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Capital Gaines: The Smart Things I've Learned by Doing Stupid Stuff
by Chip Gaines
Learn More | Meet Chip Gaines
Failure to Launch
I was a normal kid as far as I knew. I didn’t feel any different from the kids in my first-grade class. I rode the bus just like everyone else, traded baseball cards during recess, and never let my mom send me to school with a sack lunch on pizza day.
Despite the striking similarities between my classmates and me, one simple fact set us apart: I had yet to learn my ABCs. In case you accidentally glossed over that first paragraph, I was in the first grade. I wasn’t three or four. I was seven and a half years old. Yet here I was, struggling to read basic sentences.
The first-grade teachers at my elementary school split their classes into four different reading groups. At first, I didn’t think anything of it. They were just different teams with cool bird mascots. There were the Eagles, the Falcons, the Blue Jays, and of course the mighty Penguins—the group I was a proud member of. I was the only Penguin in Mrs. Redding’s class, although there were definitely a few others scattered throughout the first grade. I’m not sure exactly how she decided who went into which group, but I do know that when it was time to read, the Penguins were ushered out of our individual classrooms and into the gym. And just so you’re getting the full picture here: it was a great big gymnasium holding about fifteen kids, some of whom had been diagnosed with actual learning disabilities.
I knew it wasn’t “normal” that I couldn’t read yet, but it never occurred to me that it was something to be embarrassed about. It’s possible that the other kids in my class made fun of me as soon as I skipped off to the gym, but if they did, I never knew it. In fact, the thought of that happening never really crossed my mind. My positive outlook has blinded me to plenty of things over the years. Maybe it also protected me at times from the things that I didn’t need to see.
Have you ever heard the phrase looking at the world through rose-colored glasses? Well, if there ever were a poster child for this, it would have been me. And even now, I am just fine seeing the world through these lenses. This typically leads me to see the best in people rather than the worst.
I’ve always had the ability to play things to the positive. Here’s how that mind-set played out back in first grade. Kids can be cruel. So looking back, there’s a decent chance that at least one of the kids in my class was calling me names while I was off learning to recite my ABCs. But rather than think about these possibilities, I was excited that I was invited to the gym in the first place. Honored even. Look, any chance I got to go to the gymnasium was a win in my book. I loved getting to see the other Penguins. We really only got good time together on Thursday afternoons from one until two forty-five. I’d walk in there and be like, “Whaaat? Where have you guys been? Wait, do you get to hang out in the gym all week? How did you score that? Luckies!”
Looking back, I’m not sure if the act of labeling our group as Penguins was random or not, but the symbolism isn’t lost on me. All the other bird species in my first-grade reading class could fly—except penguins. Penguins are flightless birds. But that doesn’t mean they’re “less than.” They’re actually incredible birds. They do exactly what they’re made to do. So while I was happy as a lark to be a Penguin, I sure hope my gym mates never let that label define them. I hope they realized that despite the fact that penguins can’t fly, they can do something those other birds can’t do.
Penguins can swim.
Some of the greatest success stories of all time come from people who were misunderstood or even miscategorized. Maybe their strengths weren’t noticed or valued. Perhaps they got a slow start or went about things in an unusual manner. They somehow didn’t fit into the world’s narrow definition of what constitutes achievement or success. Here are just a few of them.
FAMOUS FAILURES (PENGUIN EDITION)
- Walt Disney. He was told that he didn’t have enough imagination and therefore was fired from his newspaper job at the Kansas City Star. Can you believe that? Walt. Freakin’. Disney.
- Albert Einstein. The person who allegedly didn’t speak until he was four years old and didn’t read until he was seven (sound familiar?) basically invented science.
- Oprah Winfrey. She was supposedly fired from her job as a reporter because she couldn’t separate her emotions from her work. And wouldn’t you know it? That same inability to separate work and emotion was one of the qualities that made us all fall in love with her. That attribute made her stand out among a world of journalists.
- Michael Jordan—the man, the myth, the legend. He was cut from his high school basketball team and still went on to become arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. You know he believed he could fly.
I really could share stories like those all day long. They’re my favorite kinds of biographies to read and the types of tales I can’t help but recount to anyone who will listen. The journey of some underdog slugging and fighting all the way to the top against all odds is infinitely more inspiring to me than the story of a golden child who was born with all the right stuff.
