John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, was a man who understood what it takes to succeed. In his 40 years of coaching, he worked at UCLA for 27 years, during which his teams never had a losing season. In fact, he led his teams to 10 national championships in his last 12 years at UCLA.
Coach Wooden cited some of the reasons for his “staying power”: “I emphasized constant improvement and steady performance. I have often said, ‘The mark of a true champion is to always perform near your own level of competency.’”
The well-known coach commented that he probably scouted opponents less than any other coach he knew—less, in fact, than most high school coaches. Instead, he taught his players the basics, because he recognized that sound offensive and defensive principles would serve them well no matter what style of play they encountered.
He was as concerned with a player’s character as he was with the player’s ability. “While it may be possible to reach the top of one’s profession on sheer ability,” he said, “it is impossible to stay there without hard work and character.” Wooden looked for athletes who played a clean game and who were constantly trying to improve themselves in order to strengthen the team. “Then, if their ability warranted it,” he explained, “the championships would take care of themselves.” 1
Coach Wooden identified some important principles that were the bedrock of his championship teams. Perhaps we can apply those same principles as we work to better ourselves as a community of Saints. First, consistently do your best with the talents your Father in Heaven has given you. Second, concentrate on the basics, because they are appropriate in any situation or season of life. Third, worry more about developing sound character than about building reputation.
Consistently Do Your Best
One of my favorite scriptures is found in the eighth chapter of Psalms:
“O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. …
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Ps. 8:1, 3–5).
I like to think of myself as a junior angel with the power and potential of an eternal being.
I am absolutely amazed as I watch the growth and development of my grandchildren. I marvel at how different they are in appearance and personality, even though they come from a common heritage and similar environments.
Let me describe the oldest sons of each of my three children. The son of my eldest daughter was a serious student. He has grown, progressed, and received a master’s degree in engineering. All through his school experience, he has ranked in the top of his class. He was a very disciplined child and is so today, as he assumes the role of provider for a wife and a child.
I remember baby-sitting at his house when he and his sister were young. His discipline was a source of my frustration. I would gather the children around me to read a story before they retired to bed. Just as I would be getting to the good part of the story, the clock would strike the appointed bedtime hour. My grandson would announce that it was time to go to bed. He would not let me finish the page or even a sentence. The established bedtime had arrived. End of story.
My son’s eldest boy is also a very excellent student. He is currently attending Brigham Young University, after successfully completing a mission in Japan, where he was required to not only learn Japanese but also Portuguese. He reasons things out very carefully. He supports all of his arguments with numerous facts. I’ve considered his reasoning to be, at times, brilliant.
The son of my youngest daughter is fascinated with anything mechanical. He is currently serving a mission in the Massachusetts Boston Mission of the Church. He was able to save for his mission by working after school in the computer businesses around Provo. He was so skilled in how computers operate that from the time he was 14, he has been in demand after school to come in and straighten out computer problems in several firms. I will never forget his interest in mechanics. When he was just a child, I took him on a tour of Temple Square to show him the beautiful flowers, trees, and buildings. He had no interest in them. He spent his time finding the sprinkler heads on the grounds and testing them to see if they were screwed in tightly.
Three boys springing from the same family tree—how different each of them is in appearance and talent!
All of us are endowed with abundant talent, beauty, and ability. Our lack of productivity can never be blamed on a lack of raw material. Elder Richard L. Evans (1906–71) once wrote:
“We know of no one in life who isn’t an Important Person. We know of no man on the street (or in the gutter, for that matter) who isn’t a child of God with the same rights and with the same relationship to his Father in heaven as all the rest of us have.
“We know of no one, young or old, from infants to elderly individuals, whose past or whose potential we would want to appraise as being unimportant. We know of no one we might see in any public place—on subways or busses, or walking in shabby shoes—or any boy selling papers … who doesn’t have an inestimable, unknown potential, here and hereafter.” 2
Concentrate on the Basics
Coach Wooden taught basic principles to his players, guidelines like “Never give the outside to any forward who tries to drive around you.” The game of life is also governed by some basic principles. Two of the more important principles we live by are integrity and honesty.
The Lord loves those who have integrity. He said about the Prophet’s brother Hyrum Smith, “Blessed is my servant Hyrum Smith; for I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me, saith the Lord” (D&C 124:15).
What is the meaning of integrity? We can find several definitions in the dictionary: rigid adherence to a code or standard of values; moral soundness, especially as it relates to steadfastness to truth, purpose, responsibility, or trust; moral and ethical strength; or the quality of being whole, complete, undivided.
