What makes one excel?

Speaking before a packed room at the Insurance Accounting and Systems Association Inc. 2010 Educational Conference and Business Show in Grapevine, Texas, author Don Yaeger offered insights on success through a unique prism—the stories of legendary athletes.

While insurance executives are unlikely to crib directly from athletes, Yaeger said the characteristics that define greatness are universally applicable and available to those willing to commit to it. “Greatness is available to all of us,” he said. “It’s all about our willingness to do what it takes.”

Yaeger began by relating his experiences with NBA legend Michael Jordan, who personifies the inner fire required to excel. Yaeger told the tale of his improbable victory over Jordan in a one-on-one match up for charity. While Yaeger assumed that Jordan would easily laugh off the fluke outcome, things didn’t pan out that way. This love of competition and hatred of defeat, even in seemingly trivial matters, is instructive, Yaeger says. “The truly great reach their pinnacle when they hate losing more than they love winning.”

While less well known than Jordan, former NFL running back Warrick Dunn’s inner fire is no less Olympian. Despite lacking the size of most running backs, Dunn tore up defenses and finished his career with nearly 11,000 yards rushing. “That’s like gaining five miles while getting knocked down every three yards,” Yaeger said. Despite his remarkable exploits on the gridiron, Dunn’s most impressive accomplishments have come off the field. The eldest of five children raised by a single mother, Dunn was forced into the role of sole provider at the age of 18 when his mother, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. Years later, Yaeger accompanied Dunn as he visited and forgave the prisoner convicted of his mother’s murder. Using the adversity as fuel, Dunn went on to form a charity that provides new homes to single parents struggling to raise families. “260 children woke up in homes today because of Warrick Dunn,” Yaeger said.

Likewise, Yaeger used the off-field exploits of another NFL star, Walter Payton, to exemplify how the great live. A defining trait, Yaeger said, is those that do their best when no one is watching. Yaeger recalled how Payton, after a long day practicing, would often cover the desk for the team’s receptionist so that she could leave a few hours early to address family troubles. While the thought of a star athlete donning a headshot to help a receptionist seems incredible, Yaeger said it was not surprising given a saying from former UCLA Coach John Wooden that Payton had cut from a magazine and hung on his office wall. “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone that can’t thank you.”

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