Editor's note: This blog was written by Ultradent President & CEO Dirk Jeffs as part of the From the Desk of Dirk Jeffs series.
Do you ever feel like you don’t have many aptitudes or born talents; or perhaps that others often surpass you with their natural abilities? Do you struggle to even identify any of your talents at all? If so, I’m here’s to tell you it’s OK. You still have every tool in your toolkit to be just as or even more successful than most. How do I know this? Well… I’ve witnessed it.
I was raised in the tiny Southern Nevada town of Mesquite. Mesquite’s population at that time was about 1,500, and I had a graduating class of a whopping 35 kids. Most of them came from dairy, pig, and alfalfa farming families. My dad was the principal of the one-campus high school, junior high and elementary school. Pretty much everyone knew everyone (more than most of us wished sometimes.)
Looking back, I guess you could say I came from your average American small town, full of average people, with mostly average aptitudes. I feel comfortable saying that because I was one of them. In fact, I believe I was born with very little if any aptitude in the one thing that ended up shaping who I am and dominating my high school experience—high school football.
I remember we struggled to even fill the roster to make up a varsity football team, and we had to drag and coax a few kids into agreeing to play. It would be an understatement to say that compared to other high school football teams in our area—especially in the “bigger cities” like nearby St. George or Las Vegas—we were starting out way behind the rest of the pack, talent-wise.
But here's the part of the story that usually makes people’s jaws drop, because it sounds like a plot straight out of a movie: our little team at Virgin Valley High School, in my four years there, never lost one single game. That’s right, not one—even when we played the big schools in the “big cities” I mentioned. In fact, we took the state championship four years in row, and later, four of the boys on our team received scholarships to play college football.
There I am, second row, third from the right--#64.
Of course, there are several factors that contributed to our unprecedented (seemingly unbelievable) success as a team throughout those four years, but we owe all of them to our secret weapon and MVP: Coach Evan Wilson.
Our secret weapon, Coach Evan Wilson.
Every win, every trophy, and every lesson learned are thanks to his vision, his philosophies, and the quiet confidence he instilled in us and modelled himself. Most importantly, the relentless, hard work ethic he instilled in us at every single practice played perhaps the biggest, most impactful role of all. Ultimately, he changed our lives forever.
Coach Wilson had so much confidence in our little team from Mesquite that throughout the course of those four years, he somehow got us to believe that we simply couldn’t lose. We didn’t even consider it a possibility because he didn’t! However, this insane almost unreasonable confidence he had in us, which translated to how we felt about ourselves, wasn’t anywhere near what I consider to be arrogance or cockiness. It was quite the opposite. More aptly, I’d define it as a simple, quiet knowing that because of our sweat, preparation, and absolute determination and sheer unwillingness to never give up, that we couldn’t be beat. Looking back, possessing that level of self-esteem in high school strikes me as remarkable for kids that age—when high school often represents a time of struggle to find yourself and your worth. What a gift.
It’s important to note though, that Coach Wilson didn’t approach football and success, and even “hard work” in generalities. Let me share a few of the very specific things he taught us that are responsible for our phenomenal four-year winning streak, and that have influenced the way I’ve tried to tackle (pun intended) almost everything in my life since.
Focus on the Basics
One might automatically think that with our track record, we must have had a genius book of extensive and complicated plays; because that’s how most coaches and teams approach the game.
Coach Wilson believed in not just mastering the basics, but in PERFECTING them. In fact, we only had about 25 plays that we memorized for offense. We studied and practiced those 25 plays so much, we could do them in our sleep.
Dirk Jeffs, President and CEO of Ultradent Products, Inc.
The lesson? We, as humans, can sometimes overthink and overcomplicate. Furthermore, we often focus on, or more aptly—are distracted by—the wrong things; prioritizing issues and tasks that, in the end, won’t matter nearly as much as if we dropped everything, simplified, and went back to what should be an endless quest to perfect the basics. The fundamentals. They are essential. Coach Wilson taught me that.
This one goes back to the issue of talent. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that talent is merely a starting point. It’s the line measuring how far we progress from that starting point that really matters—and that progression always comes down to hard work and what author Geoff Colvin coined as “deliberate practice.”
One of our many, many sessions of “deliberate practice.”
