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My most spectacular failure was a gift

February 11th, 2015

“The years tell us what the days cannot.”

Hi there.

I don’t know whose words these are, but I love them. How often do we go through events or struggles that frustrate us and make no sense at the time, but then later make all the sense?

I wrote here last time that one of my resolutions for 2015 is to write more frequently. To help me do this, I challenged our two older sons, who also want to write or create more regularly, to join me in a game where we draw a card from our Reverse Charades game every week and whatever word or phrase is on the card is what we have to write about. (The last card/topic was bald eagle.)

This week’s card is basketball. Drawing this card is requiring me to write about something that has been in my “mental queue” for several months now, waiting to be shared.

A short detour first, though. Around the same time I first heard “the years tell us what the days cannot” quote, I was in conversation with the Missoula YMCA to facilitate some leadership development for its leaders. I love Missoula, and it will always be a particularly special place for me. After all, I came of age in Missoula. I received my college degree there, started my first career job there, and I got married there.

But I left Missoula 22 years ago, and I hadn’t thought too much about the town, or my years there. That was, until I heard the “the years tell us what the days cannot” quote and was faced with the prospects of returning to Missoula for some work. These two things caused me to look back and connect the dots of my past in a way I hadn’t previously done. In doing so, I made all kinds of significant realizations, most of which are the result of what was probably my most spectacular failure, which is 100% related the subject of the card we drew for this week, basketball.

As most of you know, I’m an outdoor enthusiast. I hike. A lot. As in, 1,000 miles a year. But during my youth I wasn’t much into the outdoors. Rather, my passion was basketball, and I was pretty good at it. In fact, I received a full ride Division I basketball scholarship to University of Montana in 1986. If you aren’t aware, the University of Montana Lady Griz basketball team is legendary. The Lady Griz coach is also legendary. Robin Selvig is in his 33rd year as coach of the Lady Griz, and has led 22 of his winning teams to the NCAA Division I playoffs. The Lady Griz inspire awe and almost always win. If my research is correct, Lady Griz teams win about 80% of the games they play.

But back to me. So there I was in Fall of 1986, a Lady Griz. Let me try to describe what that was like… For starters, most of the my teammates were very tall, as in 6 feet tall and up. Tall is not a word anyone ever used to describe me. If I round up, I’m 5′ 5″. Every single player was phenomenal, and better than any player I had ever played or practiced with. In the world of basketball, I had arrived. Despite the amazing talent surrounding me, and feeling a little out of my league, I was eager and excited to level up, and to be a part of such a dynasty. I worked really hard, and was optimistic.

Unfortunately, about a month in, I blew my right knee (ACL) out in practice. I was redshirted, and began recovering from ACL reconstructive surgery and rehabilitating my knee. The injury was a setback, but I followed the doctor’s orders, worked as hard as I could, and was determined to make a comeback.

In the end, I didn’t come back fast enough. During my rehab, other point guards were recruited, and the truth of the matter is my ship had sailed. In year 3, Coach Selvig and I had a meeting. I’ll never forget that meeting because it marked the first difficult conversation I had ever had with an adult other than my parents. In that meeting, coach Selvig more or less informed me that there was another player who had walked on, who was performing better than I was, and as such, was more deserving of the scholarship. These were hard words for me to accept. Still, Coach was kind, and encouraged me to stay on the team.

I left the office and never returned to the team. I quit.

I’ll be honest, when I first looked back over all of this, it seemed trivial. I mean, losing a basketball scholarship, in the big picture of life, is not a huge deal. To be sure, things could have been much worse. But I was 20 years old, a long way from home, feeling humiliated and alone, not to mention the path I had been on – the only one I had a map for – was no longer my path.

