How the World Told me I got a $250,000 Decision Wrong

How to Chase an Olympic Dream - Decision Making

The world will pull you in a million directions…

I’ve come to realize I’m guaranteed two things when I share my story of choosing Portland State University as the NCAA Div 1 school I would attend.

Dropped jaws and Laughs.

This comes as a result of hearing the backstory to this decision – the fact that I turned down several Ivy League schools and the best basketball program in the history of NCAA sports, UCLA. Yes, all were on my doorstep, scholarship in hand.

Ever since making this decision over 10 years ago I have had to live with the laughs, humiliation and judgement from the outside world. “Tyrell, how could you have ever passed up the best academic schools in the world? How could you have been so stupid to pass up UCLA?”

Early on I would retreat back into my introverted head, trying to protect myself from the pain of humiliation and embarrassment that was predictable anytime I told this story. The feedback was so overwhelming. The voices in my head were almost immediate…

“I can’t believe you screwed up the biggest decision in your life.”

“How could you have been so naive?”

“You’re a joke – everyone is laughing at you.”

Unpacking the wisdom underneath our decisions

It took me 10 years of digging and unpacking this decision to really deconstruct what was going on – “Why” did I make this seemingly crazy decision?

I thought to those weeks and months when I was in the thick of this decision as a 16 year old boy. I remember my parents stating two things 1) we completely support you in this decision 2) this needs to be your decision to make.

This is essentially what the playing field for my decision looked like

NCAA Division 1 Basketball decision making

Reluctantly, most likely after almost losing my mind trying to make this quarter million dollar decision on my own, my dad took a bit of grace on me and shared a little secret that would help frame my process.

3 Golden Rules

“Tyrell, I want to share something I do when I have to make really hard decisions. I write down my 3 Golden Rules that must be true in order for the decision to be a viable option. In other words, once I have established those 3 most important things that must be true of the winning option, if any possibility on your list doesn’t fully meet even one of the criteria, it is out – no questions asked.”

Yes! A lead. Some direction!  I was so excited and spent the rest of the day thinking about what my 3 Golden Rules would be. I remember this in itself being an incredibly challenging process – at 16 years old what were the things that were going to define the most important pillars of my life for the next 4 years?

What did I want to stand for?

After a couple of days of deliberation, this is what followed:

1. Must be able to see family 4 times a year.
Sorry Ivy League, you’re out. Not only being located on the east coast, the $60,000-$80,000 annual tuition for international athletes meant that I would likely stay on site all year working to pay off my debts.
NCAA Division 1 Basketball decision making
2. Must have the opportunity to be seen and positioned as a leader on the team, as well as in the broader school.
Good bye ACC and Pac 10. These were schools in which I either knew the coaching staff did not see me as this type of player or the program itself didn’t hold this reputation in the broader school.
NCAA Division 1 Basketball decision making
It was down to 2. UCLA & Portland State. And I had one more Golden Rule to apply.

3. Must have the opportunity to be an impact player.

This one was so important to me. I knew in my mind I had worked too hard, invested too many 1000s of hours to sit on the bench for 4 years.

And as I looked back to my list, the pill was a painful one to swallow. The 3 golden rules had done their job and I was left with one clear winner.

NCAA Division 1 Basketball decision making

Portland State University. And despite even before signing I had people begin to tell me I was crazy and making a major mistake, the decision was clear in my mind.

Yes, you may be calling me crazy at this point – just wait, it gets better.

Curveballs from the Universe

What many don’t know is weeks after signing my scholarship and making that fateful decision – the coaching staff who saw me as the next cornerstone player of the program, got up and left. They had the opportunity to upgrade to Wyoming University – and we were left with a decision of do I go with them to a  program essentially in the gutter, or do I stay at PSU with the biggest puzzle piece of the decision (the coaches) being a complete mystery.

