Developing the Vince Lombardi Habit of Winning

Do you know why so many ‘gifted’ children go on to produce mediocre results with their ‘gifts’? How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m a talented guy, why can’t I achieve results like him? How did someone with such average intelligence, average looks, and average ability, become so successful?” 

Vince Lombardi, a man with average looks, average intelligence, and average athletic ability, became one of the most successful coaches in history, and his wisdom debunks many common beliefs about competition, giftedness, success, self-improvement, and personal growth.  

One of the most unassuming, average guys from my High School went on to make over $100 million dollars. Actually, today he’s pretty good looking guy, but back then there were dozens of people who were smarter, more charismatic, better looking, or better athletes. How did it happen? How is he different?

Another person from my High School is one of the smartest and best looking people I have ever known and has done little with her life but complain about how ‘stupid’ everyone is and she wonders why the ‘stupid’ people seem to be so much happier and wealthier than her. She talks about how it must be a conspiracy or blind luck. She says most people are too shallow to understand her intelligence. She has an IQ over 170 and can’t understand why people won’t simply pay her six figures for her brilliance. You can see the problem, but she is blind to it. Why? How did this happen to someone who was given a major advantage in life? I’ll explore that in this post.

Vince Lombardi’s formula for being #1 is simple and it doesn’t require high intelligence, good looks, or world-class talent. But remember, we often confuse simple with easy. Simple is not easy. For example, losing weight is simple, but it can be extraordinarily difficult. Ask any computer programmer who has developed a simple solution and he will testify that complex solutions are far easier to create than simple ones. Complexity is the sanctuary of the novice, and simplicity is the revelation of a genius. So when people tell you to keep it simple, they are asking you to think like a genius.

Read Vince Lombardi’s speech on what it takes to be #1, and you’ll see his formula. Winning is a habit. Winning attracts more winning and unfortunately so does losing.

So how do we develop the Vince Lombardi habit of winning?

Develop a Strong Head
To have a strong head you need to have a disciplined mind. Everything ever accomplished by a human being began as a thought. This isn’t magic. It’s an undeniable fact. Set your goals, focus your thoughts, visualize the outcome, document the details, and make it a habit, because good habits are the foundation of all accomplishment. But it does require much more than thought alone.

Develop a Big Heart
Immerse your focused, habitual, and obsessive thoughts with positive emotion. Mix your burning desires with faith, love, determination, gratitude, and persistence. This is what my son calls Sha-hand-show-bo. This is how you keep going even when you want to quit. This gives you the ability to reach down inside yourself, when you don’t think you have anything left to give, and find the energy to persist. Emotional stamina separates winners from quitters.

Learn to Love Competition
Another way to say this is… be courageous. In all endeavors, on your way to the top, there are people who will scoff at you, impugn you, and when they become threatened, they will try to stomp you out. Getting to the top means knocking someone else out of #1. Some people don’t want to hear this, but it’s true.

Many people are confused about competition. They think of those who will do anything to win. Lying, cheating, and stealing isn’t winning, it’s corruption. Winning is being the best not the worst, so don’t confuse being a winner with being a crook.

Some people say creativity is constructive and competition is destructive, but there is a flaw in this logic – if you create something new which disrupts and challenges the existing order, you are competing whether you like it or not. Creative new solutions must compete with existing paradigms for attention and resources much like web 2.0 is challenging the old media. Do not be fooled into thinking you can create something valuable for others without competing – you can’t. If you aren’t competing for someone’s dollars, you are at least competing for their time and attention.

Evolution occurs from the competitive selection of all things, which are in a state of constant change, recreating and reinventing themselves to become better than what came before them. Change is the new replacing the old. Competition is the means of determining which change is best. Competition is necessary to grow, so to avoid competition is to avoid growth.

Learn to Love Discipline
Self-discipline is critical to success, happiness, and personal freedom. How happy and free is the undisciplined irresponsible person? The answer seems obvious doesn’t it? There is no freedom without responsibility and there is no success without self-discipline.

Does that sound too black and white? Look at the areas where you need to grow. Be honest with yourself. Are they areas where you lack discipline?

How does this affect the ‘gifted and talented?’