Remember – the years tell us what the days cannot. During my recent look back at all of this, I realized the things I did in the months following my aforementioned failure not only made a significant difference in my life during that time, but continue to inform my life, and my work. Let me share a little about what those things were/are:

“In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.” (John Muir)

One of the first things I did once I didn’t have basketball was I started hiking. I hiked to the “M”, located right on the edge of the UM campus. Soon after, I was hiking past the M, and all the way to the top of Mt. Sentinel, sometimes every day of the week. It was the combination of moving under my own power, feeling my heart pumping, letting my mind wander, and the feeling of fresh air and sun on my face that caused me to fall in love with hiking. Add to that, I always felt inspired following my hikes.

Today, one of my biggest passions is long distance day hiking. I view my time walking in nature as one of my competitive advantages – one of the secrets to my happiness and physical and mental health. Hiking is also a significant part of my family’s life, and my work. In November, I returned to Missoula for work with the YMCA, and I got up before sunrise to hike to the top of Mt. Sentinel. What an amazing experience that was, having come as far as I have, and given so much of my epic life started on that very trail 26 years ago. I don’t know what my life would be like if I didn’t have hiking, and the fact is, I did not really start hiking until I no longer played basketball.

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” (Joseph Campbell)

After I lost my scholarship, I remained friends with the Lady Griz players. But the fact was my world was now different from theirs, and I needed to find my new way. At first, this meant spending a significant amount of time alone. Spending time alone, and in solitude, was a completely new experience for my then-social self. Previously, I had thought of solitude as an activity for the lonely. Wow – how naive and wrong I was.

During time alone, we are available only to our self, and we are able to listen to our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a time to take stock, to reflect, to solve problems, to experience our feelings, and to imagine our dreams.

Socrates said “Know thyself.” In my humble opinion, self awareness is our most important pursuit, if we are to be our best, and live our best life. I believe that solitude is the medium for self realization, and that’s why I challenge everyone I work with to incorporate some of it into their life. Until losing my basketball scholarship, I had never invested much time in solitude. It was 26 years ago that I discovered the value of solitude, and I can’t imagine my life without it.

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” (Viktor Frankl)

Until the months after losing my scholarship and quitting basketball, I wasn’t much of a reader. Sure, I read books that were assigned in school, but that was about it. I just didn’t love reading. That all changed when one of my journalism school professors, who knew I was having a little bit of a hard time, shared a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. I was so inspired by Frankl’s story of surviving the Holocaust, and an Auschwitz concentration camp. Frankl’s belief that we get to choose our existence helped me to realize it was up to me how I would respond to my circumstances, and that I had the ability to create meaning in my life. Reading the book also put my struggles in perspective real fast!

Reading Frankl’s work not only provided wisdom and inspiration during a time when I needed it, it also marked the start of my love affair with books, and reading. Today I am a voracious reader. I read 50+ books a year, and find them to be a tremendous source of inspiration and knowledge. I can’t imagine a life without books and a lot of time spent reading.

“We cannot lower the mountain, therefore we must elevate ourselves.” (Todd Skinner)

People who know me and work with me hear me say, frequently:  We can go farther than we think we can. I believe this so much that it could be my personal slogan. Marcus Aurelius, the great emperor of Rome from 161-180, and known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy, said “We know that deep down we learn and benefit from failure and adversity.” And Benjamin Franklin said “The things which hurt, instruct.”

Playing on the Lady Griz basketball team was one of my first opportunities to level up. Not having what it took caused me to reinvent myself and create a new path for myself at a relatively early age. It caused me to turn trial into triumph. Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that my mission is to inspire others to explore their edges, to “sign up for” and try things that are so challenging that the outcome is uncertain – to dare to fail.

There is one more thing I want to mention before writing the conclusion to this post. I am grateful for my time on the Lady Griz team. It was an amazing experience, and I made many good friends who I am still in touch with. It was truly an  honor and a privilege to play for coach Selvig, and to be a member of such a great program.

Finally, upon making all of these realizations, I have come to the biggest realization of all, and that is that my spectacular failure was not a failure at all, but rather an opportunity to learn and become more than I was before.

