How Basketball Coach Valvano Changed My Career Perspective

A big thank you to our Executive Author, Cindy Wong-Zarahn for writing this article
coach valvano

In the U.S., the national college basketball tournament affectionately known as “March Madness” mesmerizes much of the country for a few weeks in March. The latest tournament is recently behind us, and throughout the TV coverage I was reminded of one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever heard, from Coach Valvano back in 1993.

Coach Jim Valvano was a college basketball coach for North Carolina State University and led his team to the 1983 tournament championship despite insurmountable odds. In 1993, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That year, ESPN honored him with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  To this day I get goosebumps watching video of his acceptance speech (see his 11 min speech at the end of this article).  His words are timeless and rang true not just for basketball but for life in general.  I’ve taken many of his words to heart when putting my career in perspective.  Here is an “excerpt quote” I have always been inspired by:

To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives.

  1. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day.
  2. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought.
  3. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy.

But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

Laugh – For me, I didn’t take this literally as to laugh every day.  What “Laugh” means to me was about always putting everything in life into perspective, including my career. It took me a long time to realize that I was not defined by my job title or the speed of my career path.  It’s amazing how easy it is to lose sight of this.  Ten years ago, I was so obsessed about getting promoted for two years that I didn’t realized that I didn’t even want to work at the company any more.  During that time, my husband had to drag me to the beach one day.  I remember distinctly thinking not how nice the warm salty breeze was, but rather how I’d rather be depressed in my apartment.  The “failure” to get promoted consumed me, so I just worked longer hours, when I should have been seeking some balance in my life.

I learned an important lesson after that: I might not be able to control when I get promoted, but I could always change my attitude and reaction to what was happening in my career.  Many years later, when I began to getting antsy about getting a promotion again, I chose to embrace what was great about my role and my life  instead of fixating all my attention on what I was not getting at work.  I got energy, joy, and lots of happiness and laughter from embracing everything I had instead of the one thing I did not.

Think – For me this means, it is always better to think before I rush to action.  When I was laid off a few years ago and the severance was running out, I was anxious and made poor choices in my job search.  I learned through that experience that not taking time to think is just wasting time and effort.   I once interviewed with a computer hardware company, solely because I thought I fit the title and job description.   Had I taken some time to think, I would have realized that I knew nothing about computer hardware, and it would be difficult for me to be successful in the role or interview process.   It was a waste of time to try to get a job I didn’t want at all.   I now always take some time to think about what I want – out of my job search, an informational interview, or anything to determine my next career move.

Cry – Once, when I was unhappy with my manager, I tried to hide it while looking for other roles. Focusing on my unhappiness, and hiding it, prevented me from being able to positively speak to why I was seeking other roles, and it came across in the interview process.  I have no doubt people could smell my desperation. As such I wasted a lot of time interviewing for roles I didn’t want.  I remember crying one night to a dear friend and for the first time acknowledging how unhappy I was in my current role.  I cannot describe the wave of relief I felt when I finally admitted this. As such, it helped me move past my unhappiness and think about the “right” next move, which was to leave the company and relocate back to my home state, California.

I can’t say this enough and any more directly: it’s okay to be upset about your work situation and to share your feelings and emotions. I wouldn’t advocate crying at work, but if you are frustrated, angry, jealous, or any other emotion, be it.  Acknowledge your feelings.  Like the movie I mentioned in my last article, you’ve got to just “Let it Go” so you can move on.

Beyond his advice to “laugh, think, and cry” the other most memorable line from Coach Valvano’s speech is “[Cancer] cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.”  We are not defined by the situation we are currently in (i.e. out of work, career rut, etc.) but by how we seek the eventual outcome we wish to achieve.  Hindsight is 20/20, but I often refer to my career challenges as blessings in disguise. For example, when I was out of work, I got to be the wife and mother I wanted to be, vs. the one that my job would allow me to be.  I had time to reconnect with people I lost touch with after moving East and was reminded of what rich friendships I had built over the years.  And I did a significant amount of networking, so I could find the right job for me.

Those closest to me would probably never peg me for someone who could and would be inspired by a basketball speech given 20 years ago. But every time March Madness rolls around, I am reminded of Coach Valvano’s speech, and how his words have inspired me over the years. May you find some inspiration from his speech as well.


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