Many of you fit into a group, which the education establishment has labeled ‘gifted.’ Labeling someone ‘gifted’ is dangerous because it breeds arrogance. An arrogance which hurts the ‘gifted’ and keeps them from reaching their potential.

I’ve spent decades around under-achieving ‘gifted’ individuals. These folks had two major traits that kept them from succeeding:

1. Without effort, thought, or training, they simply knew the answers to difficult problems. Many of their peers had to work hard, pay attention, and build academic discipline to solve problems. But for many gifted students, it was effortless.
2. When they didn’t understand something intuitively, learning it was easy, requiring only 1-3 iterations to achieve mastery, while their peers required 10+ iterations. Learning the same material required far less studying for the gifted learner.

Dr. Bertie Kingore makes similar observations in her essay about the differences between the high-achiever, the gifted learner, and the creative thinker.

So the danger is this…
Many ‘gifted’ kids don’t learn self-discipline because they don’t need to. Learning is too easy. I’ve seen the same thing happen to gifted athletes.

During a staff meeting at work, I asked a bunch of co-workers a question, which generated looks that seemed to question my sanity…

Is a straight A student really successful? Are they really getting a good education? If they never fail, what have they learned about themselves?

A few people seemed horrified that I was suggesting that an A student could be a failure.

But this is what I was getting at…
If a student pushed herself as hard as she could to achieve top grades, I’d say yes, she is on the road to success. However, if she is getting top grades with little effort, she is being cheated and set up for failure in the future because she doesn’t know her limits. She’s never pushed them. She hasn’t developed the self-discipline necessary to succeed at something difficult. So she develops a habit of doing just enough to get by, and later her peers blow past her in every measure of happiness and success. It’s the classic tortoise and the hare story.

Let me leave you with something I’ve discovered about what truly makes me happy. I spent years coasting, doing less than I was capable of, under the false belief that talking it easy would result in happiness. Coasting became a habit. But it never resulted in happiness. In my late twenties I discovered that pushing myself to my limits resulted in far more happiness than taking it easy (I know, I’m a slow learner). Today when I find myself falling into depression or self-destructive thinking, I know what the problem is… I’m coasting, I’m not pushing hard, and I’m not growing.

The universal Law of Growth states ‘that which is not growing is dying.’ So every time I start to slip, I know why. It’s because I have stopped growing and it is time to push myself hard to learn something new, to solve more problems, or to help other people.

And you know what…

It works every time.

(FYI – I’m a Green Bay Packers fan and I love Lombardi. Go Pack! Beat the Giants on Sunday! Let’s bring home lucky #13!)

Tell me what you think? I’d like to know.

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34 thoughts on “Developing the Vince Lombardi Habit of Winning”

  1. That’s interesting because I was one of those students who found school very easy. However, my parents pushed me hard to do my best all the time. I can remember finishing a report (at the last moment) and my mom telling me, “Stormy, you can do so much better.” and I responded, “But, Mom, it’s worth an A.” That wasn’t enough for her.

    As an adult I’ve had to try to undo that drive to do the best I can all the time. At work, I had a hard time turning in anything that wasn’t perfect. Now whenever I’m tempted to try to be a perfectionist (and spend too much time on something) I just remind myself “Mom, it’s worth an A.” and I call it done.

    Moral of the story: you can go too far in either direction.

  2. Stormy,

    I understand and you’re right…
    Perfectionism will also prevent winning. Perfectionism will stop you from ever completing anything. It sometimes stops people from even trying. The opportunity cost of prefectionism is too high. You must accept some level of error in your life. I’m no perfectionist.

    This post goes a bit contrary to some things I’ve written in the past, and I wondered how it would be precieved.

    Let me use the Packers as an example once again. Specifically Brett Favre.
    Brett is by most measurements a ‘winner.’ But he loses sometimes, he throws interceptions frequently (more than anyone in history), and he gets sacked a least once a week. I can’t imagine he is a prefectionist. If he was, all the things that consistently go wrong in his game would drive him nuts.

    But I do believe that he constanly works on improvement. He works on growth. He knows he can do better next time, and that’s why there is a next time. Winning the Super Bowl in 97 wasn’t enough. It’s his desire to grow that drives him to win.