Since learning this principle, I’ve watched far too many times as people that are born with natural talent take it for granted, get lazy because they believe they already have an advantage, and then flame out when those who are willing to work harder than them and practice more surpass them.
Tim Notke, a notable basketball coach once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
In my life and career, I’ve seen hard work triumph over talent so many times that I’m inclined to believe that talent can sometimes be a curse—even though it doesn’t have to be.
Coach Wilson taught us about accountability and that the matter of our success laid solely in our hands and what we decided to do with our aptitudes. We could lean on them and hope it was enough, or we could work hard through deliberate practice, and develop them into full-blown talent and skill.
He taught us to choose the latter–and that the pride and confidence we gained from “extending that line from the starting point of our aptitudes” is immeasurable. I believe that kind of pride—where it’s earned through sweat, persistence, and never giving up—is healthy and should be celebrated.
As for deliberate practice? Author Geoff Colvin defines it as “practice that requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.”
He elaborates further, saying “What you want—really, deeply want—is fundamental, because deliberate practice is a heavy investment.”
“Great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected.”
― Geoff Colvin, Author of Talent is Overrated
So, if we weren’t as fast, or weren’t as fit as our competition, Coach Wilson saw to it that we not only got into shape, but that we got into better shape than anyone else in the game. I don’t think there’s a team or a player that conditioned harder than we did.
Doing endless loops of tires and washes to condition.
For example, many football teams do drills like tires, but we did tires AND washes (running down and then up the dry riverbeds in the area and then back through the tires), then start all over again, then again, and then again, in a seemingly endless loop.
Confidence and Encouragement
That being said, Coach Wilson also made it a point to let us know he cared, and he always spoke incredibly highly of us publicly. In fact, I believe that played a huge role in our desire to condition like no other team, to work harder than anyone else, and ultimately provided the unshakeable confidence that we brought to the field at every game.
Coach Wilson giving us a pep talk during half time at a game. The score on the board wasn’t an uncommon one for us, thanks to what he instilled in us.
A quote by Coach Wilson from that time in a newspaper article about our upcoming state championship reads, “If we get beat, we’ll be outplayed. (But) these kids won’t lay down or quit. These kids have a lot of character.”
He said it, and we believed it, and because we believed it, we did it.
We didn’t give up, and we never relented. I think every one of us would have rather died than quit and let down Coach Wilson, or more importantly ourselves. We knew who we were, and we were winners. There was simply no other option in our minds, and like I said, it wasn’t arrogant. Instead, it was quiet, and it was earned.
Since those experiences, I’ve come to believe that in developing ourselves there’s nothing—absolutely nothing—more powerful than two things: hard work combined with confidence (especially confidence gained through that hard work). In fact, Geoff Colvin posits that it’s those two things that truly separate the good from not just the great but the world-class.
Like all things eventually do, high school came to an end. Later in life, I found myself here, working at Ultradent. I immediately picked up on the same quiet confidence that Coach Wilson exhibited in Ultradent’s founder and my mentor of many years, Dr. Dan Fischer. Just like Coach Wilson he instilled that quiet confidence in those around him. He used to say to me, “Let’s go quietly through the jungle and not awaken the giants. When we come up against them, we will beat them, but we don’t need to pre-alert them.”
Dr. Dan Fischer, founder of Ultradent Products, Inc.
I knew I’d come to the right place, and I recognized in Dr. Fischer that unique and rare gift for leadership that Coach Wilson exhibited so many years before.
Dr. Fischer taught me about focusing on bettering our own business, our skills, and our game, rather than focusing on the competition. He modelled hard work and perseverance. Like Coach Wilson, who often told us that even though we came from a Podunk town we weren’t any less than anyone else, Dr. Fischer showed me that our little dental company from Utah could take on the world, and that no one could stop us.
Dirk Jeffs, President and CEO of Ultradent with Dr. Dan Fischer, founder and CEO-emeritus.
Since those football days, I’ve gained a passion for triathlon, road biking, and mountain biking. In the process, I’ve taken a few tumbles, broken a few bones, and even got hit by a car (landing me in the hospital and on the surgical table more times than I’d like to remember).
But, despite the advice of my doctors, my colleagues, as well as family and friends, I keep getting back on my bike. When people (who are often understandably exasperated) ask me “Why?”, I just shrug my shoulders and say, “It’s my football coach’s fault.”