Trying and Failing | November 22, 2013

Trying and Failing

When I was twenty-one, I tried to make the Olympic ski team.

I did not make it.

My father competed in the 1950 Olympics as a ski jumper and cross-country skier, and he coached the 1972 and 1976 Olympic ski teams. My oldest brother competed in four Olympics – his first during his senior year in high school. My sister was on the national ski team, and my other brother is a nationally recognized ski coach, so you can see that skiing was a valued experience in my upbringing.

After college I knew that if I never tried to reach my aspiration of skiing at the top levels, I would always regret it. I had done very well as a college skier, but I chose my college for its music and history programs, not the skiing program, so while I had gotten the education I wanted, I had sacrificed a top-level collegiate skiing experience. After college I hoped to make up for lost time, so I decided I would give myself two years to try to make the Olympic team.

I took on three jobs so I would have enough money to support myself while I trained for skiing. I was a soccer coach at a local public high school; I went into the wood cutting business with my brother and his friend, and I taught 'cello and chamber music at the Putney School. This last job I could do at night, so it did not interfere with my day jobs or my ski training.

Although this seemed like a pretty good set up that would allow me to achieve my goals, I had some challenges. On another day, maybe, I will take you through those challenges. For now I will simply say that I had to spend the first year getting a broad enough base so that I could train not just for 2-3 hours a day 6 days a week, but so that I could train 4-5 hours a day for 6 days a week. As successful as I had been as a collegiate skier, I did not realize the extent to which my collegiate experience had not prepared me to train the hours I needed in order to compete at the highest level.

The other adversity was that the two years I chose to ski were among the worst in history for snowfall in southern New England. While that may not sound like a big problem, it really hurt my ability to train on snow.

The point for now is that while I did compete in the US Nationals, The North American Championships, the Australian Nationals and the Pre-Olympics, I never made the Olympic team.

I devoted two years to trying, and I never reached my goal. But I will always be glad that I tried.

This talk is about the value of trying.

Trying and failing is a lot better than not trying at all.

We have a team at MBS that has been trying hard for the past three years, and I want to talk about that. I will begin with their season in 2011. Now those players are juniors and seniors, and their effort is bringing in good results, but it has not always been that way.

As happy as I am about the football team's remarkable record this year, I am not here to celebrate their touchdowns. I am here to celebrate their hard work, their deep dedication, and their courage. When these students graduate, they will know that they worked as hard as they could on that football field, every day, every practice, every drill.

In some ways, I feel a certain connection to this year's juniors, for we were all freshmen together. I arrived to MBS the same year that they arrived to the upper school as ninth graders, so their first game at MKA in 2011 was my first game as head of school.

So on a beautiful day in September, my wife and I drove to Montclair Kimberly to enjoy the first game of the season. We had planned to stay for the first half and then head off to do other things. But at halftime when the score was 49-0, and we were losing, our plans changed. There was no way we were going to abandon the team with a score like that. As odd as it sounds, for my wife and me, that game remains one of our fondest early memories of being proud to be at MBS.

Because the two starting quarterbacks, both seniors, had been injured during pre-season, Coach Fell had to tap a player who had never taken a snap in his life.

During that game on September 10, 2011, if you did know the score, you would never know—from watching the unwavering commitment, courage, effort, and dignity of our coaches and players—that we were losing. Our players were outrushed, out-tackled, outsized and outscored, but they were not out classed. Their dignity and grace throughout the contest was truly remarkable. The final score was 70-6.

Equally impressive at that memorable game were the parents, who cheered throughout in appropriate and encouraging ways. They did not shout "Come on, we can win this." Instead, they celebrated every small moment of victory during the contest. My wife has often commented on what a bonding experience it was for us that day in the stands. Despite the staggering score differential, we were so proud of MBS.

Let me give you a sense of other challenges the team faced. The MKA game was our very first game as a varsity team. The team was transitioning from being a JV-only team, to being a varsity team. Also, the team was hard hit by injury. Not only did they lose both quarterbacks, but both captains were injured, one of them in a season-ending and career-ending injury since he would not be playing football in college. Also, two key running backs were injured.

Then two seniors quit the team. By the end of the 2011 season, 6-10 freshmen were starters on the Morristown Beard varsity football team. Let me give you some scores from that season:

We lost 46-0 against Moore Catholic, 41-6 against St. Joe's Metuchen, 38-6 against Whippany Park, and 50-14 against Marist.

Through all the challenges of that season, the team remained focused and together. They finished with a record of 2-8, and one of those wins was by forfeit.

The following year, the players returned to the field, ready to get to work. They lifted weights throughout the summer, and practiced twice a week. They continued to work hard, and you know where they are now.

While we lost to MKA in 2011 by a score of 70-6, in 2012 we lost 21-14. This year we won convincingly by a score of 27-7.

But this talk is not about grit and perseverance only on the football field....This kind of effort serves you well in every context, no matter what you are doing or where you are. If you were lucky enough to see Radium Girls last week, you witnessed another demonstration of hard work, commitment and dedication to perfecting a craft. These actors did not simply memorize a few lines and walk around a stage. They studied their characters; they lived their characters. Two girls even visited the grave of one of the characters that they were portraying in the play. For ten weeks they worked at becoming someone else, and through their devotion to drama and to creating a credible story, they were transformed.

All of you should have as a goal to discover a passion and then outwork your opponent or, at the very least, to work to the best of your ability. One of our goals at MBS is to help you discover, and then develop, this passion. You never can predict where the satisfaction or growth will come from when you work hard, but you can predict, with certainty, that you will benefit from such effort.

I will end with a quote from a speech that my students in The Rhetoric of Leadership and I studied this fall called the Strenuous Life, given by Theodore Roosevelt. The speech calls on all Americans to work hard to contribute to the betterment of society. Roosevelt claims that the strenuous life can benefit not just the individual but also the entire country. I would submit that the same theory applies to all of you within the context of the MBS community.

The quote is as follows:

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried."


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