What I Learned in Business From Failing in College Football
The SEC is a big place. It has very big people. It has enormous stadiums with the biggest crowds. It has the biggest television audiences, and it has the biggest level of competition in the country.
I was a big-time high school athlete. I had big speed and quickness. I have big hands and can catch anything. I have a big work ethic.
But, in college, I was a small wide receiver. I was an intellectual failure with very small knowledge about the details of the game of football.
As it turned out, while I believe I had the talent to be in the NFL, I barely played college football. I sat the bench most of my career, and when I finally got a chance to start during my final year of eligibility, I fractured two vertebrae in my second game. My career was over.
During the summers, I trained with NFL players. I out-hustled them in our workouts. I was just as fast as some of them, just as strong as others my size. They were all impressed, and I got nicknames and tons of compliments. I felt pretty good.
Unfortunately, compliments from NFL players did not make me a success. I failed, and they succeeded. Some of the people I trained with made the Pro Bowl, all played multiple years in the NFL, and they all knew something that I did not know: Football matters more than talent.
I was naive and rebellious. I believed that being a wide receiver was all about creating space between you and the defender, “getting open” and catching the football. I caught everything, and I was quick enough to get “open.” Pound for pound, I was one of the strongest players on the team.
However, I was lost on the field. I did not understand the nuances of the game of football, and I was a failure. When my coaches did not play me, I was angry and blamed their bad decisions. Rather than reaching out and asking what I needed to do to get on the field, I retreated into working harder in the gym. I was too proud to admit that I did not understand the intellectual side of the game, and so I “let my play do the talking.” After all, that was the image I had of myself. I was a practice-field hero. I didn’t have to play politics.
And so I didn’t, I rode the bench…and it sucked.
Similar to business, being a successful football player requires doing your job, working with others, asking questions, having a deep intellectual curiosity, and using your drive and discipline to do things that you may not be comfortable with.
Being a receiver in the “West Coast Offense” requires understanding the intellectual game of football, reading and understanding defensive schemes, reacting to the play and working in harmony with the rest of the 10 players on the field. It is not enough to be an athlete. In fact, when every other athlete matches or betters your talent, it is your intellectual skill and ability to work well with others that separates success from failure.
What I learned in college, and it applies as well to business, is that everyone is as talented as you are.
I relied on talent. I failed to recognize the importance of the cerebral side of the game, and I lost.
Further, similar to business, a football player must play his position and only his position. You cannot simultaneously throw the ball and catch the ball. However, when I started my business career, I had my same bad habits and thought that I needed to do everything.
It wasn’t until I was humbled and a bit humiliated in several business failures that I began to examine the bad habits that were holding me back. Here is what I learned:
1. Be an intellectual.
Talent only gets you on the team. If you want to get on the field and win, you must work hard at being a complete professional. Master the cerebral part of your craft. Practice the professional part of your business every day. Prepare in advance for every meeting and every phone call, and in your mind, take the time to work through every possible scenario. Just because you have “winged it” in the past and been successful because of your talent does not mean that your talent is enough to really “win.”
2. Create relationships.
Nobody is a success on his own. Don’t let preconceived notions of independence and respect get in the way of creating lasting relationships and asking for help. I had great coaches (many of whom went on to coach in the NFL – two as head coaches), but I never reached out to any of them for advice and support. It was a terrible mistake that I regret to this day.
3. Do your job and ONLY your job.
As a business owner, it is easy to see when people do not perform up to your standards. Sometimes, that realization has led me to burst in and try to fix the situation. However, just as on the football field you cannot throw and catch your own pass, you must allow people to play their position. All too often, I see business owners trying to take advantage of every opportunity (playing on too many fields at once) and trying to do every job in their business (trying to play too many positions). Truly successful people realize their limitations and surround themselves with others who complement their skills. For me -- and I still struggle with this -- it means stick to the job I am best at, and hire complementary, talented individuals for positions that fit their strengths.
College football and business are filled with people blessed with talent that puts them in the top 1 percent of all people born in this country. These are not ordinary humans. To most people, both elite-level college football players and business owners have tremendous talent and drive. Still, only 1 out of 150 college football players makes it to the NFL and only 3 out of 100 business owners successfully start and sell their business for the price they wanted. The other top 1 percent athletes, graduate (or don’t) and never make a dime from all that talent, and that top 1 percent business owner talent has a 55 percent failure rate and rarely achieves their stated goals.
To achieve your goals rely on more than just your talent.