How many times have you defined yourself by something you have not done? Maybe you count the number of clients you lost rather than the number you have gained. Maybe you look at your past and think of all the ways you didn’t quite get to the top or maybe you are much smarter than I was and you’ve always looked at the best of things.

ME? I had a habit of looking at my failures rather than my successes.

I was the valedictorian at the University of Charleston, BUT WHAT DID I SAY? “It was a small school. I majored in an easy major. Anybody could have done that. I’m not really that smart.”

What did I say when I became an Olympian? “Yeah … I was an Olympian in a sport that hardly anybody played in the United States … and I didn’t even win a medal.”

Or when I won a national championship as a coach? “Yeah we won … but it was just an NAIA national title, and we had more money than most teams we were playing against.”

I limited myself because I didn’t give myself enough credit. I defined myself by limitations, by what I had not done. Hopefully, you are not doing the same thing. In other words, because I didn’t see more inside myself, I stopped going forward. I didn’t use my Olympic experience to advance me. I didn’t win another national championship. And I never used my intelligence to get a higher salary.

Why does it matter? BECAUSE ….

Your definition determines your ambition. Think about it. However you define yourself determines how hard you are going to work, what your attitude is, and how long you will persist before you desist.

How you define YOU is critical.

I coached a basketball player in 1990 named Kim Koskinemi. She was short and slow, not our best athlete, but she was important to our team. She was a substitute, a role player, somebody who could give our starters the needed rest while keeping the momentum in our favor.

In the middle of the season, Kim came to talk to me. “Coach, I think I’m wasting my time. I’m not getting that much playing time, and I think it would be better if I just quit and focused on my studies.”

I looked her right into those deep, brown pitiful eyes and said, “Kim, you’ve heard the story about Abraham Lincoln, haven’t you? About his persistence?”

She shrugged. “Yeah. I guess.”

“Well let me remind you about long he had to persist to become the most famous president in our history.”

  • Failed in business twice.
  • Went bankrupt.
  • Was defeated in congressional races 3x.
  • Lost his sweetheart at age 26 and then suffered a nervous breakdown at age 27.
  • Failed in an effort to become vice-president at age 47.
  • AFTER ALL THAT, he was elected president of the United States! And known as one of our best presidents.

“But, Coach, isn’t he the guy that got shot?”

WOW! There I was trying to talk to her about his persistence, how he is now remembered as one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had, and what she heard was: HE FAILED ANYWAY.

How many times have you heard that you failed even when you experienced success?

Remember that your definition determines your ambition. And how long can you persist before you desist when you are giving yourself the wrong messages?

Luckily Kim didn’t quit. I was able to help her remember the great things Abraham Lincoln did do.

Kim played in our next basketball game against Moorehead State University. They had size, strength and speed and 10 full ride scholarships. At the time I was coaching the University of Minnesota-Morris, and we had zero scholarships. Yes, you heard that right. We had nada, nothing, not one little penny. Why? The school administrators wanted the university to be known as the Little Yale or Princeton. We were supposed to be the Ivy League of small universities, which also meant my players had to be really smart to get into school.

Luckily I when I took the job, I was naive enough to believe with all those limitations, we could still win games. AND because I believed it, the players did too. So there we were playing these women giants against our little brainiacs. We were down by 17 points. Our game plan was to slow down our offense, to make the giants of Moorehead play our speed. No matter how many times I yelled from the sideline, “Slow down. We want to make 5-6 passes on offense. Slow down.” We were on hyper speed, playing the vomit offense. YEP…just ONE PASS AND we THREW IT UP. We wanted so badly to slay the giants that we our brains shut down, which was really the only thing we had going for us.

That’s when I got this brilliant idea to put Kim Koskinemi in. After all, no matter how hard she tried to run fast, she was still slow.

Sure enough when Kim got in to play point guard position, everything slowed down…and then we started frustrating the giants who wanted to go fast and hard. The slower Kim played, the better we got until finally the score was tied. TIED at 73-73!

We won the game when Kim drove to the basket with the clock winding down and she was so slow shooting the ball, the 6’3” steel-muscled amazon who had been blocking our shots all night long, timed her block too quickly and fouled Kim. Kim made both free throws to help us win the game.

Afterwards as I was hugging her, I said, “See what happens when you persist like Abe did?”

“Crap coach! Does that mean I’m gonna get shot tonight?”

Here is the truth though, that lesson that Kim learned—not the one about getting shot, but the one about persistence, is the one that helped her become a doctor.

You see, once she saw that her limitation could also be her greatest asset if she just looked at it differently, then she started understanding that her definition defined her ambition.