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What defines success?

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Recently, on a casual Friday, I wore a Greg Norman golf shirt to the office. One of my coworkers (clearly not a golfer) commented on the rainbow-stitched logo, “Is that a shark? Wow, there has to be some sort of story there … .”

As I relayed the Reader’s Digest version of Norman’s story to my coworker, I began thinking about his career—and about the way we define success. Norman is largely viewed as an underachiever in golf because he won only two major championships. For most pro golfers, winning two majors would be very respectable, but Norman performed so consistently well throughout his career that the public expected more from him. In fact, some sports experts picked Norman early on as a player of Jack Nicklaus’ caliber. (Nicklaus closed out his career with 18 major wins).

Norman may not have come close to rivaling Nicklaus’ wins, but I always admired the classy way he handled himself during tournaments. He never whined about losing or said disparaging things about his competitors. Despite “losing,” he always stayed true to himself. “The Great White Shark” (a reference to Norman's blond hair, size and bold golf game) kept his aggressive playing style, even when he lost because of it.

Financially, Norman didn’t do too shabby for a loser. He earned more than $1 million five times on the U.S. PGA Tour, including receiving the Arnold Palmer Award as the Tour's leading money-winner in 1986, 1989 and 1995. He was also the first person in Tour history to surpass $10 million in career earnings. Today, he heads up a multi-national corporation, Great White Shark Enterprises, a business focused on golf and the golf lifestyle. But his business success isn’t restricted to the sports arena. His other business interests include Australian wine, steaks, turf, real estate development, eyewear and global positioning systems. Apparently, Norman’s approach to business has much in common with his golf mentality, which he explains, “I always wanted to be the best I could be at whatever I did. I didn't want to be the No. 1 golfer in the world. I just wanted to be as good as I could be.”

Norman is successful—some might even say, wildly successful. Why? Because he takes risks. Because he didn’t allow sports commentators to put him into the same box as Jack Nicklaus. He didn’t fit into the golf tournament system; he didn’t conform to public expectations. Instead, he decided to follow his ingenuity and “Poke the Box.” Seth Godin masterfully explains this phenomenon in a Q&A posted on Amazon.com:

“Conformity used to be crucial—fitting in, not standing out. Compliance used to be the heart of every successful organization, every successful career. The reason? We all worked for the system, in the factory, doing what we were told. Now, though, compliance is no longer a competitive advantage.”

Norman didn’t choose to be Jack Nicklaus. He could have emulated the Golden Bear’s more calculated, conservative game. Maybe he did try to conform to that style once or twice. Some might argue that to be able to poke the box, you have to be familiar with its conventions/dimensions first. Case in point: Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Beatles—they all learned the rules first before they set out to break them.

Where would Norman be now if he had played a safer game and followed in Nicklaus’s footsteps? He’d probably still be a winner, but certainly not The Shark.

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