This series of articles highlights the defining failures in my life to this point, as well as the invaluable lessons they taught me. I hope they inspire you - not to strive for failure, but to understand that striving for Significance means learning from failures, rather than avoiding them.
It was the worst day of my sheltered 16-year-old life.
I can still see the dressing room – completely bare, with the exception of the miniature hockey rink on the wall and the garbage can in the middle of the room.
No half-full hockey bags or sweaty teenagers removing their equipment. This room was reserved for private conversations. Heart-breaking private conversations, more specifically.
I can see the coach’s solemn face as he sat down across from me. His sympathetic brown eyes confirmed my fears before a word ever crossed his lips.
“I’m sorry Jay, we have to make hard decisions at this point, and I’m afraid that we will be letting you go today. We wish you all the best.”
I can still feel the tears welling up. They rose in a flood from the pit of my stomach, choking off circulation to my vocal chords and my lungs. I couldn’t get a word out as I shook his hand and headed for the door.
I was devastated.
The only meaningful goal I had ever set for myself in my young life had just exploded in my face. My attempt to make the local Midget AAA hockey team – the highest level of hockey for my age group - had fallen short.
On the very last day of training camp, at the last exhibition game, I was the last person cut from the team.
My hopes and dreams of hockey fame and stardom, of scholarships and respect, of success and reverence, came to a crashing halt. On top of that, I now had to face the music in the form of the other players and their families, who would be rejoicing in their achievement.
Then there was my father.
I can still hear the mixture of sadness and anger in his voice on that long ride home.
I will never forget that car ride. I felt terrible. He felt terrible. It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.
Sad for his son's dashed hopes and angry at the incompetence of the coach, my father was unable to contain his feelings. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I remember vividly that he was bubbling over with emotion. When we got home, I couldn’t get to my room and shut the door fast enough.
Then, two hours later, a phone call changed my life forever.
I remember hearing the phone ringing as I wallowed in tears and self-pity. Shortly after that, there was a knock at my bedroom door. It was my dad.
He entered with a look of renewed hope and incredible excitement.
“Jay, that was the coach from the Gatineau AAA team. He likes the way you play and wants you to try out for him.”
A few important notes here.
First, in this league, as in many, if you are released from the team who owns your “rights” to play in that league, another team can add you to their roster.
Second – and most important – Gatineau was the enemy.
They were francophone, we were anglophone. They were grinders, we were talented. They played dirty, we, of course, were perfect gentlemen. I had been playing against these guys for years. To say I despised them would be a considerable understatement.
Back to my dad.
“Gatineau??!! Are you SERIOUS?!?!” He’s lost his mind, I thought. That would be WAY worse than playing down a level. I would be a traitor, and to an inferior team, no less. What would my friends think? I can’t move two hours away to play for the enemy. This is my last year of high school. My friends. My image. My identity. Surely he’s not asking me to give all this up?!
“Listen, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. All I ask is that you consider it. They are playing in Montreal this weekend and the coach asked to meet you. Hear what he has to say, see what you think and the decision will be entirely yours to make.”
So that weekend we went to meet Alain Sanscartier, coach of L’Intrepide de Gatineau Midget AAA.
Kind of a waste of time, I figured. I could never play for them.
Never the less, I felt that I owed it to my old man, so I went along to make him happy.
10 minutes after entering the bus to meet with Alain, I emerged from it, proudly announcing to my parents that I would be going to Gatineau to try out for L’Intrepide.
Talk about doing a one-eighty.
Alain had not only convinced me to try out, he also sparked a desire and confidence inside of me that I had never previously experienced. He was the most intimidating man I had ever met. He was no-nonsense and stern. He sized me up – he thought that I had what it took to perform in this league. But did I agree?
I knew in an instant that I could learn a ton from him, and that he believed deeply in me, which seemed strange, considering I had never actually met him before.
A few days later, I packed my bags.
A week after that, I was officially a member of L'Intrepide.
That year in Gatineau we went further in the playoffs than my home team. I was named assistant captain and was selected to the all-star team. By the end of the year, I was ranked in the first round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scouting report.
Not bad for a failure.
While it was great to have success in hockey, those experiences pale in comparison to the growth I achieved outside of the arena. I developed resilience and perseverance, and I witnessed, first-hand, the power of unconditional support and mentorship.
My father didn’t say “you’re a failure, your life is over, you better get used to it.” He said “I believe in you. When one door closes, another one opens. Successful are those with the courage to walk through it.”
Alain Sanscartier didn’t say “you are talented, come with me and display your abilities.” He said “I see how hard you work. Come with me and I will help you develop your skills.”
The Francophones in Gatineau were not dirty players (at least not when you played on their team), but they were grinders.
And they were proud of it.
They had what Professor Carol Dweck would call the Growth Mindset. They believed that, with hard work, effective strategy and support, the necessary skills to accomplish a task could be developed.
They were also incredibly funny, warm-hearted and welcoming. They took me in – a long-time adversary – without judgment. They chose team achievement over individual success. They helped me become bilingual (a skill that has served me personally and professionally ever since), and they ignited my passion for meeting and learning from people of diverse cultures and backgrounds.
Those eight months in Gatineau fundamentally changed the way I looked at failure and what is required for success and happiness.
I acquired a taste for the fulfilment that awaits just past the edge of the comfort zone. I learned the importance of keeping an open mind and seeking to understand others rather than judging them.
Most importantly, I learned that failures act as a series of gates guarding the entrance to authentic success. I have passed through many more gates since then. Each one has led to a world that is slightly closer to my ideal. Each one has helped me better understand what, exactly, my ideal world looks like.
They say you never forget your first love. The same can be said of your first major failure.
In both cases, remembering is not enough – we must learn from these experiences.
What new door has opened for you? Will you walk through it, taking one more step toward your ideal self?
My 16-year-old self strongly recommends it. So does my dad.
Just remember, the decision is entirely yours to make.