two things. One is a knowledge of God, and two is a knowledge and understanding of self.”
You see, a big part of this, really guys and ladies, is understanding that our culture promotes, and embraces lies. What I call them, and describe them, I get from Blaise Pascal, is
“False ideas about reality.”
And, it’s important to understand this. We buy into this. And, the three false ideas that we have, that men buy into, is one, false ideas about what does it really mean to be successful. Number two, false ideas about what does it mean to be masculine. And, three, false ideas about what does it truly means to be wealthy? What is true wealth?
Another thing I would tell you, and ask you to consider, is to understand the importance and the place of struggles, even if it’s a failure, in your life. The way God uses struggles, He calls them
“The storms of life,” (Matthew 7)
Jesus does in Matthew 7. But there is purpose in it.
There’s a great quote, probably one of my favorite quotes outside of the Scriptures. It comes from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian historian, a Russian author. He won a Nobel Prize for literature. He gave a very controversial commencement address at Harvard, called “A World Split Apart” back in 1979. He spent eight years of his life in prison, in a Russian prison, because he wrote some disparaging remarks about Joseph Stalin. Eight years away from family and friends, you’d think he’d come out angry and bitter. But what most people don’t realize is he went into prison as an atheist. He came out of prison, eight years later, as a committed Christian. And, the first words to come out of his mouth when he walked out of that prison was,
“I bless you, prison. I bless you for being in my life, for there lying on rotting prison straw, I learned that the object of life is not prosperity, as I had grown up believing, but it is the maturing of the soul.”
And, I don’t know if we ever stop and give much thought to this, but what is the object of life? Think about that. What is the object of life? If it’s comfort, if it’s pleasure, if it’s wealth, if it’s achievement, if it’s winning football games, then the storms of life can be quite calamitous in our lives. But if the object of life is the maturing of the soul, the transformation of your character, and knowing God personally, then the storms of life can be like what Solzhenitsyn said.
“I bless you for being in my life.”
Because what happened with Solzhenitsyn was he realized God made a spiritual breakthrough in his life that he couldn’t make in any other way. It was the only way for him to see the spiritual truth of life, was to go through this incredible storm, eight years of prison.
A third thing, I think, is so important, and I wish I had more time; I don’t. This is so applicable to you as coaches. And, that is, as you start thinking, and Chris made reference to it, as you start thinking about your legacy, what do you want your life to have been about when you get to the end of it? How do you want to be remembered?
Think about it. 100 years from now, what’s really going to matter? Your wins and losses? That’s the way you’re measured now. But unfortunately, if you think about it, 100 years from now, all that’s going to really matter, as far as I’m concerned, and I think as far as God’s concerned is, who you were as a man and the impact that you made on others.
There is a great book, it’s not a Christian book. It was written sometime back by a Harvard professor by the name of Henry Adams. He won a Pulitzer Prize. It was an autobiography called The Education of Henry Adams. In it, there’s this quote. He said,
“A teacher,” you could insert the word coach. “A teacher impacts eternity. You never know where your influence will end.”
When you have the opportunity to impact a young man or a young woman’s life, you never know where that will end, that influence will end.
I worked for a number of years as a volunteer leader with Young Life. I’ll never forget, we were on a trip and there was a knock on my door. There were a couple of young men out front, and they came to tell me, these were guys I had really invested a lot of time in. And, these guys were knocking on my door to tell me that they had given their lives to Christ. Not long ago, I had lunch with one of them. He called me, and he said, “I want to tell you something.” He’s a physician now. I think he’s a surgeon of some kind. He’s got a wonderful wife. He’s got, Christian kids. He’s involved in a youth organization. He’s really making a difference. And, he said to me,
“I just wanted to tell you that your influence is being passed on.”
And, I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. I mean, all those years, all the time investing in these teenagers that you wondered if you really were making a difference. It made it all worth it. Maybe the most meaningful compliment I ever received.
The last thing, and then I’ll wrap this up, is this. This, to me, is crucial, if we’re going to be set free from the success trap, as I called it. It’s important to understand that every single one of us gets our sense of identity from somebody outside of ourselves. In other words, we see ourselves the way people outside of us, what they’re saying about us.
