My Most Spectacular Failure Was a Gift


“The years tell us what the days cannot.”

I don’t know whose words these are, but I love them. How often do we go through events or struggles that frustrate us and make no sense at the time, but then later make all the sense?

I wrote here last time that one of my resolutions for 2015 is to write more frequently. To help me do this, I challenged our two older sons, who also want to write or create more regularly, to join me in a game where we draw a card from our Reverse Charades game every week and whatever word or phrase is on the card is what we have to write about. (The last card/topic was bald eagle.)

This week’s card is basketball. Drawing this card is requiring me to write about something that has been in my “mental queue” for several months now, waiting to be shared.

A short detour first, though. Around the same time I first heard “the years tell us what the days cannot” quote, I was in conversation with the Missoula YMCA to facilitate some leadership development for its leaders. I love Missoula, and it will always be a particularly special place for me. After all, I came of age in Missoula. I received my college degree there, started my first career job there, and I got married there.

Shelli Sniffin

Photo Courtesy of University of Montana Sports Information

But I left Missoula 22 years ago, and I hadn’t thought too much about the town, or my years there. That was, until I heard the “the years tell us what the days cannot” quote and was faced with the prospects of returning to Missoula for some work. These two things caused me to look back and connect the dots of my past in a way I hadn’t previously done. In doing so, I made all kinds of significant realizations, most of which are the result of what was probably my most spectacular failure, which is 100% related to the subject of the card we drew for this week, basketball.

As most of you know, I’m an outdoor enthusiast. I hike. A lot. As in, 1,000 miles a year. But during my youth I wasn’t much into the outdoors. Rather, my passion was basketball, and I was pretty good at it. In fact, I received a full ride Division I basketball scholarship to University of Montana in 1986. If you aren’t aware, the University of Montana Lady Griz basketball team is legendary. The Lady Griz coach is also legendary. Robin Selvig is in his 33rd year as coach of the Lady Griz, and has led 22 of his winning teams to the NCAA Division I playoffs. The Lady Griz inspire awe and almost always win. If my research is correct, Lady Griz teams win about 80% of the games they play.

But back to me. So there I was in Fall of 1986, a Lady Griz. Let me try to describe what that was like… For starters, most of the my teammates were very tall, as in 6 feet tall and up. Tall is not a word anyone ever used to describe me. If I round up, I’m 5′ 5″. Every single player was phenomenal, and better than any player I had ever played or practiced with. In the world of basketball, I had arrived. Despite the amazing talent surrounding me, and feeling a little out of my league, I was eager and excited to level up, and to be a part of such a dynasty. I worked really hard, and was optimistic.

Shelli Sniffin 1

Photo Courtesy of University of Montana Sports Information

Unfortunately, about a month in, I blew my right knee (ACL) out in practice. I was redshirted, and began recovering from ACL reconstructive surgery and rehabilitating my knee. The injury was a setback, but I followed the doctor’s orders, worked as hard as I could, and was determined to make a comeback.

In the end, I didn’t come back fast enough. During my rehab, other point guards were recruited, and the truth of the matter is my ship had sailed. In year 3, Coach Selvig and I had a meeting. I’ll never forget that meeting because it marked the first difficult conversation I had ever had with an adult other than my parents. In that meeting, coach Selvig more or less informed me that there was another player who had walked on, who was performing better than I was, and as such, was more deserving of the scholarship. These were hard words for me to accept. Still, Coach was kind, and encouraged me to stay on the team.

I left the office and never returned to the team.

I quit.

I’ll be honest, when I first looked back over all of this, it seemed trivial. I mean, losing a basketball scholarship, in the big picture of life, is not a huge deal. To be sure, things could have been much worse. But I was 20 years old, a long way from home, feeling humiliated and alone, not to mention the path I had been on – the only one I had a map for – was no longer my path.

Remember – the years tell us what the days cannot. During my recent look back at all of this, I realized the things I did in the months following my aforementioned failure not only made a significant difference in my life during that time, but continue to inform my life, and my work. Let me share a little about what those things were/are:


“In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.” (John Muir)

One of the first things I did once I didn’t have basketball was I started hiking. I hiked to the “M”, located right on the edge of the UM campus. Soon after, I was hiking past the M, and all the way to the top of Mt. Sentinel, sometimes every day of the week. It was the combination of moving under my own power, feeling my heart pumping, letting my mind wander, and the feeling of fresh air and sun on my face that caused me to fall in love with hiking. Add to that, I always felt inspired following my hikes.


One of Shelli’s biggest passions is long distance day hiking.

Today, one of my biggest passions is long distance day hiking. I view my time walking in nature as one of my competitive advantages – one of the secrets to my happiness and physical and mental health. Hiking is also a significant part of my family’s life, and my work. In November, I returned to Missoula for work with the YMCA, and I got up before sunrise to hike to the top of Mt. Sentinel. What an amazing experience that was, having come as far as I have, and given so much of my epic life started on that very trail 26 years ago. I don’t know what my life would be like if I didn’t have hiking, and the fact is, I did not really start hiking until I no longer played basketball.


