Born and raised by a Boeing engineer contracted by NASA, the philosophy I was raised by was, “failure is not an option.” During my childhood, I wore this mantra proudly on my wrist. It was a gift from my father who encouraged me to go after my dreams and to remember that I cannot fail like the back of my hand; so, I put the intention on my wrist.
As I would end long days of hard work growing up, I would pull the bed covers over me and remind myself that I cannot fail, it is not an option. Everything I would do would lead me to my dreams. My loftiest dream growing up – to be honest it is currently my dream – was to be in the NBA because 1) I loved the game of basketball and 2) I wanted to inspire others that they can be anything they dream of being. The latter reason because if a relatively short, white, Jewish kid from Houston could play professional ball, anyone could fly in space, create a product, compete in the Olympics i.e. name a goal and you can do it. I vividly remember going to bed one night after writing down in my small moleskin journal (they are still crushing the journal game!) that My goal in life is to make it to the NBA – King Solomon. After writing this, I went to bed, pulled my covers over my body, and my dream over my eyes. “There’s no way the NBA can’t have me playing in it,” I would tell myself “what would happen if I wasn’t playing… would there still be basketball?” Nevertheless, I was aiming high and nothing could stop me, failure was not an option.
I find it fascinating that the more I lived by a mantra or a quote, it started meaning different things to me. “Failure is not an option” became “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything,” which later became “Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” If I cannot fail in basketball, then I need to make basketball all that I think about because then basketball will become my destiny. My life became the “never satisfied, always driven,” “ball is life,” “eat, drink, sleep basketball,” “basketball is my girlfriend” shirts, media videos, articles, posters, i.e. basketball was my life. No matter how my stats looked, how much I played, or if I got along with my teammates, I was mentally in the gym practicing when I was in class, lunch, cello lessons, you name it. Very impressionable, I believed what the trainers said about ball is life and making (not shooting) 500 shots a day and I believed what I was told to do in order to play more. To be clear, I do think getting in the gym and working hard, making 500 shots a day, will help your game. In addition, thinking about basketball and how to improve your game on and off the court will help. However, when basketball was my identity I was less of a basketball player.
What all of the inspirational quotes and mantras miss is that before you go and work extra hard and eat, drink, sleep basketball, make sure you know yourself* first. After overcoming a season ending injury my junior year of college, I realized – after a lot of time of rejecting it – that eating, drinking, and sleeping basketball is not what makes me a better basketball player. What makes me a better basketball player - and human being - is being present moment to moment. In class, I am focused solely on the subject matter, not who I am guarding tonight or if I will play. At lunch or when I am eating, I am grateful for the food I am eating and I know that what I am eating is making me ready for class, my game, and being more present. In short, whatever I was doing, that is what I was focused on. There is a time to think about basketball, to study your competitors, and to practice. The best way to be more mindful is to schedule that time, not to think about it throughout the day. Otherwise focus would be lost during the time it is needed most, game time.
At this moment, I have decided to pivot away from playing basketball at my college. So, if you have the question, “why should we listen to you?” take it from one of the greatest players of all time, Kobe Bryant. In 2017, Kobe Bryant spoke to the San Diego Chargers during their training camp about when he started to know the importance of being present. He tells a short story about how he “never paid attention” in Geometry class. He continues to explain that later that day he had a game that his high school team was about to win, but lost at the last second because he was too busy imagining the celebration after the game that his opponent cut behind him, grabbed the rebound of a missed shot, and scored. The game ended in a sudden loss for Kobe and his high school team. The next day he made the connection that being present in Geometry class corresponds to being present during game time.
The conscious awareness I found through an injury, and Kobe’s realization after losing a game, presents the importance of being locked in the present moment. If we can be focused on what we do when we wake up, to what our teacher tells us in class, to how we are going to bed, then that will help us when we are out on our court, whether that be a field, a podium, flying an airplane, or time with our families.
A new opportunity to grow arose and I decided that I outgrew playing basketball at the university level with a year left of eligibility, but the relationship I have with basketball has transcended beyond “basketball is my girlfriend.” Basketball has been a gateway for me to be more present in the moment where all possibilities lie and where I can enjoy, as Ekhart Tolle says, “a state peaceful aliveness.” I truly believe Kobe feels the same. Once I started researching how Kobe trained off the court, – not just on the court by making a bunch of shots in the gym – I started training for a higher purpose. In result, my game was much better even for the short time before a concussion occurred and a new chance to improve emerged.
The progression of meanings behind the original mantra “Failure is not an option” surpassed its literal meaning. An engineer working with NASA shuttles could take failing to mean costing the lives of others as we have all witnessed sudden deaths from Space shuttle malfunctions and accidents. But, even those sudden traumas have been failures that lead to remarkable achievements like bringing a man to the moon in 1969. Thankfully, the injuries I welcomed into my life – by accident or purpose – were not as traumatic, but they did lead to wonderful ‘Aha!’ moments in this gamut life of mine.
Perhaps, I have truly learned what "failure is not an option" means, but I also think if failure is welcomed we can learn and grow much faster. Failure is the only option because failure leads to lessons and lessons become new knowledge. The challenge is being aware of that failure and learning from it. Refusing to learn from a failure would be insanity.
What are some of your biggest failures that set you up for later success?
As far as my journey with basketball goes… ;)
*A great read about knowing yourself is George Mumford’s The Mindful Athlete