    My point wasn’t just about grades, it was about sharpening your talents whatever they are, to a razor sharp edge.

    Lombardi said you need to do the right things over and over and over until they become sub-conscious and that requires self-discipline. I think Napoleon Hill said the same thing in a different way, Steve Covey says the same thing too. Have you ever heard the cliche’ ‘fake it till you make it?’ Faking it, is using self-discipline to program the sub-conscious mind. Affirmations work the same way, but actions are far more powerful than affirmation alone.

  3. Having grown up in northern Minnesota (Two Harbors) and western Wisconsin (Osceola), I became a huge Packers fan also. It’s going to great to have another NFC Championship game at Lambeau this Sunday.


    I don’t think it’s fair to knock perfectionism in its entirety. There are good and bad ways to be a perfectionist. True, if your perfectionism prevents you from completing projects then it is a detriment. However, if it causes you to revisit projects and improve your initial results then it will create better overall results which will undoubtedly be more marketable.

  4. Edmund,

    The thing I don’t like about prefectionism is the same thing I don’t like about the concept of utopia. To me it means there is a point we can reach where we no longer need to change, grow, and evolve. A point where all improvement ends. It seems to me that utopia would be quite boring. It would take me about ten minutes in uptopia to ask, so what the hell do you guys do around here? Got a home remodeling project? nope. All homes are perfect. Need to train for a new job? nope. All jobs are perfect. Wanna play a game of hockey and see who wins? nope. Everyone is a winner here. Okay let’s solve a problem. Oh, there are no problems. Okay let’s watch a movie. Sorry, we made the perfect movie and it was so good we couldn’t improve it, so now we only have one movie. Well there really isn’t anything to do, because everything has already been done, perfectly.

    You see, perfectionism is a trap. Striving to be your best is not.

    I might eat my words if Tiger Woods shoots a 50 in the Masters. 🙂

  5. There’s a really interesting (relevant) article “How Not to Talk to Your Kids, the inverse power of praise” It says kids that were praised for being smart won’t try things if they aren’t guaranteed success. That reaffirms your point that an A student might not ever try to do their best because they’ll never try anything where they might have to work that hard.

  6. My basic philosophy is “Stay curious and open to life. No matter what happens keep learning and growing. Find what you love to do and find a way to share it with others.” I don’t have to push myself. When I’m doing what I love my problem is holding myself back to get some rest. It’s worked just fine for me.

  7. Jean,

    Great point. I’m glad you left it. I hear this a lot and I’ve wrote it a lot. But I’ve had a hard time living it, because of something I can’t explain. Well I’ll try…When I do what I love, I feel guilty, and I have to push myself past the guilt. Maybe it’s some protestant work ethic, which says that life must be hard, because God meant us to suffer, because of original sin. I don’t know. But it is buried in my sub-conscious. Most of my life, it’s been easier emotionally to do nothing, than to do what I love.

    In regards to Lombardi. I’m reading a biography about Lombardi – When Pride Still Mattered. And he loved football. He spent every waking moment obsessed with winning football games. But he still talks about pushing himself and others to go above and beyond that. Sometimes doing what you love involves tasks you don’t like, that are painful. Maybe that’s what he means. Like how he played the line in college with a huge gash inside his mouth, bleeding all over the field, but playing through it and making the game saving tackle on the last play of the game, and getting 32 stitches after the game.

  8. Steve,
    Lombardi was a football player, which means competition. I’m a creative problem solver, and pushing doesn’t work as well there. I majored in physics at Stanford, and we had weekly problem sets in our physics classes. Invariably there would be one or two problems on each set that couldn’t be solved by just knowing the principles and applying them. You had to have creative insight, be able to look at the problem in a new way. I was one of the few students who could always get the answer, but it wasn’t fun. And the only way I could do it was to immerse myself in the problem, then go to bed. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, get up, and check it out,. It often didn’t pan out so I would repeat the process until one of the ideas worked. So yes, it was painful and took discipline, but I got hooked on those “aha” experiences. After I graduated I wanted to learn to do it with a lot less stress on my poor body. So when I worked developing software for scientific research I always volunteered for the hardest problems, the ones other people didn’t want to tackle. And I taught myself to relax as much as possible when working on them because pushing and worrying about deadlines got in the way. The answer for me was to get curious and involved and enjoy the process as well as the results.

