A powerful vision story about Dan O’Brien, US Olympian

Posted on Posted in Beloved Brands in the Market

One of the biggest areas I see brands struggling is on the crafting an inspiring Vision Statement. Many don’t have one, and those that do have these long convoluted statements that don’t really say anything. After every stakeholder adds their own two cents and it’s no longer a vision. Pretty soon, your attempt at a vision looks more like a local bi-law explaining where you can fish, land your airplane and display real estate signs all in one statement. A smart vision statement should inspire and focus your team. Let me tell you the story about Dan O’Brien and a little piece of paper that steered him to achieving everything he wanted.

The story of Olympian, Dan O’Brien

He was a U.S. track and field superstar back in the 1990s.  He competed in the Decathlon and won pretty much everything: World Champion, Olympic Champion, US Champion and World Record Holder that would stand for 10 years–a lifetime in the track and field world.  

Dan Obrien’s backstory

Even though he met tremendous success in his track career, it didn’t really get off to a great start. O’Brien went to the University of Idaho on a track scholarship. He struggled with classes, excelled at partying, lost the scholarship and flunked out. “I was just not prepared for what it took academically,” he recalls. “I’d get so far behind, I’d just give up.”  

O’Brien went to work as a cabinetmaker in Moscow, Idaho. He fell into debt, kited checks and wound up in jail wearing a blue jumpsuit and flip-flops. Later, there was a DUI arrest. He was clearly at rock bottom and needed some inspiration to get himself out.  

At his lowest point, O’Brien attended a decathlon clinic run by MILT CAMPBELL, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist, who asked each decathlete whether he had written his goals on a piece of paper and placed it his wallets. O’Brien said he immediately went to his room and wrote “9,000 points” on one side of a small piece of paper and “world’s greatest athlete” on the other.

The piece of paper steered him to achieve.

“I wouldn’t have achieved what I have if I hadn’t set those goals,” he said. “I was a floater and as soon as I set solid goals, I could achieve what I wanted.”

With 9,000 points that would be the clear world record holder for decades to come. World’s Greatest Athlete was always given to the reigning world champion of the Decathlon. He kept that paper with him as inspiration and direction. Dan O’Brien didn’t know, but he had written a vision statement.

As he climbed out of his struggles, he went to a Junior College, starting to compete again. He then started to compete on the world stage, keeping that note in his pocket. By 1991, he won the World Championships Decathlon completing half of his Vision Statement. His career was moving full steam ahead.  

Qualifying for the Olympics

In 1992, he was now at the US Qualifying event to get into the Barcelona Olympics. As the current reigning world champion, it was natural that the US Olympic team was relying on O’Brien to make the team and bring home Gold for the Americans. Same with TV networks, sponsors and event organizers.

At the Qualifying meet for the US Team, O’Brien was in first place after 7 of the 10 events, looking as a shoe-in for the team. But then came the high jump. O’Brien made what seemed like an odd choice of going for a higher height than he needed to and he never cleared the bar after the required number of attempts. He went from 1st place to 15th and missed qualifying for the Games.

People were stunned and confused. Why would he go for the higher height, instead of settling for something that would keep him in contention to qualify? Well, it comes back to the second part of his vision statement: 9,000 points. Based on where he stood after 7 events, Dan’s calculations showed that he could only get to 9,000 points if he made the higher jump. Yes, high risk, high reward. But it was in line with his vision.

Afterall, Dan didn’t have “Olympic Champion” on his little piece of paper.  

Not qualifying for the games was a bit of a disaster for Reebok who had put all their money into O’Brien. The US Olympic team was mad, fans were upset and NBC was furious. But Dan kept pushing towards that dream of 9,000 points. Only 3 months after the Barcelona Olympics, O’Brien set a world record of 8,860 points, a record that would stand for a decade. And in 1996, he would go on and win Olympic Gold for his country.  

Why I love this story so much?

First, if you put everything in your vision statement it gets so watered down. He could have put a laundry list, including Olympic Champion, Millions in endorsements, make tons of money and win every event. But then it would just be he achieved 3 out of 5 things on his list.  

But he decided to focus on what motivated him. While you might wish he won the 1992 Olympic Gold, it wasn’t on his piece of paper. He left off what wasn’t important and stuck to it. You should do the same and you’ll find your vision statement offers you both focus and inspiration.  

A good vision should scare you a little bit and it should excite you a lot.  

A vision should open your mind up. It should challenge your thinking. Stretch you to think of things not immediately within reach.  

When Dan O’Brien looks back on his career, we can see how that little piece of paper drove him. The fact that he’ll never reach his dream score of 9,000 points in decathlon rubs like a blister: “I came up short because I set the goal too low,” O’Brien says, grinning. “If I had tried to make 9,200, I might have got the 9,000.”

So how can you use this story to challenge yourself and your team to ask: what’s would be on your piece of paper?