So maybe Mrs. Redding and the other first-grade teachers were on to something. Maybe they intentionally categorized my gym buddies and me as Penguins because they saw something unique in us. Or maybe this is just the way my mind works. I’ve got a glass-half-full outlook on life. I tend to believe I can truly do or be anything. There are no limits to the things I believe I can accomplish. So yeah, I have a low tolerance for people who tend to disqualify themselves from ever amounting to much before they even try or for people who are constantly their own worst critic.
I realize you didn’t sign up for a motivational speaking course, but I’m going to take some liberties here and suggest that if there are external voices telling you that you’re nothing special or that you’ll never amount to anything, you should probably choose some different people to surround yourself with. And if that unkind voice is your own, I’d like to encourage you to start challenging those thoughts.
You were uniquely created for a purpose. I have no clue what that purpose is for you specifically, but I am perfectly confident that you do, in fact, have one. And you would be wise to stop being your own biggest obstacle. Your purpose is just like mine. It’s big, and it’s important, and there’s no one else anywhere on the planet who can fulfill it.
So quit jacking around and go get after it.
The Boys of Summer
I have spent 50 percent of my life throwing a baseball. And not just throwing, but also hitting, taking infield and outfield, and working on the fundamentals of the game. My cleats, my glove, my hat, and that number-16 jersey are the only uniform I’ve ever known. At one point in my life I genuinely thought sunflower seeds were a major food group.
I didn’t care what I wore to class in high school or even college. I could’ve shown up half-dressed and probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But the way I cared for every part of that red, white, and blue baseball uniform was a different story—it epitomized my love for the game.
I spent a good chunk of time trying to get my baseball hat to fit just right. To help shape the bill, I would bend it incessantly and wrap multiple rubber bands around it. Then I would run it through the dishwasher a couple of times to make it more pliable. This was a good starting point, but I had to mess with that bill constantly to get it perfect. And that was just the hat.
Before a game, I would spend time scrubbing the grass stains out of my pants to make sure they were bright white. I figured that the cleaner my uniform was going into the game, the more evident my hard work would be afterward. It was like a scorecard to me; the state of my pants by the ninth inning was a direct reflection of how hard I’d played that day. If they were truly filthy, bloody even, I knew I had left everything out there on the field.
And my glove was a whole other story. It was like an extension of myself. Something about it was just magic to me. When I put it on, I felt invincible, like the whole world was at my feet. When I was a kid, my dad had a sporting-goods store, and you can imagine the type of playground it was for sports enthusiasts like Dad and me. I’m telling you, I grew up in that little store. Come spring, my favorite tradition was going to pick out my new glove. I remember trying on every last glove in the shop, and Dad and I would weigh out the pros and cons of each particular one.
Actually landing on which glove to go with was just the beginning, though. The fun part was breaking it in. I’d get home and immediately rub oil into the palm to soften up the leather. I’d start hitting it, fist-to-the-mitt style, trying to get it right. This could go on for hours. The final trick was to roll it up like you would a newspaper, put a ball inside of it, and then tuck it away under the mattress for the night. The anticipation of waking up the next morning to go try out the new glove for the first time made it almost impossible to sleep. Literally, as soon as the sun even thought about rising, I was out in the front yard breaking in my glove with Dad. We’d toss a ball back and forth, trying to decide how many more nights I’d need to sleep with it under my mattress before it was game ready.
I poured my entire life into that game. Baseball was the center of my universe, this one singular activity around which everything else orbited: school, family, friends, church, weekends, and any amount of free time that I had. Baseball somehow managed to take precedence, and everything else fell in line after it. The only reason I even tried in school was so that I could make the grades to play baseball. Education was simply a means to an end.
When baseball was going well, my life was going well. But as soon as one thing went wrong, it seemed as though other areas of my life started to fall apart at the seams. It was a snowball effect, a chain reaction. So I pushed hard to make sure that every aspect of the game was perfect. There was literally no room for error.
My dad—a consistent, persistent, and faithful coach—was right there with me every step of the way. He taught me that if I would do the hard work and never quit, I would be successful. Dad had played college football, and he was as passionate about his sport as I was about mine. He would have loved for me to be more excited about football, but baseball was my thing. I chose it, and Dad got on board with me 100 percent. I can’t tell you how much I respect him for setting aside his own wishes for mine. His support drove me to work even harder. He encouraged me to hit farther, run faster, and throw harder.
In light of my dad’s high expectations, I pushed myself more and more. I woke up earlier and stayed up later. I was dedicated to my dream of playing baseball, and he was my biggest cheerleader. Nothing compared to the satisfaction of making my dad proud. And now, being on the other side of things, I get it. Nothing beats getting to see the smile on any of my kids’ faces when one of them gets a hit or steals second.
