“Never. I don’t ever give up. I’d have to be dead or completely incapacitated.” Elon Musk This was spoken when asked if he had thought about giving up after he spent years and 100 million dollars of his own fortune flying three failed rockets into space, only to succeed on the final attempt. His company afterward received 1.2 billion dollars in NASA funding for 12 further rocket launches.
When I was growing up, I played sports with most of my spare time. I loved baseball, soccer, football and basketball. Especially basketball. I dreamed of playing college and professional basketball. I played on teams every year all the way through my freshman year.
It was 1997 and I was a sophomore in at one of the largest high schools in the state of Oregon. It was the end of the week of basketball tryouts and I had been called into the coaches office. As gently as they could, they let me know I hadn’t made the team. There’s only been a few times since I was a little kid that my disappointment was so strong it brought me to tears. That was one of them. It crushed me bare.
Over time the hurt turned to anger at the coaches. They had made a mistake. I then turned the anger into motivation. I resolved to skip high school basketball entirely and play in college. I never went to another tryout in high school.
I played basketball 8-10 hours a week, every week for the next three years. I grew seven inches, from 5’5 to 6 foot by the time I was a senior. The summer I graduated high school, I could dunk a regulation size ball, no small feat for a six foot white guy. My basketball skills had also improved considerably.
The fall after graduating high school, I enrolled in the community college by our town and played soccer for the school. (I played 4 years of soccer in high school.) So by the time basketball season came around, I was in great shape, physically. Mentally I was scared to death of approaching the basketball coach about walking on. The team was filled with mostly former starters at some of the state’s biggest high schools. I was also worried I wouldn’t get a chance to show the coach I could play. I had no resume. I had last played organized basketball in 9th grade. That fear kept me from approaching the coach before the season started.
So instead of talking to the coach, I got a job as the stat keeper for the men’s and women’s basketball games. I was terrible at the job. I would get all caught up in the game and completely forget about recording the stats. One important thing happened during those weeks of watching the games. I became confident that I could play with those guys.
After finding out that one of the players had been kicked off the team, I finally worked up the courage to go talk to the coach. When I walked in, he recognized me as the stat keeper, not a good start. I told him I wanted a shot to walk on to the team. That’s when he asked me where I played high school ball. I told about how I had gotten cut when I was a sophomore, but how I kept practicing and playing over the following years. I told him about how I had grown 7 more inches. It seemed like everything I was saying was going in one ear and out the other. Looking back, I imagine that he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his players.
Then I told him I could dunk the ball. He looked up from his desk like someone else had just come into the room. Being able to dunk isn’t a sign of a good basketball player, but it is a sign of athleticism and hard work, especially when you are only 6 ft tall. From that moment on he took me seriously and invited me to that day’s practice to give me a shot.
That first practice went very well, and I was invited back the next day. The next day also went well and I began practicing with the team for the next several months. It was grueling at times. The practices were 2 1/2 to 3 hrs long, usually 4 days a week. The plan was for me to start dressing down for the games once I became more familiar with the plays and the overall system. Not playing in high school made the process take longer than usual, and I spent a few months of hard work picking things up.
With only a month or so remaining in the season, I approached the coach again about when he planned on having me suit up. He sat me down and told me that he wanted to wait until the next season to start playing me. With little over a month remaining in the current season, it would be a waste of a year of eligibility to start playing me so late in the year. The decision was reasonable, but it was more than I could take.
Basketball was the only reason I was still enrolled in classes. As I walked up the parking lot to my car after talking with coach, I realized I didn’t have enough motivation to keep me in school until the next year. That, and I couldn’t imagine facing the pain and fatigue of the daily practices, all without a guarantee that everything would work out the next season. He had changed his mind about the timing already, would it happen again? It was too much. I gave up and never returned.
To this day I regret walking away from that team. My resolve and determination was tested that day, and I gave up. Though I may have come close, I didn’t see the goal through to completion.
Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, has talked about how persistence and determination are the most important factors in predicting the success of a new company, even more important than intelligence. This is true, not only for business, but for life in general.
A few years later I did end up finally playing college basketball for a smaller college here in Portland. One thing I’ve learned from all this, is that it’s not how many times you fall down that matters. It’s that you get back up and keep going. Never give up, it will only lead to regret.
If you get a chance, watch this 60 minute clip on Elon Musk. It’s outstanding. I would love to hear your stories of hurdles that you’ve overcome, or that you are overcoming. What are some of your dreams that you’ve realized that took much determination and resolve?