Nick Saban, the coach at Alabama, has a question he asks: 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? It’s interesting, sometimes reporters and fans will question why Saban seems unhappy on a sideline when the team is winning. It’s not because he’s miserable, 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.”
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 Stoicism just as much as they are an essential part of the game of football.
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. And it was from this 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.”
We can follow in that tradition too. It begins by asking ourselves how good we want to be (or as Epictetus put it: “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”)—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, and when we lose, as Saban will certainly do after tonight’s game and come back better for it next year either way.