    It might just be that a certain amount of discipline comes naturally to me. I was bored out of my mind when I was a kid and learned at an early age that facing challenges was a lot more fun than being bored and depressed. I guess the bottom line is we agree on most of your post, except the bit about pushing ourselves. I heartily resist being pushed…I have enough inner drive that I don’t need it. If I’m having trouble doing something it usually means I need to back off, take a break to recharge my batteries, and wait for the joy to kick back in.

    Great topic! Thanks.

  9. Jean,
    Thanks for your story. I love it. I wish I would have realized what you did when I was younger. I didn’t put it together until much later. It’s fascinating how creativity works. I too have awoken in the middle of the night with lines of code in my head, and found the answer. In Lombardi’s book he describes waking with a new play in his head and having to wake up the quaterback to run it by him. It’s weird how creativity works. The subconscious mind is amazing. Feed it good stuff!

    I used to smoke and I found most of my “aha” moments walking outside sucking on a Marlboro. I quit years ago, and I still walk, but the “aha” moments never come. Now they usually come in the shower.

    I’m like you… I don’t respond well to overt external pressure, it must be internal.

  10. WOW – this describes perfectly what I’m going through right now! I’m in a youtube competition and I entered my video (about how to save money) which is crazy and insane I didn’t sleep for 7 days and was extremely stressful and intense but really the project has taught me lots about competition, and how to strive for achievement. Lots of good stuff going on.

  11. @MGR,

    I’ve heard of it. I need to explore it more in depth. Thanks for the link and the post. This information closely relates to what I was trying to communicate.

    I was thinking about what you said about accepting difficult challenges, and that is one of the things I would describe as pushing yourself/self-discipline. Not only are you accepting the challenge but you are accepting responsibility for finding a solution. In my experience, very few people have the internal drive to willingly take on the hardest things they can find. That’s what I think Vince Lombradi was saying it takes to be #1. He listed the ingredients to rise to the top. If you can find them, you can do amazing things. Some people want them externally imposed, but I’ve never seen that work. In my experience the only place to find the will to take on difficulty is inside yourself. No one can do it for you.

    One thing I’ve observed during my life are those folks who complain about how things are, while never accepting the challenge to implement a better solution. I used to be a truck driver, and we’d all get together at the bar after work and bitch about management. One day I was offered a management position and I accepted it and the first thing I went about doing was solving some of the problems we all complained about. I was given the authority and budget to solve them. Guess what happened after I implemented the solutions? The drivers hated me. One even threatened to kill me. This taught me that there are people who love, cling to, and embrace their misery. They love to complain more than they love to solve problems. When you take away their complaints, they feel you have taken away their power and their stability. Suddenly they are responsible for their own happiness and they can’t blame a scape goat. I feel I understand this because for many years I was was one of ‘the blamers.’ It is the difference between complaining and taking responsibility. The vast majority take great comfort in complaining without taking responsibility. Look at the mortgage crisis. The lenders blame the borrowers, the borrowers blame the lenders, and everyone expects the government to fix it. Who is taking responsibility?

  12. MGR,

    I just read your post on Fixed vs. Growth mindset. Without knowing it until today…
    Fixed describes the first 27 years of my life. Ever since I’ve been trying to change to a Growth mindset, but Fixed has become a deep ingrained habit to which I slip back frequently.

    The fixed mindset seems so dangerous to me… it’s the remnant of authoritarian thought. Scientific racism comes to mind. Eugenics. Castes. Apartheid. Gifted and Talented and Special Ed (that might piss someone off), how about educated and uneducated. The fixed mindset traps the oppressed and the oppressor. If you believe you are x it is impossible to become anything other than your mental image of x. I call it trapped inside yourself.

  13. Exactly. If there’s one thing we need to teach our children, it’s to have a growth mindset. Once you have that, opportunities are everywhere for you to seize.

