Failing to succeed

Failing doesn’t have to mean failure. In my case it led to the development of new skills and an early focus on my business career.

Failing to succeed by Nancy Knowlton

In the summer of 1978 I was cut from the Canadian national basketball team, which left me stunned. I had played very well in the tryout camp – so well that the coach had earlier selected me to the team. Then he changed his mind and cut me. In a short interview I asked why, and he told me that he wanted to keep a girl who was an inch taller than I and quite a bit heavier. He thought that I was a great shooter but I was too small for the tougher international game.

Pumped for tryout camp

The summer before I had also played well in the tryout camp, but I was cut in the first round. The coach told me then that he thought I was too light and I needed to gain some weight. So I had come back to training camp in 1978 in superb condition, muscled, strong and well-conditioned. On my info sheet for the coach I added a few extra pounds to my weight. The coach commented that I looked better with the extra weight. Throughout the camp he commented on how well I was playing and scoring.

The news that I was cut was devastating. I knew that the local paper in the city where I was living at the time had carried a small story about me making the national team. People knew. How could I face the multitude of questions from friends and teammates about what had happened? I snuck into town after dark, going directly to my apartment.

Unhealthy reaction

I couldn’t eat. I was unable to sleep. I imagined that I would be ridiculed, and I couldn’t face people. I didn’t want to answer the question about what happened even once. In my mind I was a complete failure – a loser. And so I did the only thing I could think to do – I hid.

Opportunity knocks

Things went well until the third day when a knock came at my door. I thought it was unusual for someone to come to my door in residence when everyone thought that I was off with the national team. I thought that if I just ignored the knocking, the person would go away, but the knocking persisted. It got to an awkward stage when the person stood at my door and spoke to me from outside. He said that he was from an organization in the city and that when he heard that I had been cut from the team he wanted me to come and help with the documentation of the entity’s processes. I stuck with my plan and stayed silent within my apartment.

Later that day my phone rang. After thinking about it for a couple of rings I answered. It was the same man who had knocked on my door earlier. He introduced himself and asked if I would come in and speak to him about the project he had in mind. I did so and agreed to take the assignment on the spot. It was a great opportunity. Not only did I learn a lot, I enjoyed the work. I believe that I helped, and I really enjoyed working with my manager and others in the organization.

This probably sounds like a great recovery from a negative experience. In many ways it was and more. I got some fantastic experience and developed expertise in an unexpected area. I never had another tryout with the national team and carried on with my business career.

Seeing opportunity clearly

It was truly only with the benefit of hindsight that I was able to clearly see that getting cut from the team was actually good for me. It forced me to get serious earlier than I otherwise would have about my career. At best I would have been a benchwarmer (I certainly was not good enough to be a starter or even 6th or 7th man), going through all of the practices and seeing very little floor time in games. I would not have enjoyed that experience.

So, as it turns out, my failure was my success. Getting cut was my freedom to do something in another arena. One door closed and another door opened.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.