Baseball was this incredible opportunity, a conduit really, for Dad and me to develop a deep relationship with each other. We spent hours together every single day. The only problem was that we artificially attached ourselves and our relationship to this sport, this one activity. The bond between us was completely built on baseball. It was our cornerstone, the factor on which everything else was based. Love and pride and encouragement were all contingent on how well I played every single game. Literally game by game.
If I was firing on all cylinders, Dad couldn’t have been prouder. We’d high-five and recount every play for hours, reminiscing, on cloud nine. But if things didn’t go so well, the subsequent hours would look a little different. We’d drive home from the ball field in complete silence. Dad would sometimes storm into the house, slamming the door behind him. And I clearly remember thinking, My dad doesn’t love me because of the way I just played. I wasn’t able to separate my performance from Dad’s feelings toward me. Back then, our relationship just hadn’t developed beyond the expectation of a perfect performance in the game.
Looking back now, I realize these two things:
- My dad wanted to be with me. We both loved sports. So if there was a sport to play, he was right there by my side, playing it with me or, at the very least, cheering me on.
- My father wanted me to be the very best. The very, very best. And I love him for that. My dad didn’t really have a dad. He was very young when his father chose to leave the family. So every idea my dad had about how to be a father came either from a book or from some other man he looked up to. Without having a direct example of his own, he just expected of me what he assumed other dads expected from their sons. Or maybe, in his heart, he was just paying me the attention he wished his old man would have paid him, had he chosen to stick around.
I know without a doubt that my dad loved me and was proud of me and did his very best to be a good father. So I’m not complaining. But Dad and I both had a little growing to do, because a relationship centered around just one thing will have drawbacks.
Especially when that one thing goes away.
I’ve heard that about 6 percent of high school baseball players actually play college ball. And then, of those lucky few, only 8 percent get drafted into the major leagues. I’m no mathematician, but that had to make my chances of playing professional baseball less than half of a percent. But I didn’t care. I still lived and breathed that game. To me there was no scenario in which I didn’t end up playing college ball and then going pro, no matter what the odds were.
Toward the end of high school, everyone I knew was working hard to build a hefty college application portfolio. They were taking internships, joining academic clubs and debate teams, running for class treasurer (the more easily achieved class officer position), and, on top of all that, going on numerous obligatory college visits.
But not me. I was doing one thing and one thing only: playing baseball. Baseball was my trajectory. It was my plan A, and there was no plan B.
As it turned out, all those hours and days and years I practiced paid off. I actually beat the odds and made it onto a college team. Playing baseball in college was a dream, an absolute dream! But let’s not celebrate too soon, because in my sophomore year I was cut, just like that, with no warning whatsoever.
The news hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. And in the following months, I fell into something I can only describe as a deep depression. The only dream I’d ever had was crushed. The weight of that held me down for the better part of a year.
There are lots of people who don’t dream big enough dreams. That has never been my problem. My problem was that my dream was actually too big for me. And when that dream was lost, I was lost too. Dozens of well-meaning friends and family members suggested possible alternatives to help move me beyond my funk. Every single recommendation—all of them—fell flat. I wasn’t having any of it.
But hiding away in my dorm room, fooling myself into believing I wasn’t made to do anything other than play a game, wasn’t going to work forever. Apparently there’s a cap to the amount of self-pity time a person gets, because one morning I woke up and realized it was time to snap out of it. The time had come for me to get on with my life.It wasn’t long after that that I remember sitting in a business class and looking out the window at a man riding on a lawn mower. I was mesmerized as I watched the blades of freshly cut grass billow up into the air. Then I thought, That guy has it all figured out. Why am I sitting in here learning concepts and hypothetical business principles while he is out there grabbing the bull by the horns and actually making it happen?
It’s those seemingly small, fortifying moments in our lives that often end up being the instrumental ones. So as the second hand hit the twelve and signaled the end of class, I closed my spiral notebook, zipped up my backpack, turned my hat around backward, and walked out the door.
I marched right toward that landscaper, confident that he alone held the answers that would save me from my agony and floundering. While I was questioning him a little about his job, I noticed he seemed a bit caught off guard by my interest in his work. I imagined that what he felt in that moment was similar to the way I’d felt in the classroom so many times before. I related to feeling completely unprepared to handle questions fired off by probing professors. After beating around the bush for too long and asking him stupid questions about mowing grass, I was finally able to pry out of him how I’d go about getting a job from the company he worked for.
It wasn’t as easy as one might think to get hired by a landscaping company, but I eventually sealed the deal. But let’s fast-forward past me mowing a bunch of lawns to the good part.