In the book, I outline this. It’s a brilliant concept. It’s called “The Looking Glass Self“. It was developed over 100 years ago by a guy by the name of Charles Cooley. It’s kind of a personality theory, but this is what he says. He was a sociologist. He says,
“We see ourselves and get our sense of value and worth based on how the most important person in our lives sees us.”
You think about young children. It’s their parents. That’s why, as you raise your children, it’s important to love them and encourage them and tell them how important they are, how much value they have. But the problem is, you all know and you have to deal with this in your work, is that once they get to a certain level, let’s just say the teenage years, the parent is no longer the most important person in their lives. It’s their peers. This explains why peer pressure is so powerful. Because of the most important people in their lives, the people that give them their sense of worth and identity are their peers. Other teenagers, which creates a real problem.
It struck me as I was preparing this, you may be the only adult whose opinion they value. You really may be.
I had a father tell me, his son is a junior at Mt. Brook, and he says,
“I hope that Coach Yeager when he’s a senior next year, a copy of your book.” He says, “Because he won’t listen to me. He won’t read something I give him, but he’ll run through a brick wall for Chris Yeager.”
So, you may be the only adults that really have an opportunity to impact these kids, because you’re probably the only adults whose opinion really matters to them.
But let me keep going. What happens when you leave those teenage years, and you go through your early 20’s? Nothing really changes that much, because what really matters is, basically, the opinions of your peers as an adult. Your colleagues, maybe your competitors, the people in your community. They’re the audience that we seek to perform for. We’re always trying to win their approval. But this is really what I want to drive home.
Think about this, what if the most important person in your life is Jesus? How do you think that would change a person’s life?
I contend it will have a radical impact. You see because we have unbelievable value in the sight of Christ.
There’s a great verse in Ephesians 2:10, it says,
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
That word workmanship comes from a Greek word POMIA, which means work of art. We are God’s work of art, and that’s why we have such great value. You think about a painting done by Rembrandt. It’s worth millions of dollars. Why is it worth so much? Not because there are all kinds of beautiful paintings out there. Do you know why it’s of such great value? Because of the artist. And, God is the artist, we are His masterpiece. You see, that’s why we’re so dysfunctional, because we believe we are valued based on what we do, and how well we perform, and how well we achieve.
But we should realize that my worth as a human being should not be based on what I do, but on who I am in the sight of God, who I am in Christ Jesus.
And, so, I’m going to leave you with an illustration, and I’ll close in prayer.
This was an article in The Wall Street Journal, back in January of 2007. It was about a squad leader, Jason Dunham, who was fighting in Iraq. He had a group of men with him and they had a checkpoint. They stopped every car that came through there because they were going into an important area. This car stops, they asked the man to get out of the car. It turned out he was a terrorist. A struggle ensues. And, the guy drops a grenade right there in their midst. He was going to kill himself and all these soldiers. Well, Dunham takes his helmet off real quickly, puts it over the grenade, and then lays down on top of it, and it blows up. They rush him to the hospital, but he dies on the way to the hospital. But he saved every man! Every man in his squad.
And, his family was going to The White House. This is what the article is about. He was the first soldier in Iraq to receive The Congressional Medal of Honor. President Bush was going to give it to the family. And, it said in the article, there was a Corporal Miller there in the audience. It says he was still struggling with what it means to receive that much love. I mean, how do you repay someone? How do you honor them and thank them for dying for you?
And, I share this because this, if you think about it, what Jesus has done for us. He’s fallen on the grenade for us.
Because when He went to the Cross, listen to what the Scripture says.
“He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our inequities, the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging, we are healed. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the inequity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)
You know, once we get this truth into our lives, it will change us radically.
Let me close in prayer.
Lord, I am truly honored to be here. I’m grateful for each individual, and what you’ve called them to do with their lives. Thank you for the FCA, and just the way it’s been used over the years in the lives of so many coaches and players. I just pray that you would continue to do a work in each of our lives. And, Father, that you would set each of us free from this trap, whether you want to call it an achievement trap, a success trap, that we would realize our true worth and value, as men and women, is based on who we are in Christ Jesus. It’s in His name that we pray. Amen.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.