How to find your brand vision

A well-written brand vision should be the ultimate end-in-mind achievement, which answers, “Where could we be?” Think about significant accomplishments that would make you feel completely fulfilled. Put a stake in the ground to describe an ideal state for your future. Every smart brand plan must start with a brand vision statement. When I see brand teams who struggle, they usually lack a brand vision.

Some organizations get so fixated on achieving short-term goals; they chase every tactic in front of them just to make their numbers. Your vision should steer your entire brand plan. Choose the language and phrases within your vision that will inspire, lead, and steer your team.

Examples of best-in-class brand vision statements

Use these statements to inspire you as you write your own vision statement. Maybe you will see something that feels familiar to what is in your mind or at least a structure for how you would write your own vision statement.

Your vision should scare you a little and excite you a lot. You should wonder if you can achieve it and then think of how it would feel if you did. While we do not always accomplish every vision, we rarely achieve more than we thought was possible.

Once you establish your vision, it sets up the key issues of your plan, including obstacles in the way of achieving your vision, which then sets up the strategies for how to reach the vision. As mentioned earlier, a brand plan has to flow like an orchestra, with each element directly related to the others.

Imagine the perfect picture

To be a visionary, you must be able to visualize your future. You should be able to imagine the perfect picture of your brand in the future, to helps answer, “Where could we be?” Imagine it is five or ten years from now. You wake up in the most fantastic mood. Think about where you are in your personal life and your business life. Start to imagine an ideal state of what you want. Visualize a perfect future of what has you in such a good mood and write down the most important things you want to achieve. 

  1. What is your future revenue or market share?
  2. Describe the future culture of your company.
  3. What do you want people to say about your brand? 
  4. What do your own to people find motivating about working on your brand?
  5. How do you want customers to describe their experience with your brand?
  6. Name some of the future accomplishments that would make you proud.
  7. What do you do better than anyone else on the planet?
  8. Name something out-of-the-box that would make people talk about your brand.

Checklist for what makes a vision great:

  • Your vision should last 5-10 years.
  • It should help you imagine the ideal picture of “where could we be.”
  • Describe your dream, describing what you see, feel, hear, think, say and wish for your brand.
  • It should be emotional to motivate all employees and partners to rally behind it.
  • It must be easy to understand, in plain words, which may already be a familiar phrase within the company.
  • A great vision is a balance between aspiration (stretch) and reality (achievement).
  • Consider adding a financial (sales or profit) or share leadership position (#1) number.

Cautions and caveats when writing your brand vision statements:

  1. A vision should not be a positioning statement.
  2. Make sure you have not already achieved it.
  3. Do not make strategic statements. It is not the “how.”
  4. Try to be single-minded. Keep tightening it. Do not include everything!
  5. Focus on how to build a purpose-driven beloved brand

What’s on your piece of paper you’d put in your pocket?  

My new book, Beloved Brands, coming this spring.

How this Beloved Brands playbook can work for you. The purpose of this book is to make you a smarter brand leader so your brand can win in the market. You will learn how to think strategically, define your brand with a positioning statement and a brand idea, write a brand plan everyone can follow, inspire smart and creative marketing execution, and be able to analyze the performance of your brand through a deep-dive business review.



Beloved Brands: Who are we?

At Beloved Brands, our purpose is to help brands find a new pathway to growth. We believe that the more love your brand can generate with your most cherished consumers, the more power, growth, and profitability you will realize in the future.

The best solutions are likely inside you already, but struggle to come out. Our unique engagement tools are the backbone of our strategy workshops. These tools will force you to think differently so you can freely generate many new ideas. At Beloved Brands, we bring our challenging voice to help you make decisions and refine every potential idea.

We help brands find growth

We start by defining a brand positioning statement, outlining the desired target, consumer benefits and support points the brand will stand behind. And then, we build a big idea that is simple and unique enough to stand out in the clutter of the market, motivating enough to get consumers to engage, buy and build a loyal following with your brand. Finally, the big idea must influence employees to personally deliver an outstanding consumer experience, to help move consumers along the journey to loving your brand.

We will help you write a strategic brand plan for the future, to get everyone in your organization to follow. It starts with an inspiring vision that pushes your team to imagine a brighter future. We use our strategic thinking tools to help you make strategic choices on where to allocate your brand’s limited resources. We work with your team to build out project plans, creative briefs and provide advice on marketing execution.

To learn more about our coaching, click on this link: Beloved Brands Strategic Coaching

We make Brand Leaders smarter

We believe that investing in your marketing people will pay off. With smarter people behind your brands will drive higher revenue growth and profits. With our brand management training program, you will see smarter strategic thinking, more focused brand plans, brand positioning, better creative briefs that steer your agencies, improved decision-making on marketing execution, smarter analytical skills to assess your brand’s performance and a better management of the profitability of the brand.

To learn more about our training programs, click on this link: Beloved Brands Training

If you need our help, email me at graham@beloved-brands.com or call me at 416 885 3911

 Graham Robertson bio