Was Vince Lombardi Right That Winning Is the Only Thing?

UPDATED: September 29, 2015
PUBLISHED: February 1, 2015

I am 51 years old, and in a writing career spanning more than 25 years, I continue to write in relative obscurity. On average maybe 10 or 20 people read each one, maybe no one. And as far as I can tell, my writing only travels short distances.

But I remain professionally hungry.

I want to be more widely read and impactful with my prose, so I did a wise thing this morning. I watched the 42-minute ESPN SportsCentury documentary about Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers coach who dominated the National Football League during the 1960s. I wanted to hear from Lombardi how to live one’s life and how to make it big time like he did.

“You don’t do things right once in a while,” the coach told his players during the Green Bay Packers’ five-championship run. “You do things right all the time.”

Lombardi’s words remind me that I should write this essay for SUCCESS the right way—with passion, precision and perfection. If I threw something down on this page you’re reading without full commitment of mind and heart and brutal candor, there would be no point. If I went at these words you’re reading halfheartedly, I should just accept mediocrity and move on.

“Choose to achieve perfection,” Lombardi said. “We won’t achieve it because perfection is impossible. But by pursuing perfection, we will achieve excellence.”

How do you judge perfection anyway? Is this essay perfect? No, but I’m striving for excellent. Being judged on your writing skills is like being judged for anything else. All that matters is that we keep practicing. In crafting this word, this sentence and this paragraph, my aspiration must be perfection. And in doing so, I will achieve excellence.

“Battles are won in the hearts of men.”

It is not natural talent that determines winners and losers. Countless people with exceptional innate abilities have been abject failures. But many people with average talent have become international success stories, all-time greats.

They achieved greatness not because they were inherently great but because in their hearts, they fought for perfection. So, each day they thought they weren’t good enough was a day of restlessness, agitation and emotional yearning. They insisted on being perfect. And even though they were not, they became excellent.

“We run to win, not just to be in the race.”

Vince talked to his players about running a race. He said in every race there is only one winner. His desire to win however, came with a price.

Lombardi treated his team as more of a family than his real family, his wife, son and daughter. Lombardi never threw a football with his son, yet he spent eight hours one day at work explaining how to run his team’s vaunted play, the power sweep. Lombardi was wedded to his job, absolutely obsessed with winning.

Lombardi’s thoughts on winning touch on some of the most complicated dilemmas that human beings have. He actually wasn’t the first to say his famously attributed quote, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Lombardi later said he was misquoted, “The will to win is the only thing.”

Should we all be as obsessed with winning, even at the expense of our relationships? This is one of life’s most vexing questions. Most people instinctively want to be the best at their professions and be recognized for it. They want to be hailed as close to perfection.

By doing that, though, they often lose in their family life and their personal relationships. Which is more important, winning personally or professionally? Can you be great at both?

I don’t think so. You can search for and achieve a balance. But that’s not going to get you to the top in both. Attaining a balance can be fulfilling—but not wholly fulfilling. It can be good, but it’s not usually great.

If I seek balance, there will always be someone out there, like another writer, who writes more and practices more than me. That writer will be more of a winner in the sense that he or she has sold more books, written more pieces and is more highly regarded for their skills. In order for me to win against that person, I’d have to write more, pursue perfection more. But that would take time away from my family. Spending less time with my family would make my “performance” as a father deteriorate. I would be less perfect and less excellent. A compromise would be needed.

And although I’m aware of this, I still want to win—I want my writing to be recognized for its excellence. Not yet achieving that status after writing for so long continues to rip at my insides, to twist my emotions. Not being the best writer in the world fuels my intensity, makes me seek perfection. Even on this placid Sunday morning, there is something burning inside me. The desire to be better, if not the best, is thick and hotter than the sun.

So was Lombardi right that winning is the only thing? As conflicted as he was, Lombardi was right about so much. Perhaps it was the will to win he was absolutely right about. His inspiration gave me the will to make this essay perfect…. If not, I’ll settle for excellent.

Check out 26 life lessons from Vince Lombardi, as written by his son.

Charles Hartley is a freelance writer who has had more than 1,000 articles published in a wide range of media outlets focused on humor, sports, business, technology and consumers. He has earned master’s degrees in Journalism and Business Administration and a bachelor’s degree in English and Communications.