John Wooden – Exemplar of Intrinsic Motivation

I have always deeply admired John Wooden.  I wrote this post about him last October, and this brief tribute after his death.  But now, after a couple of days of reading/hearing a lot more about him, I want to add, or at least reinforce, a couple of observations.

#1  John Wooden was an exemplar of intrinsic motivation.

In Drive by Daniel Pink, Pink writes this:

If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate, or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance.  You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation.  You’ll get very little motivation at all.  But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.

What he says is simple, and makes sense.  If there is enough money to take care of the “baseline,” then money is “off the table,” and one can concentrate on what is important to that individual.

John Wooden was motivated by this:  he wanted to teach.

From Wikipedia: “He never made more than $35,000 a year salary (not including camps and speaking engagements), including 1975, the year he won his 10th national championship, and never asked for a raise,” wrote Rick Reilly of ESPN.

So, yes, Coach Wooden was paid adequately, but he clearly was not motivated by money.  He was motivated by his hunger and drive to teach.  In his own words:

What am I?  Just a teacher – a member of one of the great professions in the world.

In the Los Angeles Times article by Mike Penner, written on the 99th birthday of Coach Wooden (which I quoted in my blog post), he reported that Wooden turned down an offer to coach the Lakers from owner Jack Kent Cooke that may have been 10 times what UCLA was paying him.

Why did he do that?  How could he do that?  Was he crazy?  Quick – name another person who would have turned down such a massive amount of money.  Actually, there are others.  Pat Tillman left his NFL salary to serve his country.  But, admittedly, the list is short.

Wooden turned it down because he viewed himself as a teacher, and he simply was not in it for the money.  His motivation came from within, from something that came close to a sense of calling.  He was the exemplar of intrinsic motivation.

#2 – Coach Wooden was a great teacher.

As I read about his life after his death, here is a message that is being repeated often:  he grew closer to his former players after his wife’s death.  What kept them so close to him?  For most of them, he was only around them for one chapter of their life – the college chapter.  They had other coaches, other teachers.  Why so close to him?

I think this. They remembered the impact he had made on them, and they wanted to recapture just a little more of it.  Or, at least, to remember it a little better.  He was a truly sincere, utterly memorable teacher.  Listen to his players.  They all seem to remember individual practice session, individual comments, and of course the lesson on how to put on your socks.

He loved to teach.  And it has been oft reported that what he missed most after leaving coaching was the practice sessions.  Not the games; not the championships; the practice sessions (the teaching sessions).

Those are just 2 observations.  I could go on and on.  There seems so much to learn from Coach Wooden.  I hope you are reading a few of the articles out there.

The list of lessons is long – as it should be.  We have lost a remarkable human being.

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