The Origin of Success

IMG_2811You can see my article as published by news.com.au here or read below.

American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie believed ‘there is little success where there is little laughter.’ Spend an hour with the highest point scorer in the history of State of Origin, for a book called ‘Winners: And How they Succeed’ and you realise that saying is proportional: Johnathan Thurston laughs a lot.

Affectionately known as JT, Thurston was selected by the former 10 Downing Street spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, to be interviewed for his UK best-selling study into winners across sport, business and politics. He is in good company. Flick through pages of the book and you can read about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Anna Wintour and Richard Branson, Shane Warne, Layne Beachley, Leigh Matthews.

As the latter names hint, there is a trend to one chapter. Prior to a case study on Her Majesty the Queen is a chapter on the mateship spirit of Australia, loyalty before royalty, in which Shane Warne suggests his nation’s three most important words: never give up. Thurston defined.

“I always thought I was better than players up in front of me,” said Thurston, from a corner cafe in Townsville, Queensland. His renowned laughter that dominated opening exchanges had now gone, his voice lowered, eyes full of intensity. “Growing up I was always told I was too small; I could not tackle properly. When someone tells me I can’t do something it’s like someone is having a dig at me and I just want to prove them wrong.”

This says Campbell, is a winner’s mindset: the flexing of what Ironman World Champion Guy Leech describes as ‘the most important muscle’, the one between your ears. Without this, Thurston would not have three Daly M medals or two ‘best-player-in-the-world’ Golden Boots.

In the corner of the cafe, a couple are looking over to see if it is the larger-than-life guy, metaphorically and in print, who adorns billboards at Townsville Airport. It is but Thurston is oblivious to his surrounds as he details a second of Campbell’s signs of success: a strategic mind.

“At 17 I moved to Sydney and everything I did work-wise was for rugby league. I put all my eggs in the one basket,” said Thurston. “I would write my goals down. What I wanted to do. Everything that I was doing was to achieve that dream of playing rugby league. Everything I did was towards this one goal.”

You may think washing cars from 7 am until 3 pm as Thurston was doing, has nothing to do with becoming a rugby league player; it has everything to do with becoming a rugby league player. Thurston was signed for zero playing fee by the Canterbury Bulldogs. He was not washing cars for fun, he was washing cars to fund his training from 4 pm to 8 pm, to keep moving towards his objective: to keep his dream alive.

This is what Campbell calls OST: objective; strategy; tactic. Objective: become a great rugby league player. Tactics: align all aspects of life to enable training. Strategy: train harder than the best.

That clarity of vision, where everything you do is aligned towards the achievement of a single objective, be it washing cars, moving city, leaving school, is what turns talent into sustained achievement, and is why one of the world’s greatest ever tennis players, Martina Navratilova, believes ‘too many coaches teach technique, when they should be teaching strategy.’

Thurston would always ‘train harder’ and do his ‘extras’ but his strategy was more than that: “I would study the best players then I would hit the training ground, do what they were doing and also do what they were not prepared to.”

For Thurston, there was no point training to an expected level; it was the unexpected level that counted – when he would go beyond all others. When asked how many sit-ups he did Muhammad Ali responded: “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. That is when I start counting because then it really counts. That’s what makes you a champion.” Thurston only started training when he had surpassed the training of the best he had studied.

There are two types of winners in Campbell’s book: extreme mindsets who equate losing with dying and those who never contemplate losing as they are focussed 100% on victory. Thurston is the latter. When questioned on risk he turns to face the window, his blank expression reflected back an answer without the need for words. When doubt is nonexistent, risk cannot exist. This question simply did not compute. He returns to more comfortable ground.

“What I love about rugby league is when that two minute bell goes. That two minute bell,” his pupils dilate, acknowledging the crowd that now roars in his mind. “That’s when you look the boys in the eyes, you shake their hands, wish them luck; that’s when the adrenaline starts pumping for me. I know I am only a minute and half away from getting it on. When it comes to switching it on I think I can do it better than anyone.”

The look Thurston gives ‘the boys’ is affirmation following time he puts in to another essential part of Campbell’s keys to success: teamship. ‘Without a great team, you cannot achieve great things,’ says Campbell. Thurston knows this.

“I have been able to win all those individual awards, but that is not what drives me,” he says alluding to that elusive Premiership with the Cowboys, reclaiming the State of Origin for the Maroons, and regaining his shirt for the Kangaroos – ordered by preference.

“I have high standards and expectations so I try to bring that out in the players around me, especially the younger boys, the ones who are new to it all, who are living the dream. I make sure they are being the best they can be, as we need a squad.”

A squad of leaders, warriors and talent, believes acclaimed teamwork expert Humphrey Walters, who describes three types of player in Winners. Leaders, set the direction; warriors, make the trains run on time; talent make the difference. Effective teams function on an understanding that not everyone can be the leader, or the talent or the warrior, but all must work collectively towards what Thurston calls the ‘common goal.’

He is a without doubt a leader, unquestionably talent, and as he describes that moment of heartbreak, when his match-winning try was disallowed following a 30 point fight back in last year’s semi-final, you hear a warrior talking too. Gorden Tallis asked Thurston for comment immediately after that game. Thurston was lost for words. Defeat does not compute. Ask him about winning and you get a very different reaction.

“When the siren goes at State of Origin level, when you win, there is no better feeling. There is NO better feeling. The same as when you are playing test football, when you beat England or New Zealand. There is no better feeling.”

Thurston has leaned forward in his seat now. He is visibly animated. “It is hard to describe because this is the love that you have. It’s what you love doing. Everything you have done over that week or your career comes to that point when the siren goes and you have achieved your goal with the team you are playing for whether it’s club, state of origin or test, when you have achieved that common goal.”

Acclaimed mental skills coach Andy McCann says in Campbell’s book that those that get to the top have one of two mindsets: a go to mindset, which is where your central motivation is the desire to win, and a move from mindset where your big driver is fear of failure.

The likeable guy from Brisbane who put ‘all his eggs in one basket’, who washed ‘cars all day’, who trains ‘longer and harder than the rest’, and helps younger players ‘be the best they can be’, is irrefutably a go to mindset. “Winning just brings so much joy and happiness to me. It’s just what I strive to do and what I want to do. I just want to win, win, win and I know the processes I need to do throughout my life to do that.”

A grin spreads across his face before his laugh reverberates around the cafe. Carnegie was most certainly right.

Kevin Keith [@KevKeith] was a researcher for Alastair Campbell on the book: “Winners: And How They Succeed,” available to order online at www.randomhouse.com.au

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