  14. I’m Playing Devils Advocate…

    But with the growth mindset, isn’t there a danger of spreading yourself to thin? Isn’t specialization and sharp focus on your strengths where you will find your best contributions? If you think can be great at anything isn’t there a danger of being great at nothing?

    I ask that because I think it is a common fear.

  15. Steve, your words about simple and complex reminded me of one of my all-time favorite quotes, by Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

    Seems relevant, eh?

  16. Vince’s advice is not easy to follow. I’ve struggled with difficult problems and folded, but I truly believe that when I’ve persevered it’s been because I had this burning will to win. That passion can light a person’s way.

    “And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.”
    – Vince Lombardi

    It’s finding that passion and having the discipline to stick with it that makes all the difference between a winner and a loser.

  17. Steve,
    I agree wholeheartedly that most people like to complain and blame other people for their problems. I’ve also see some of them get hostile at the idea of taking responsibility for their lives. When I teach stress management I always say, “When we’re spending our time blaming other people we’re throwing away our personal power.”

    I think this is a great post. My only objection is not everyone defines success as winning over other people. Why would I want to define myself in terms of other people and their values? I was attracted to my husband because he’s inner directed and not interested in society’s vision of success. He clearly loved what he was doing for its own sake…that’s my kind of guy. It turns out we’re much better off financially than I expected, which was a pleasant surprise.

    So, I’ll stick to my basic philosophy: “Stay curious and open to life. No matter what happens keep learning and growing. Find what you love to do and find a way to share it with others.” It’s simple and powerful.

  18. Jean,
    Beating other people…
    As strange as it may sound… after writing this post…
    I’ve never given a shit about beating anyone else. It’s always been about me not them. Am I doing the best I can?

    Golf is the perfect competition. You are playing yourself and the course and the other players are doing the same. The number of times you strike the ball is the measure, but it has nothing to do with anyone else.

    To measure your progress at anything, I feel you need a metric. It could be your golf score, the hockey score, your profit margin, your weight, the miles you run, the quality of the code you write, anything can be a metric. That’s why people play games… to test themselves against a metric… a score… another team… a competitor.

    My son’s martial arts instructor has a sign on his wall that reads…

    “Winning isn’t everything, the attempt to win is.”

    It’s not about making someone else a loser, it’s about being the best you can be. Losing isn’t a bad thing, it’s part of growth… it’s humbling.

    No matter what you do, there is almost always competition involved. For example you said you attended Stanford. When you were accepted to Stanford someone else wasn’t because of limited space. Your goal wasn’t to keep anyone out of Stanford, you just wanted the opportunity to attend Stanford. But your desire to attend Stanford was indirectly competitive. So your attempt to get in was an attempt to win and your hard work paid off. No shame in that.

    Reaching your goals is almost always competitive at some level. Sometimes it isn’t as direct as boxing or football… but it’s there.

    Even the search for a mate is competitive… I mean there is 6-7 billion people on earth to choose from… and they have to choose you too. That makes it even more competitive.

    Anyway… Jean… I respect you and I understand… I don’t ever feel the desire to beat anyone else either. In fact when I have beat someone in the past… it actually makes me feel really bad inside. If I feel I’ve gained something at someone else expense, I don’t like it.

    But I still love to compete. Strange huh?

  19. “But I still love to compete. Strange huh?” Actually I don’t find that strange at all. It’s the way you motivate yourself to feel fully alive. It gives you a way of measuring how well you’re doing. My path is somewhat different, so competition doesn’t work as well for me. I’m more of an explorer, so I have to figure out a different way of telling how I’m doing.

    At the moment I’m thinking of when my daughter was little. I purposely didn’t take a job that would use my problem solving talent because I would become too involved, and spending time with her was the most important use of my time. So I read about child development, did volunteering, and learned to play the piano, practicing a half hour to an hour a day. It satisfied the part of me that wanted some mastery and was an area where I could think in terms of “progress”. But the time I spent with her, giving her a good foundation, was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. And in order to do it I had to put my drive aside for a while. To me that period of my life was different than striving for a goal. You could say I did have a goal, the idea of the kind of person I wanted her to be. But I purposely operated under the assumption that she would never live to be an adult. That wasn’t being fearful or morbid. It was a way of stepping out of the goal-achieving mindset and doing what I was doing for it’s own sake. The best way I can describe it is it was sacred space and time.

