The role of failure in success
Society is preoccupied with success, but we should learn to see the value in failure too. Moses Sangobiyi FRSA tells the story of his attempt to become a professional American football player.
By Moses Sangobiyi
Follow Moses on Twitter @msango1
Failure hit me hard when I flew from London to the US to compete in National Football League (NFL) trials. After 10 years of training, of giving it everything, I didn’t make the cut. I had started playing American football relatively late, at the age of 16, but after a year I was making a name for myself and had my eyes set on the NFL International development programme. I worked hard, but in many ways success felt inevitable. It was what I was training for and I pursued it single-mindedly.
I took up the sport at a time when I felt like I didn’t fit in, having recently returned to London after two years living in Nigeria. Like many teenagers, I was trying to discover what I was good at, but also looking for a sense of belonging. I tried basketball, tried getting into computers and learning how to code, but none of it clicked. It might sound silly but I started playing American football after seeing it on television and thinking it looked easy and like something I could do, so I contacted the London Warriors. In the first training session, one of the coaches threw the ball at me so hard it went straight through my hands and hit me in the head. I was told I didn’t have the hands needed to be a wide receiver and I should try running into someone. They put me in the defensive end position and told me to tackle one of the best running backs in the country. After being told I wasn’t good enough to play the receiver position, my pride kicked in and I was determined to make an impact. When play started I threw myself in and hoped for the best. Somehow I wiped the player off his feet and everyone went crazy. I loved the feeling I got from that first tackle and kept seeking that praise and respect. I was so caught up in chasing the feeling that when I was named Rookie of the Year it took me by surprise.
From that moment, I focused on becoming an NFL player. There was a clear path to the NFL for European athletes through the international programme, NFL Europe. I knew people who had been through it; my coaches were either former NFL players or staff. This wasn’t a pipe dream; it was within reaching distance.
“I worked hard, but in many ways success felt inevitable”
But the international programme was shut down in 2007 and a lot of my peers scaled back their ambitions. That wasn’t an option for me. American football was the first thing I was ever good at. I couldn’t stop playing. I decided to carve a route to the NFL for myself. Now aged 21 and recently graduated from university, I saved some money and flew out to America with a list of 30 colleges to approach for a football scholarship. Twenty-nine of them took my calls but said they didn’t need players. The 30th, Texas A&M Kingsville, invited me to come the next day for a visit. The team coach, Bo Atterberry, offered me a scholarship there and then on the basis of my ‘highlight reel’ video. He didn’t even ask to watch me play or train, saying: “The fact you’ve flown out here proves you’ve got heart. That’s the kind of player I want on my team.” I went back to the UK to train and get ready for the scholarship, which was due to start in a few months.
I was gearing up to go out to the US when the university called to say they were retracting the scholarship offer; the grades I’d received in my UK degree weren’t high enough. I was devastated. I’d worked so hard to achieve my dream and had come so close, but it was snatched away.
I felt angry and confused, but kept training and playing in the UK. At the same time I was fortunate to be employed by a Premier League football team to mentor young people, but I wasn’t happy. There remained an itch to play at a high level so I decided to give it one last shot, this time skipping the college process altogether and going straight to the NFL. I asked a friend who had played professionally to train me for six months and quit my job with no idea how I would support myself. I was determined to throw everything into it.
Training for six to eight hours a day, seven days a week and measuring everything I ate, I could feel my body changing. During practice I felt head and shoulders above everyone else. I was coming into my own. I booked flights to Baltimore for the NFL Regional Combines, then to Detroit for the Super Regional Combines. Not progressing through the first stage was not an option.
When I arrived in Baltimore it was winter and freezing. The trial took place at six in the morning in an airport hangar that had been converted into a stadium. The halls were lined with huge murals of players and trophies. Each player was given a jersey with a number on it and from that moment on we didn’t have names, just a number, like pieces of meat in a cattle auction. We were told to sprint between every drill, that everything we did was being assessed, including how we carried ourselves and how we spoke. It’s not just the eyes of the coaches on you, but those of all the other players. I didn’t say a word, to avoid revealing that I wasn’t American. That morning was the biggest test of my life. At the end of the trial we were told if we were successful we would receive a call, if we weren’t successful, we wouldn’t.
I went back to my hotel room and waited for that call. I broke down in tears. The sheer intensity of the experience was overwhelming. It was the culmination of not just the past six months, but 10 years of pressure and expectation, which had totally consumed me. Friendships and relationships had all suffered in its shadow. The next stage of the trial would be two weeks later in Detroit, so I just waited for the phone call. I didn’t want to call or speak to anyone apart from that coach who was going to tell me I’d made it through to the next round.
It wasn’t until the day before I was due to fly to Detroit that it dawned on me: I hadn’t made it and I wasn’t going to get that call. But I had to take the flight anyway, as I couldn’t afford to change my travel plans. With three empty days to fill, I dragged my luggage through the derelict streets of Detroit without purpose. My dream of becoming a professional athlete was shattered.
I returned to the UK with no idea what I was going to do next. American football was done. It felt like all that time I had dedicated to it, all the sacrifices, had amounted to nothing. I was angry with the sport. But I was even angrier with myself for being foolish enough to aim so high. Why did I decide I was so special? The hardest people to face were the former NFL players who had cautioned me that I should play for the love of the sport, not for success or money.
That trial was two years ago. Since then, another Premier League football team got in touch, asking me to head up one of their community programmes. A big part of the job is getting kids who lack privilege and confidence to set ambitious goals. Two years after my trial, it has finally dawned on me that what I’ve been doing all along has huge value. This journey has opened up all sorts of opportunities that I should be grateful for. I’m applying the skills and experience I developed in pursuing American football in ways I never thought possible. More importantly, it has prompted me to ask questions about how we think about and pursue success, and how we learn through failure.
“We don’t hear enough about the role failure plays in success”
Is there potentially a danger in the idea that hard work is the route to success? How do we deal with it when, despite hard work, we don’t succeed? If a person sets out to achieve one thing, comes up short but then uses the experience to achieve something else, is that still a failure? And why do we find it so difficult to talk about our failures honestly?
Culturally we’re encouraged to take risks in order to succeed, but we don’t hear enough about how to deal with adversity or the role that failure plays in success. If we do, it’s the Silicon Valley notion of ‘fail fast, fail early’, under which failure is only embraced in order to kill bad ideas and let the good ones rise to the top. In practice, I think most of us are all still terrified of failing. I’ve found that for many young people this fear is part of what stops them from trying in the first place.
This generation of young people are coming into adulthood with a great deal of pressure to appear successful. Social media encourages people to present a perfected and successful image of themselves. My mission is to let people know that it is alright to make mistakes and to fail, but to realise that these moments do not define you. What defines you is what you are able to take away from the experience and how you are able to use it to grow.
Not making the cut was probably the harshest experience I’ve been through, but looking back on it now, I see the absolute necessity of that experience. I don’t regret it. I honestly feel that failing taught me that I can bounce back from defeat and still go on to do amazing and rewarding things.
As a society we need to create an environment that encourages ambition, but where failure is not something to be ashamed of. If we aren’t scared of failing and know how to learn from it, perhaps we would be more creative, successful and better-rounded human beings.
Moses is interested in hearing from people who have used their failures to grow. Contact him on Twitter: @msango1
This article first appeared in Issue 4 of the RSA Journal