When you think of the process that results in success, you might put things in a particular order. For instance, you might start with creativity and planning, then add hard work, collaboration, ingenuity, and more hard work. Maybe you filter it through things like integrity and heart. And when all of that culminates in success – either a first-place victory or the satisfaction of knowing you did your best – you sprinkle it with a big dose of gratitude. Then you start over and try to do it again.
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? That type of cycle could describe a victory for a football team, an Oscar for an actor, a Grammy for a musician, a break-through for a scientist, a promotion to a better job, a record-breaking year for a sales team, or a milestone goal that you’ve achieved.
Well, what if you flipped that process? Or at least started what what’s commonly found at the end? What if you didn’t wait for success to happen to express your gratitude but, instead, made that the very foundation of all that you are about to do?
That’s the approach recommended by Cael Sanderson.
Never heard of him? That’s not surprising. Sanderson is one of the most successful college coaches in history, but he coaches one of those under-the-radar non-revenue sports – wrestling. I know about him not because I’m personally a huge fan of that sport, but because he works for my alma mater, Penn State University.
This weekend, while most of the college sports world was glued to basketball’s March Madness, Sanderson focused on winning the NCAA wrestling championships at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. The Nittany Lions had individual champions in three weight classes and won their fourth consecutive team title and their eighth in the past nine years.
Did they practice on technique, work hard, collaborate, and do all the other things needed to succeed? You bet. And were they grateful for their success? You bet. Bo Nickal, who won his third consecutive individual championship, put it this way: “It’s really been blessing after blessing. Since the first time I stepped foot on campus, it’s been incredible. And there’s so many people that have just put so much time and effort and energy into me: my coaches my trainers and countless others. And I’m incredibly grateful for it.”
But as Sanderson told Jerry DiPaola of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s the online Tribune-Review, his success as a coach, and Penn State’s success in wrestling, doesn’t end with gratitude, it begins with gratitude.
“Gratitude is the foundation for greatness,” Sanderson told DiPaola. “Gratitude is the foundation for lasting success in anything that you do. You take that away, the foundation is going to crumble a bit.”
Sanderson has a long history of success. As a wrestler at Iowa State, he was a four-time NCAA champion who never lost a match (he was 159-0). As if that weren’t enough, he won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. But he never took that success for granted, and he teaches his teams to begin each day with thankfulness – not just for the wins, but for the opportunities they’ve been given.
“If we got Gatorade in practice when I was in college, that was a big day,” he said. “We were really excited about that. Things have come a long way since then. Student-athletes, they’re not really taught that principle. It’s more of an entitlement at the collegiate athletic level. It’s going more and more in that direction. You see that on a national level.
“These guys just have to be grateful for the opportunity they have because they’re given so much. It’s really a great time to be a student-athlete: the perks that they get and the support that they get.”
In my experience, starting each day with gratitude creates the mindset that allows success to bloom in our lives. Practicing gratitude throughout the day not only motivates and inspires me, but positions me to influence others for their good and the greater good. And it sets me up to experience contentment so that success isn’t just about the results on a scoreboard.
Psychology Today points out that practicing gratitude is about more than offering a routine “thank you.” It’s more about “paying attention to what we are thankful for to the degree of feeling more kind and compassionate toward the world at large.” When we do that, studies confirm what Sanderson said and what I’ve experienced – we reap the benefits of gratitude.
“This proactive acknowledgement can increase well-being, health, and happiness,” according to Psychology Today. “Being grateful – and especially the expression of it – is also associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.”
We can cultivate gratitude in many simple ways – by counting our blessings, writing thank you notes, offering prayers, keeping our conversations positive, meditating on the good things we have in life, giving to others … I believe it begins with consistent intentional awareness, so I’ll close with some advice from more than a century ago from Alexander Maclaren, an English theologian with a poet’s heart: “Do not let the empty cup be your first teacher of the blessings you had when it was full. Do not let a hard place here and there in the bed destroy your rest. Seek, as a plain duty, to cultivate a buoyant, joyous sense of the crowded kindnesses of God in your daily life.”
If we start with that type of gratitude, we can regularly experience the joys of true success.