You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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Worry About What You Can Control

What you control about what you're doing is your effort, your heart, your preparation. You cannot control what other people think or feel about you or about what you're doing, and you certainly can't dwell on it. In the NFL especially, circumstances come up every single day. I tell my players, 'Don't worry about those circumstances, just play. Let me worry about the media and the fans and the talk-radio hosts and the weather and the crowd and the referees; you just get yourself ready to play. You get your mind right, you get your confidence rolling, and you find a way to react the right way to whatever happens. That's all you can do. You can't worry about anything other than that.'

Far too often, I find, people get caught up in obsessing over issues that they have absolutely no ability to change one way or another. A guy I know was in one of the top MBA programs in the country, but he spent much of his time worrying that the program wasn't good enough to get him the job he wanted. All day long it would torment him. 'What if it's not enough?' he asked. 'What if it is,' I answered, 'but you've spent all your time worrying about it, and now your grades have slipped and that's what's going to cost you?' All he could do to put himself into position to get that job was work as hard as he could every single day to make himself the best student possible. He shouldn't worry about the reputation of the school; that's not something he can change. And most often, when it comes down to it, the person who wins the job is the person who worked the hardest at proving he was capable. That's something he could control.

Every year in camp, as we get close to cut-down day, I tell them, 'Don't try to crunch the numbers, thinking, ‘There's no way they're keeping me.' Don't do that; just play.' That's something I learned the first time I went through cut-down day as a player back in 1977 with the Philadelphia Eagles. I wasn't drafted, so I really wasn't sure if I was going to make the team. In fact, I was scared that I would get so close to my goal and not go all the way. Making matters worse, my roommate, Skip Sharp, was also a defensive back, and he had been drafted in the fifth round, after the Eagles traded away their first four picks. Dick Vermeil was trying to overhaul the team, and even though I thought I had performed pretty well through camp, I had no idea what would happen.

Like every team back then, the Eagles had a guy who was responsible for telling guys to go see the coach when they had been cut. He did it by slipping a note underneath the door of the player who was being sent home, and he did it in the dark silence of 4:30 a.m. I've always gotten up at about 4:30 a.m., and during that first camp I heard a lot of those papers being slipped under doors. You'd be surprised by what you can hear at 4:30 a.m.

Finally, it was the morning of last cuts. I had agonized all night about what my fate would be. I woke up, and I saw that paper being slipped under the door. One of us was going back to reality. I stared at that paper for the longest time, believing I could maybe will my name not to be there. It wasn't that I wanted Skip's name to be there, just for mine not to be there. It was a horrible feeling that I will never forget. Finally, I reached down and turned the paper over. Skip's name was there. I had made the team. He was cut, but he was sleeping so soundly he didn't know about his demise.

Wanting to make sure that a mistake hadn't been made, I got dressed and ran down to our locker room, which was about half a mile away, praying that my name was still over my locker. Thankfully, it was, and my equipment was sitting right under it. It wasn't until then that I really believed I had made it. I had achieved my goal.

Once it was over, I realized how much energy I had wasted worrying about whether I would get cut or not. I had anguished for nights thinking about how I had done that day compared to how someone else had done. It was so agonizing that I knew I never wanted to go through that paper incident again, even though I knew it would be the same every season. I realized that all I could control was how hard I worked, and the rest was something somebody else had control over. So I set myself up to just work as hard as I could every single day. And every day of the final cut-down, I'd walk to the bulletin board on the wall and search for my name as one of those who had made it. When I saw my name on the roster, I always said, 'Tricked 'em again.'

If you keep yourself concerned with what you can change or alter, then I guarantee that life will become that much easier to navigate. And I've found it's the best way to battle what I believe is one of the most destructive emotions out there: jealousy. Someone else gets a top assignment that you would have liked to have had. Okay, you feel bad. You're jealous. You start hating that guy and trying to figure out why he got the assignment and you didn't. Chances are, he didn't pick himself for it; some boss picked him for whatever reason. It does you no good to spit venom on that guy or the boss. What does that change? Absolutely nothing. What does being jealous of him accomplish, really? Nothing except to make you feel bad.

What you can do, though, is reassess what you have done in your career that maybe wasn't up to speed with what the other guy has done. Have you worked as hard as you can? Have you developed the proper skills and then practiced them enough so that you could do that particular assignment? If you come up with a no answer, then you know what you need to do next. If you come up with a yes answer, then you move on. The choice was out of your control. Maybe you could call the boss up and find out why you weren't chosen, but in the end, if you're satisfied with your effort, then you just move on.

The same goes for relationships. You're involved with a great guy who has admitted to you that he has had a storied past when it comes to involvement with women. He swears to you he's over it; he's into you, and that's where his focus is. But you can't get it out of your mind. You're wondering whether he's still at it, whether he's still playing the dating game. You sit and daydream and obsess, and by the time dinner comes, you're certain he's cheating on you and you're in a rage, even when there's no reason to suspect him, really. How is that a good place to be at?

What you have to tell yourself is that if he is cheating on you, that's something you can't control. If he is, he is, and it will come to the light eventually. You can't do anything about it. You can't go through life with a guy suspecting his every move. It makes you miserable and petty, and that's certainly not who you want to be. So you tell yourself, I'm not going to worry about what he's up to; I'm going to worry about myself and making sure I'm the confident, happy, sexy person that attracted him in the first place. It saves a lot of bad feelings, and it puts the focus back on you and what you do. You can't lose doing that. Even if you find out he was cheating, you're still better off because you didn't drag yourself down to that level with destructive thoughts and feelings. It might hurt, but in the end, you know it's his loss because of who you are.

This is a lesson that really helped me at the end of the 2002 season, when we ended up winning the division. There were so many parts to the puzzle; certain teams had to win and certain teams had to lose, and people were asking me if I was rooting for certain scenarios. I told them that as soon as you start rooting for teams, it never works. You can't control what happens anyway, and you sit there and waste energy, and it just doesn't work. I just kept preparing our team and our staff and waited to see what happened.

(By the way, we don't use the paper process to let guys go in New York. We handle it with a lot more compassion, mainly because I saw how abruptly it was handled in Philadelphia. We have our position coaches tell the players individually, and each of them knows that I'm available if they want to speak with me. It used to be that the head coach was nowhere around.)

You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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