How Good Do You Want To Be?

If you’ve ever watched an Alabama game, you’ve almost certainly seen Nick Saban’s scowling face on the sideline. Even when the team is winning or in the middle of a game, he’ll be standing there, not quite looking as pleased as you would expect. If we were lucky enough to follow him into the locker room after a game—even after he won the National Championship (which he has done 6 times now)—we’d see a version of the same thing. He’s not quite as pleased as you’d figure.

Why is that?

It’s not because he’s a miserable person. It’s not because it’s never enough for him. It’s because  winning is not the main criteria he judges himself and his team by.

As Saban told ESPN,

“Everybody says, ‘He just won 31-3. What’s he complaining about?’ But it goes back to the inner scoreboard versus the outer scoreboard. Which one is more important? If you’re going to accomplish your goals, it’s always the inner scoreboard.”

Saban has a question he asks players and coaches: How good do you want to be? That is: What is a player or a coach willing to demand of themselves? What mark are they aiming for—pretty good, really good, the best?

His question is not: How many games do you want to win? It’s how good do you want to be?

Nor he is alone in this. Warren Buffett clearly likes to make money. He almost certainly wouldn’t hire someone at Berkshire Hathaway that regularly lost money. And by any objective measure, Buffet is one of, if not the best, person at making money in the world. Yet what does he say?

“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard.”

The same thing as Saban.

This idea of asking yourself: How good do I want to be? What standards am I going to judge myself by? What am I going to hold up as important? These questions are an essential part of the game of football or the stock market just as much as they are are an essential part of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.

The Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were men of the world. They had jobs to do. They pursued excellence—as leaders, as writers, with their property and with their own conduct. The fact that other people threw plaudits and praise at them, that wasn’t good enough. That’s the outer scoreboard. They measured themselves by an inner scoreboard, by a standard so high that they themselves often failed to reach it. We see this in both their writings—a strong tendency towards self-criticism and to identify areas where they needed to improve. As Epictetus put it: “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” And it was from this question and these standards that they got better and better.

Same with Saban. As he said,

“I usually make a lot of notes during the day, things we can do better and things we can do differently. But it seems to me that things come a lot clearer to me in the morning. I think of stuff when I’m showering, when I’m shaving, when I’m getting ready to go to work, and on the drive, I’m putting it all together of how I want to implement it into the day.”

On the one hand, it might seem like a harder path to follow. Saban can be there on the sidelines, winning the biggest game in college football, and not be jumping out of his skin with pride and excitement? Yes, there is some restraint required there. But it’s worth it.


Because last year he was in the very same game and lost—in a heartbreaking, two minute drive. In 2013, Saban lost the Iron Bowl on the so-called “Kick Six” play. While those losses would be crushing, we can imagine him in the locker room saying something like this message he delivered after a game in 2009, words that are interchangeable for a win or a loss.

“We didn’t play our best football and we need to learn from that, but at the same time the character that we showed and the resilience that we showed to overcome the adversity in the game, on the road, getting behind, I don’t think you can say enough about the character, the competitive character, that this team showed today and that’s what I am most proud of.”

The trade of holding yourself to these high standards when you win is that it actually makes the losing easier. Because you understand how regularly you are going to fall short and you’re ok with it. It’s also what allows you to focus on the positives within those loses (Bill Walsh would take over the 49ers when they were 2 and 12. His first season they went 2 and 12 again—but he said they lost better.) What you become with this attitude is outcome-independent. What you care about is the process—of getting better, of being the best version of yourself given the circumstances. (Saban: “We don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be.”)

Not that it isn’t hard to lose. Not that I’d want to be in Saban’s bus on the drive home from a loss, but it’s easier than it could be.

Each one of us, whether we’re an athlete or an athletic director or an investor or a stay at home parent, would be better to step back from the binary world of winning and losing and focus instead on how good we are capable of being. We’d be better to measure ourselves not against the scorecard or the scoreboard but our own sense of what we know is our best. We begin that process by asking ourselves how good we want to be—at our jobs, as people, in any pursuit. And then taking those notes, in something like The Daily Stoic Journal or on a blank piece of paper, holding ourselves up for review (most of all when things are going well) and then putting that feedback into place. Implementing it into the day.

Day after day. When we win, as Saban did earlier this month, or we lose, we can come back better for it the next year either way.

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