Convert Past Successes into Future Greater Successes

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 10, Issue No. 2
May, 2011

By Dan Coughlin



In 1989 I was the head soccer coach at DePaul University. It was a remarkably good learning experience even though my salary came out to exactly $11.51 per day ($4200 divided by 365 days) for recruiting, scheduling, coaching, driving the team bus, and countless one-on-one meetings with the players. In truth, I would have paid DePaul for the opportunity. I was 27 years old and it was my fifth and final year as a college coach.

Our starting goalkeeper that year was Rich Horwath. Rich was an exceptionally focused, intense, and prepared player. His leadership, passion, and skills helped us to be competitive in every game we played against our very tough NCAA Division I schedule. After that final season I stayed in touch with Rich for about six more months, and then we lost track of each other.

Twenty-one years later I was walking through the bookstore in the Orlando airport. I scanned the business section and saw an intriguing book called, Deep Dive: Mastering the Three Disciplines of Strategic Thinking for Competitive Advantage. I had been looking for a good book on business strategy so I started flipping through it. Wondering who wrote it, I closed the book and looked for the author’s name. It was by Rich Horwath. I thought to myself, “I knew a Rich Horwath. I wonder if these two guys are related.” I flipped to the back cover, and there was Rich staring me in the face as though he had never changed. I bought the book and started studying it immediately. It was an exceptionally well-written and clear book on a topic that often becomes amazingly complicated.

I went to Rich’s website, tracked him down, and met with him for lunch in Chicago. In listening to his stories about the past two decades I realized that what made Rich such an exceptionally good goalkeeper was the same thing that has made him a tremendously successful management consultant in the area of business strategy. He has maintained the same process of having clear objectives, a well-defined action plan, relentless focus, and the capacity to change and improve.

The Downside of Defining Yourself by Your Successes

I’ve had two careers of equal length. For thirteen years I was a math teacher and soccer coach in university and high school settings. For the past thirteen years I have been a keynote speaker, seminar leader, and executive coach on leadership, innovation, and branding for business executives and managers. There have been a few key common denominators between the academic and corporate environments.

One of the biggest has been that formerly successful people who were unable to sustain their success failed to make the connection between their past successes and their potential future successes. Sometimes great athletes and theater performers did poorly in the classroom even though they demonstrated great thinking skills in the areas where they thrived. Straight ‘A’ students were unable to grasp the mental approach necessary to succeed in sports or theater. Great sales people were unable to manage effectively.

The problem for many of them was the way they saw themselves. A student would say, “I’m an All-State Soccer Player. I’m not a math guy.” An adult would say, “I’m an operations guy. I can’t work with marketing people.” Highly successful people were trapping themselves in very tightly confined quarters because they saw themselves as only being able to be successful in the area where they had gained the most positive recognition.

Sustain Success by Seeing Accomplishments as Processes, Not Events

Rather than looking at your life as the bullet-points on a resume, look at it as a series of journeys. Each one of those journeys provides you with insights on how you can improve your performance today and in the future in other areas of your life. The key is to ask, “How did I succeed?” rather than “What did I achieve?”

Walk with me through a simple exercise.

Write down three major successes you have had at any point in your life. Put a little detail around each of them so that you remember them as though they have just happened.

Now for each of your successes write your answers to each of these questions:

  1. What was your objective?
  2. What were the obstacles you had to overcome?
  3. Specifically what steps did you take to overcome the obstacles and achieve the desired outcome?
  4. What are you trying to achieve today?
  5. How can you duplicate some of your previous steps for success in your current situation?

Far too often we brag about “the good old days” without realizing that those situations hold within them the codes for succeeding today. Sometimes people think that their past successes were solely the result of market conditions or being in the right place at the right time. Well, what caused you to be in the right place at the right time? What actually led up to you being ready for those ripe market conditions? Don’t buy this nonsense that times are tough and there’s no way to succeed. Times have always been tough, and people have always found ways to succeed. This era is no different than any other. You have to take the time to figure out what made you successful in the past, and then apply those steps to the new challenge you are facing.

Be Master of Your Own Classroom

On her new show, MASTER CLASS, which is on her own network called the Oprah Winfrey Network or OWN, highly successful people talk about what has made them successful. I’ve enjoyed every minute of every episode. Some of the best stories came from Oprah herself as she explained how she replicated her success in high school in a wide variety of formats from interviewing people on a talk show to being an actress to creating a magazine. She makes a great point that life is a classroom and that we can all learn from our own lives. The key is to dig into your past successes not as a photo album, but rather as a dvd on how to succeed in other areas of your life.

In reviewing your successes, you might realize that they took longer than you remembered. Persevering through years of hard work created your successes in the past and is required for your successes in the future.

Expand this Mindset to Your Whole Organization

How did The Walt Disney Company move from making animated short films to full-length animated feature films to theme parks to television shows?

How did Marriott move from root-beer stands to upscale, full-service hotels to amazing resorts around the world?

How did Apple move from making computers to changing the telephone and music industries?

How did Google go from search engines to global maps?

How can your company go from what it does well today to providing far greater value in the future?

I believe the key is identify what has made your organization successful in the past and then to reapply those steps today and in the future. Take the time to study the biography of your own life and the history of your organization, extract the proven processes for success, and then reapply them over and over again.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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