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

Dan O’Brien 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. His story will inspire you. 

Dan O'Brien's backstory

Even though he met tremendous success in his track career, it didn’t really get off to a great start. Dan 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.  



Dan O'Brien

At his lowest point, Dan 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, Dan O’Brien 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 like a shoo-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.

After all, Dan O'Brien didn't have an "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 Dan 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.  

Vision examples

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

One of the biggest areas I see brands struggling is 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.

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.

brand vision

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 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:

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

So with Dan O’Brien as an inspiration, what is on your piece of paper you’d put in your pocket?  

Beloved Brands logo

Graham Robertson

Contact info:

[email protected]


Follow on LinkedIn

Beloved Brands Marketing Training Brochure

Use the X for full view and  > to view the next page

Elevate your team’s performance with our marketing training. The smarter they are, the greater your brand growth will be.

Our Best Posts for Beloved Brands blog

Click to read more

Sample Chapter of Beloved Brands

Use the X for full view and > to turn to the next page


The cheat code for Brand Managers

It is without a doubt the most practical book for those who want to follow brand management that I have ever read in my life! Beloved Brands is written by a real, experienced marketeer for marketers. 


I have Brand Love for Beloved Brands!

As a 24-year marketing veteran at a Fortune 100 company, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about building brands until I started following Graham on social media. He has an amazing gift of bringing to life the critical elements of brand building and management in a delightful, easy-to-understand way and includes numerous examples and case histories that turn theory into practical reality for the reader.


Beloved Brands is a phenomenal book

I know other brand managers who have literally used this to review their business and create their annual brand plans. Undeniably, Beloved Brands is phenomenal in concept and in execution. Highly recommend.


Choose the brand plan that works for your brand

Choose the brand positioning template that works for your brand

Brand Toolkit for retail brands
brand toolkit for brand consultants

Brand Case Studies

If you are a marketing professional, you can learn from what some of the best brands have been doing. We use case studies to showcase the fundamentals of marketing.

Our video lessons

Everything a marketer must know how to do

To view, use arrows or click to go to YouTube.

How to uncover strategic key issues

To view, use arrows or click to go to YouTube.

How to build your brand positioning

To view, use arrows or click to go to YouTube.

Beloved Brands graham robertson

Contact Information

Graham Robertson

Email: [email protected]

Phone: 416–885–3911

Search our site for any marketing topic

M a r k e t i n g    B o o k

beloved brands

the playbook for how to create a brand your consumers will love

With our Beloved Brands playbook, you will learn how to think strategically, define your brand positioning, write a marketing plan, make execution decisions, and analyze your brand. Our readers tell us they reach for Beloved Brands as a reference tool to help them with the day-to-day management of their brand. We are proud that 89% of online reviewers have given Beloved Brands a 5-star rating. As a result, Beloved Brands has been a #1 bestseller in brand management. We also have the B2B Brands playbook and our Healthcare Brands playbook

Marketing Training

The smarter your team, the better the results you will see!

As a marketing team leader, you know that your team’s success is essential for your company’s growth. Our Beloved Brands marketing training provides your team with the skills they need to make strategic decisions, produce exceptional work, and drive business growth. They will learn how to define brand positioning, write effective plans, improve brief-writing, make informed execution decisions, and analyze their brand’s performance.

We have designed our marketing training program to build the fundamental skills that will help your team reach their full potential. We will work with your team to help them learn take on Strategic Thinking, Brand Positioning, Marketing Planning, Marketing Execution, and Brand Analytics. 

Brand Toolkit Brand Strategy Template
Beloved Brands Marketing book
How to write a marketing plan
How to write a brand positioning statement