Shelli and all of her guys: husband Jerry, and sons Wolf, Hayden and Fin, and Dog, Buddy, during a fishing trip in the foothills above Lander, WY.


“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.”                (Joseph Campbell)

After I lost my scholarship, I remained friends with the Lady Griz players. But the fact was my world was now different from theirs, and I needed to find my new way. At first, this meant spending a significant amount of time alone. Spending time alone, and in solitude, was a completely new experience for my then-social self. Previously, I had thought of solitude as an activity for the lonely. Wow – how naive and wrong I was.

During time alone, we are available only to our self, and we are able to listen to our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a time to take stock, to reflect, to solve problems, to experience our feelings, and to imagine our dreams.

Socrates said “Know thyself.” In my humble opinion, self awareness is our most important pursuit, if we are to be our best, and live our best life. I believe that solitude is the medium for self realization, and that’s why I challenge everyone I work with to incorporate some of it into their life. Until losing my basketball scholarship, I had never invested much time in solitude. It was 26 years ago that I discovered the value of solitude, and I can’t imagine my life without it.


Shelli Johnson, smiling at the end of a 44-mile, rim-to-rim “day hike” of the Grand Canyon. One of the things that made this hike so epic was Johnson’s feet were completely blister-damaged by mile 9. The painful experience turned this long distance hike into a journey of personal discovery.


“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” (Viktor Frankl)

Until the months after losing my scholarship and quitting basketball, I wasn’t much of a reader. Sure, I read books that were assigned in school, but that was about it. I just didn’t love reading. That all changed when one of my journalism school professors, who knew I was having a little bit of a hard time, shared a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. I was so inspired by Frankl’s story of surviving the Holocaust, and an Auschwitz concentration camp. Frankl’s belief that we get to choose our existence helped me to realize it was up to me how I would respond to my circumstances, and that I had the ability to create meaning in my life. Reading the book also put my struggles in perspective real fast!


Shelli Johnson, chilling with members of her first Epic Women program on top of Mitchell Peak, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. (Epic Life partnered with NOLS to provide the expedition)

Reading Frankl’s work not only provided wisdom and inspiration during a time when I needed it, it also marked the start of my love affair with books, and reading. Today I am a voracious reader. I read 50+ books a year, and find them to be a tremendous source of inspiration and knowledge. I can’t imagine a life without books and a lot of time spent reading.


“We cannot lower the mountain, therefore we must elevate ourselves.”               (Todd Skinner)

People who know me and work with me hear me say, frequently:  We can go farther than we think we can. I believe this so much that it could be my personal slogan. Marcus Aurelius, the great emperor of Rome from 161-180, and known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy, said “We know that deep down we learn and benefit from failure and adversity.” And Benjamin Franklin said “The things which hurt, instruct.”

Playing on the Lady Griz basketball team was one of my first opportunities to level up. Not having what it took caused me to reinvent myself and create a new path for myself at a relatively early age. It caused me to turn trial into triumph. Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that my mission is to inspire others to explore their edges, to “sign up for” and try things that are so challenging that the outcome is uncertain – to dare to fail.


Yeehaw! Shelli, frolicking with two friends in high places. This is on the Jackass Pass Trail, with the Cirque of the Towers in the background.

There is one more thing I want to mention before writing the conclusion to this post. I am grateful for my time on the Lady Griz team. It was an amazing experience, and I made many good friends who I am still in touch with. It was truly an  honor and a privilege to play for coach Selvig, and to be a member of such a great program.

Finally, upon making all of these realizations, I have come to the biggest realization of all, and that is that my spectacular failure was not a failure at all, but rather an opportunity to learn and become more than I was before.

Thank you for reading this blog post. My hope is that it will inspire you to look back on your own life and connect the dots to recall particular struggles and to see the difference they may have made, or continue to make, in your life, and to help you trust that somehow things you’re challenged by in your current life will connect to your future and make sense one day.

And, of course, I’d love it if you’d consider sharing a story in the comments. Thanks again!


Shelli, on top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, during her Summit for Someone with Backpacker Magazine. The climb raised money for disadvantaged youth.

Books I recommend that are related to all of the above:

More Epic Photos. Click on Images to Enlarge


Shelli Johnson My Epic LifeShelli Johnson is an entrepreneur, a life & leadership coach, a leadership development facilitator, a motivational speaker and keynote presenter, writer, social media consultant, personal trainer and adventure guide. Her current business (pdf), which she views more as a movement than a business, is (Her first business was the Webby Award-winning, which she sold in 2008 to Active Interest Media, the publisher of Backpacker, Yoga Journal, Climbing, and other magazines.) 

Shelli lives on the frontier of Wyoming with her husband, Jerry, and their three sons, Wolf, 14, Hayden, 12 and Fin, 7.