It was early August when the owner of the landscaping company I’d been working for took me aside to talk. He told me that he thought it would be smart for me to start my own landscaping business. Without even meaning to, he drew the same type of confidence out of me that I’d felt when a coach or my dad would call me out and give me advice or encouragement.
That was the very moment when I finally knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, what I felt truly passionate about—not necessarily lawn care, but dreaming up and starting businesses.
It was the day I knew I was going to be an entrepreneur.
When an uncovered passion sits dormant inside you and then someone calls it out, all of a sudden that’s all you can think about. It’s like a wildfire being lit by a spark, and the aftermath is all-consuming. I ended up finding a new purpose, a new passion, a new “baseball.” Seeing that man ride past my classroom window began my journey toward starting my very first business, the first in a long stream of entrepreneurial ventures.
Getting cut from baseball was something I never saw coming. And looking back, I can see that it could’ve played out one of several ways.
First possibility: I could have dropped out of college and spent my days lying around the house with my five lazy roommates, eating a sick amount of pizza and getting really good at the video game RBI Baseball. My backup plan of moving back in with my parents and having my mom wash my tighty-whities didn’t sound so bad either. The passion had been knocked out of me, and there was seemingly nothing good that could fill its place.
Another possibility would’ve been to suck it up and get a part-time job to occupy my time—just a random job that I didn’t care too much about but that paid the bills. Sure, it would have meant giving up on my dreams, but at this point I would’ve resigned myself to barely getting by. This option involved zero risk, and there’s something really appealing about not rising again after being hurt so profoundly. And although it didn’t sound as good as playing Nintendo all day, at least it would get me out of the house.
Another possibility would’ve been to use every instinct and skill I’d developed over the years, find a new passion, and then go for it. I’d get off of the couch and be okay with hanging up my cleats so that I could pursue something different. And even if this new direction was different from what I’d always dreamed about, I would refuse to quit. Sure, it took me a few months to get my head on straight, but I was resolved to figure this all out. I’m smart enough to know that when you put in the effort and find a new passion and get back on track, good things are bound to happen.
This last scenario is just about the way it turned out. I may have dipped my toes in options one and two, but option three was what all of those years prior had equipped me for. So instead of becoming chronically despondent or detached, I chose a different approach. It took everything inside of me to step up to the plate again, but I did it.
And then I gave it all I had.
Each and every year, as the smell of fresh-cut grass heralds the approach of springtime, baseball season commences, and all is right with the world. The very elements of the game, well known as America’s favorite pastime, bring me a certain nostalgia. I am an old soul, and the old-school romanticism of the sport gets me every time. Now, any time I’m in the stands and tear open a bag of sunflower seeds, I can’t help but fall in love with the game all over again. But no matter how much I may love the game and the season, I’m always aware that they all must come to an end. In what feels like just a moment, the boys of summer go from being the big men on campus to passing the torch to the boys of fall—and just like that, it’s football season.
I have loved baseball as much as anyone, and the lessons it taught me have proved invaluable. But now, in the end, I know it is just a game.
I never, ever thought I would say this, but it’s the truth: if I could go back in time and have my life work out differently—not getting cut from the team, actually making it in baseball—I wouldn’t do it. I might still fantasize about what that life could have been like, but ultimately I know that God’s plan B has been infinitely greater than my plan A ever could have been.
And by the way, my dad was right—every moment of practice was worth it. None of the passion I invested in baseball turned out to be wasted. Moving on to plan B was hard work, to be sure. And I had to relearn what it meant to never quit. But the twenty-one years of my life that I spent pursuing baseball taught me the very things I draw upon in my work today. The discipline I learned on the field helped give me the drive to do whatever it takes to keep building.
Before anything worthwhile can be built, it needs a strong foundation. I believe each life lesson and every opportunity is a building block on which future experiences are built. And that’s definitely true of my life in baseball. I’m confident that I wouldn’t have been a successful entrepreneur if it weren’t for the things I learned in baseball. It was under those bright lights that grit and scrappy became part of my nature, and fortitude became part of the fiber of my being.
I believed the baseball field was the perfect place to train me as a baseball player, but it turned out to be the perfect training ground for life as an entrepreneur.
That can be true for you, too, no matter what your passion is. Every ounce of energy you invest in pursuing your goals will help you grow toward God’s plan for you . . . even if you end up somewhere you hadn’t counted on.
I can’t promise you there won’t be any curveballs in your life. But I’m positive that if you do the hard work and never quit—and pick yourself up when things go sideways—good things will be waiting on the other side.
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