The Lord described Job as a man who was perfect and upright. As Job was suffering untold trials and tribulations, his wife said to him, “Dost thou still retain thine integrity?” (Job 2:9). Even with all his problems and challenges, Job “sinned not” (Job 1:22). And the Lord said, “There is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil … and still he holdeth fast his integrity” (Job 2:3).
When Job’s friends falsely accused him of sin, he said:
“All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
“My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
“God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.
“My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go” (Job 27:3–6).
Job invited judgment from God so “that God may know mine integrity” (Job 31:6). Job’s conscience was clear, for he knew he was honest and upright in all of his endeavors, and he would never compromise his integrity.
Many years ago when the railroad was just beginning to cross the United States regularly, President Brigham Young (1801–77) said to a group of Church members: “We want the Saints to increase in goodness, until our mechanics, for instance, are so honest and reliable that this Railroad Company will say, ‘Give us a “Mormon” Elder for an engineer, then none need have the least fear to ride, for if he knows there is danger he will take every measure necessary to preserve the lives of those entrusted to his care.’ I want to see our Elders so full of integrity that they will be preferred by this Company for their engine builders, watchmen, engineers, clerks, and business managers.” 3
Abraham Lincoln said: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.” 4 Lincoln is remembered for what he did but also for what he was—a forthright man of integrity.
The principle of honesty is a close relation to that of integrity. Our thirteenth article of faith begins with the statement “We believe in being honest.” [A of F 1:13] We do not believe in honesty merely as a matter of policy. Honesty is a principle of salvation in the kingdom of God.
Moses gave us the following counsel: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Num. 30:2).
I learned early in my business career that dishonesty is like a disease. It requires a strong antidote to effect a cure. It seemed that every time I was compassionate and gave a dishonest person a second chance, I lived to regret it. It seemed that once they lost their honesty, they had to hit bottom and suffer severe consequences before there was any hope for a permanent cure.
It was Brigham Young who said, “Simple truth, simplicity, honesty, uprightness, justice, mercy, love, kindness, do good to all and evil to none, how easy it is to live by such principles! A thousand times easier than to practice deception!” 5
Develop Sound Character
President David O. McKay (1873–1970) related the experience of standing in a sculptor’s yard in Florence, Italy. There he observed broken, irregular pieces of granite from which the sculptor created works of art. In the yard he also observed a magnificent figure, a statue of David, carved more than 400 years before from pieces of stone as crude as those around the yard. He compared the carving of stone to the carving of a soul and asked the question “Is it going to be a deformed one, or is it going to be something admired and beautiful for time and throughout eternity?”
President McKay’s account reminds us that it is our responsibility to carve out our own lives, to carve out the character we would like to have. Our tools are our ideas and thoughts.
The English novelist Charles Reade said: “Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.” 6
We become what we think and do. Habits mold our character. Good habits are not acquired from good intentions only; they are developed in the workshop of our daily lives. They are fashioned in the often uneventful, commonplace routines of life and strengthened by practice.
Brigham Young University president Ernest L. Wilkinson once said: “Good character is not something to be obtained by ease and indulgence, or by something socially agreeable. It cannot be acquired by absorption or by proxy, or on the auction block. It is a reward derived from honest trial in overcoming difficulties. We grow by mastering tasks which others consider to be impossible.”
This very day you are forming habits that will be part of your life forever. The English author Samuel Johnson wrote, “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt till they are too strong to be broken.” 7
Positive habits are as difficult to make as negative habits are difficult to break. It takes desire, repetition, and time to form them.
The prophets through the ages have counseled and encouraged each of us to develop a sound character. Paul’s warning to the Galatians applies to all of us:
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
“For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:7–9).
If we sow seeds of decency and goodness, the fruits of our honest labors will be blessings in heaven.
Hold fast to those basic principles that are tried and true. Consistently develop your talents, protect and preserve your honesty and integrity, and build a sound character. This is the secret of real staying power, for these are principles that will not depreciate with time. Why? Because they are God-given principles founded on eternal truths.
Wall Street Journal, 23 Apr. 1986, 39.
Quoted in Richard L. Evans Jr., Richard L. Evans—The Man and the Message (1973), 304.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 24.
Emerson Roy West, comp., Vital Quotations (1968), 178.
Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 232.
Quoted in Burton Stevenson, comp., The Home Book of Quotations (1934), 845.
Quoted in Charles Noel Douglas, comp., Forty Thousand Quotations (1917), 912.