    Anyway, thanks for this topic and conversation. I love the fact that you are conversing, not just preaching. I’d like to know more about the particulars of your life. How exactly are you pushing yourself? How does taking breaks fit in? Do you sometimes push yourself so hard that you risk burnout? How do other people fit into your schedule? Etc., etc. I’d really like to know. I believe we’re all different, and I love seeing what works for other people.

  20. Jean,

    How I push myself in my life? Right now?

    A few months ago an electrical engineer left our company in the middle of leading a major enterprise software development project with two deadlines one in Feb and another in May. I volunteered to take over the project in addition to my regular job. I know nothing about electrical engineering and I wanted the opportunity to learn in a hands-on product development project. I wanted the challenge.

    To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention in school after the second grade and never went to college. So for the last 10 years, I’ve been working hard on my education. I attend real college classes from time to time, but formal education has never been a good fit for me, so much of it I do on my own. Right now I am working on my personal MBA and also spend time working the open courseware from Yale, Cal Berkley, and MIT. I never learned to type and I am using typefaster to train myself. I also consider this blog part of my education, but lately I’ve been focusing in other areas and blogging less.

    I’m considering training in Mixed Martial Arts, which consists of Boxing, Thai Boxing, Ju Jitsu, and Kenpo. But I am afraid I won’t be able to fully commit to the program, so I am waffling.

    I help my wife Christine with her growing internet business. We both push very hard there. We both started a dot com in 1998 and worked about 80 hours a week for two years and sold before everything went kaput in 2000. Now this one looks like it has more potential than the last one, so we work hard on that.

    Last but not least, I push myself hard to be a good dad. To be available and present as much as possible for my boys.

    About burnout… Yes, I’ve burned out before, back in about 2000 before I had kids. I could feel physical and mental deterioration and I was headed for a big fall. That’s why we sold the company. I also had burnout in about 2003.

    After that I got into personal development, learned about Zen, meditation, and balance in life. I try to apply the principles daily, but it is hard. I’m only happy when I’m pushing hard. I’m one of those people that is all the way on or all the way off. But I am slowly making progress with balance. The biggest challenges I face are learning to moderate happily and learning to let go of the desire to control everything and trust God (the universe, for my atheist friends) to do more of the work.

    Thanks for asking 🙂

  21. This explains a lot… No seriously: it does. I have an IQ over 140 and it’s never been difficult for me to learn. I read something one time, maybe two and I get it. I’ve never had to put in much effort, even when teachers gave me extra work so I would not get bored in class. Now I’m 21, in college and it takes about 90% of my energy just to turn on my computer when I have to do an assignment. I want to (failing feels embarrasing), but I can’t, if that makes any sense. It’s like there’s no spark, nothing to fuel my inner fire if I may be so corny. I think you’re spot on about needing to test my limits. I have one great passion: writing. I have the feeling that my ‘vegetive’ feeling (sorry, English is not my native language) will dissapear once I start a novel, pour every last bit of my soul in it, and then kick, scratch, growl and bite my way to a publisher. To just focus solely on writing to the best of my abilities and then fight to the teeth to get it in stores, blowing away the competition. If I did that, I know I would feel alive again…

    … so why am I afraid to get started?

  22. Steve,
    Thank you! I believe one size doesn’t fit all, and the deeper we go into personal transformation the more we have to become an expert about our own lives. I believe the best gift we can give one another is to try to see our own experience clearly and share what we’ve learned. You did just that in your last comment. 🙂 Please keep us posted about your ongoing adventure.

  23. I’ve been reading the comments and find it as valuable as the post itself (thanks for the link to the Lombardi speech).

    You wrote a great article and helped create a great discussion. Just wanted to share that!

  24. I think that self decipline is much improtant to become a successful person in this world. In every feild there are rules and regulations and you have to follow them in order to find success in that feild. We should be keen.

  25. “Simple is not easy.” I’ve never thought of that before. It’s brilliant – I’ve wrote it on a sticky note and put it above my desk. Thanks for that.

    I’m new to your site and am enjoying your posts – very thoughtful stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more!

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