Thank you for reading this blog post. My hope is that it will inspire you to look back on your own life and connect the dots to recall particular struggles and to see the difference they may have made, or continue to make, in your life, and to help you trust that somehow things you’re challenged by in your current life will connect to your future and make sense one day.

And, of course, I’d love it if you’d consider sharing a story in the comments. Thanks again!

Books I recommend that are related to all of the above:

  • Doug says:

    You’re never less than epically inspiring, Shelli.
    You remind me that I, too, have several connections to Missoula
    (although much less than you.)

    Among them: my first wife Lynn moved there after she left our marriage to
    move near Missoula and live with the Lakota and her new love.
    And it’s where she died of cancer seven years later.

    We were together for ten years, and I loved her, before and after she left.
    I’m grateful for the time we had together.
    My epic failure was to not see that the life we were living, in the
    suburbs of New Jersey, did not feed the spirit of a woman who was
    not only born again, but was a witch, a talented artist, and a priestess of Santeria.
    I didn’t really see into her experience, and so I didn’t attend to what she needed.

    I was heartbroken and depressed when she left me.
    Marriages did not ever fail in my family,
    so there was clearly something wrong with me.

    Three weeks later, I met the woman who was to be the love of my life, and I turned
    out to worthy after all. Or just blessed. But I’ve never fallen asleep to my
    relationship since. I now know the great gift of deep connection, and something
    about how to create and nurture and grow it that I never would have
    realized if I hadn’t been confronted with my epic relationship failure.
    What seemed at the time to be the end of my happiness was, in
    fact, the beginning of a journey more spectacularly rich than I knew
    was possible.

    Here’s to all the learning that failure makes possible, and the doors it opens.

  • Laura Neff says:

    What a great and instructive reflection, Shelli! Thank you for sharing this “failure” with us. Funny how that word takes on a whole new meaning (and really loses its steam) once it’s explored further, you know?

    Your story reminded me of a high school sports-related “failure” of my own. All through high school, I was an ace on the track team, busting records and winning races and ribbons regularly. At the urging of a friend, I tried out for something really unlike me at the time…cheerleading…and fairly easily snagged a coveted spot on the basketball cheer squad. So imagine my surprise when, late in high school, I decided to try out for soccer, and I didn’t make the cut! In practice, my running training meant I could lap the other girls in warm ups. But I just didn’t have the experience, and the coach decided I needed to be one of the few girls who she turned away. It was humiliating, but more importantly, with the reflection of the years, humbling. AND, there’s a moment to be proud of…the coach actually asked me to make the decision for her, and I refused. I felt it was unfair for her to put that on me as a student who was up for the remaining spot next to other girls who wanted it, too, and so I told her that if she chose me, I’d work as hard as I could every practice and every meet, but that I wasn’t going to decide for her.

    Interesting to look back and see who I was and how it might have helped shape who I’ve become. Thank you for the opportunity to do so!

  • Robin Dilg says:

    After leaving Wyoming during the oil crash of the early 80’s I went to work selling newspaper advertising. But when I won a sales contest and the next day my boss gave away the 50 NEW accounts I had developed with spec ads to the only man in the office I quit and took a job with an insurance company in town. After 2 days I was fired. Angry and humiliated I refused to take another meaningless job and I informed my husband that I was going back to college. We had moved on a credit card and were sending $1100 per month back to the bank in Wyoming. My husband was beside himself and thought I had lost my mind. But I prayed and prayed and I put my champion endurance horse up for sale! Now my husband was sure I had lost my mind. But then a miracle happened. Bruce’s Dad inherited $10,000 and gave it to us! I tore up the check for my horse and went back to school and graduated #1 in the School of Arts and Science and began my successful social work CAREER. If my boss had not screwdriver with me I wouldn’t have followed my passion and helped many people, especially women. That firing was the best thing that ever happened to me!