Before making this decision I would have the opportunity to go down and meet the new incoming coach. We sat down for breakfast at a diner halfway between Portland and Vancouver, my mom came along as my support (and my driver).
The discussion couldn’t have gone any worse. As my mom and I read between the lines, we realized that this coach had no real interest in me – forget the cornerstone player, let’s simply talk about being on the team. In more convoluted words, I heard this coach saying “Tyrell, we will absolutely honour your scholarship if that is your decision, but don’t expect that you will play, because we’re going to take this program in a different direction.”
Being an albeit mature but still relatively young 16 year old boy, I didn’t really understand the gravity of our situation. I didn’t understand this quarter million dollar decision had just effectively been blown to pieces. And so when we got home and my mom started crying I didn’t know what to do – I didn’t understand the level of frustration, stress and hopelessness my parents were feeling as they had spent the last 4 years doing every single thing they could to set me up for this opportunity, only to have the entire floor drop out from underneath us in the 12th hour.
After a long deliberation, many calls for advise and council, I decided I would stay. It was basically an F’you to the coach who had told me I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t belong.
By the time it was all said and done I would make sure that it wasn’t in any coaches power to tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
And so as I made my way down to PSU I began to acknowledge the sheer depths of the deep end I was about to jump into – I had never even remotely been this stretched before in my life.
I had no idea what I was in for, but I knew merely surviving would a challenge in and of itself.
And while the behind the scenes story of my struggles and adversity at Portland State will need to be made their own chapter, in short I can tell you it sucked. It was easily the most challenging and stressful period of my life. Despite the coaches recruiting overtop of me (the act of recruiting a player, typically from Junior College to take over your role on the team) every year, I did not give up. I worked myself and my competition into the ground to the point where I ended up in the hospital several times just by literally pushing my body beyond it’s breaking point. But I survived, and the intended side affects began to pay off –  I learned how to fundamentally break my competition at the deepest mental and emotional levels.
And with what felt like the world of adversity on my back, I learned how to thrive.
  • I forced my coaches to put the role of “team captain” to a vote instead of simply being directed and earned this honour 2 and a half of my 4 years.
  • I helped lead and captain our team to the school’s best consecutive season’s in school history, our first 2 conference championships, and first 2 NCAA march madness tournaments. Ever.
  • I was able to lead the entire athletic department’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee – a group that guides and represents the entire athletic body.
  • I earned a seat on the President’s Student Advisory Board or small council.
  • I was one of 20 students to represent our 28,000 student population as an Ambassador between administration and student population.

Portland State NCAA march madness

Reframing decisions to serve our future

And you know what?

13 years after that decision I look back with an ever growing sense of pride and appreciation. As I’ve realized with many hard things in my life, the insecurity and embarrassment of perceived failure that plagued me in the early years has transformed to a subtle swagger and deep knowing of myself that no one can strip from me.

If I could go back and do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Thanks to my parents incredible support and my dad’s 3 Golden Rules I realized this was one of the biggest Values Based Decisions I had ever met in my life. And it was a practice of “stepping up and stepping out” as the whole world was telling me I was making a terrible decision.

Let me take a final moment to describe the “Why” behind these statements of pride and self knowing…

I am a leader. I have leadership genes all throughout my DNA. And I am addicted to pushing my absolute limits – finding my breaking points and pushing way beyond them in pursuit of seeking both individual and team high performance.

This is what defines me as a human being. And this is exactly the experience Portland State (and only PSU) provided me – more than I could have anticipated even on that signing day.

If I wanted the fame and glory, a comfortable spot on the bench with no worries and no stress – UCLA would have been a dream come true.

And guess what. Had I attended UCLA I would have played in 3 consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances. Yes, I can that crazed look on your face as you consider this.

Do I think about what that would have been like? Absolutely, the visions of stardom and celebrity are easy to conjure.

But they simply fade away just as quickly – not just in my mind but also in reality for all of those players who were on the bench at UCLA during that chapter.

No, that’s not for me. This idea of arbitraging the learning opportunity of life is something that excites me much more. Yes, it is almost always a more humble path. It is based in the accumulation of hundreds and thousands of small decisions. It takes into account the compounding effect of this learning and growth over the course of our lifetime.

And that sits just right with me, because I’m in it for the long game.

Tyrell Mara - July 1st, 2015-21
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1 Comment

  1. Griffin Lockyer February 20, 2017 Reply

    Great story Tyrell! Very inspiring, thanks so much for sharing it!

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