    • Shelli says:

      Dear Robin,
      Thank God your boss was such a jerk… look what you made of it and who you positively impacted as a result. xo

  • Holly Copeland says:

    What an inspiring post, Shelli. Thank you for sharing. I love failure stories. Truly. They never disappoint. Thank you for the book suggestions too. I’ve read some, though not all of these books…will seek them out.

  • Martin Fox says:

    You have a gift Shelli like few others on the planet. Yes, you are a brilliant writer, but what is more important to me is how your stories gently take me back to times in my life when I experienced the same things you write about – opening up the space and the safety for deep learning and reflection. Guided discovery is an amazing gift you bring to humanity.

    My biggest failure as a leader caused 750 wonderful people to lose their jobs. For me, the failure taught me so many lessons on how to better lead and the critical need for developing transformational leaders around the planet.

    The failure gave me the courage to leave the management books behind as I opened my heart, learning to lead as purpose-driven servant. The courage to stand in my power, saying no to things that did not serve me or my tribe. The audacity to think I could help change the planet for the better.

    I realize my transformational experience did not come without a cost. Of the 750 people who lost their jobs, many moved into occupations that were a much better fit for their purpose and passions – and I cheer them on daily.

    Others never recovered – they just gave up. My thoughts and prayers are with them for continued healing and finding the resiliency to move forward with their lives. They are the ones who continue to haunt me in my dreams.


    • Shelli says:

      Dear Martin, Thank you for your kind words, and for reading my blog. Thank you especially for sharing a story… it is inspiring and I’m honored to know it. Sincerely, Shelli

  • Sharon says:

    Hey Shelli. Failures? I guess I don’t use that word anymore. Especially after having so many things turn out differently than I’d planned. More and more I believe that I am really fooling myself when I think I have much control over life. Often, I picture our planet spinning around in its little orbit in our little universe with so much around and beyond it. I get goose bumps when I consider that little old me gets to be on that planet to go for this amazing ride. When I look at it that way it makes me feel grateful for everything that happens, no matter how I choose to look at it . What a spectacular, miraculous opportunity we all have been given, “failures” and all.

  • Jackie says:

    Shelli, thanks for sharing your story. I found that I had to let it quietly sit with me for a while to digest it and let its meaning emerge for me. I can identify with the injury story so much. In college I played b-ball too (though Div III) and my junior year I developed a back problem, with which I still struggle. My game was never the same, but I can strap on a backpack and carry it up a mountain!

    I agree that it is defeats and disappointments that can wake us up, though, and inform our lives in the future. Mine was academic. I had been sleep-walking through school for nine grades, skating by on basic intelligence in a weak school system. I was considered “an underperformer with potential”. Then in ninth grade, I had an English teacher who gave me a D- for the quarter (I had never gotten a D!) and called my mother in for a meeting with me. We were told I’d have to drop the honors English and go into a lower level if I didn’t study. The teacher made clear she knew I was simply not doing the work, but that she wasn’t going to let me get away with it. Wow, I was so humiliated! My pride got a kick in the pants; my whole personal brand and story to myself was challenged to the core. I started studying. I resolved to not only stay in that honors class but to begin taking many more honors classes.

    Even with a pretty weak grade in English that year (I brought it up to a B- for the year), I ended up graduating 4th in my high school class. I was admitted to Bryn Mawr College, where I majored in Economics and played soccer and basketball for four years. I then got my MBA from Babson College, graduating 1st in my class and built a career in financial services.

    I now have choices in life and the financial freedom to find my ultimate purpose after a 25 year career. I know that if that one teacher had not given me that shake, that honesty, that holding me to a higher standard, that I may never have “woken up”. I may have just skated through life, and at some point people would have taken the “with potential” part out of the description and simply called me “an underperformer”.

    Shelli, thanks again for your story and helping me to reconnect with my own personal crossroads.

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