Conversations in Common: March Madness Edition

When it really comes down to it – we’re all the same.

Even, unfathomably, me and this guy. This is my friend Jim Miller.

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Jim and I have many things in common. Like:

– we were both more famous in the 80s than we are now
– we both wore short shorts for our jobs*
– we both retired in our 20s and needed to figure out what the hell to do next

But unlike me, Jim wasn’t an actor – he played basketball. When we first met, I didn’t know anything about him. I was mostly just concerned that the 17-inch hight difference between us meant that I needed to talk louder. But, it turns out that he could hear me just fine up there and we became friends.

And then people said stuff to me, like “Do you know who that is? That’s Jimmy Miller.”

There were actually italics in their voices.

The italics were well earned. Jim was MVP of the 1984 NCAA Eastern Regional championships as the University of Virginia advanced to the Final Four. He was a Parade All American, Converse Academic All American, he won a Hertz Number One Award that OJ Simpson presented to him (and no, he’s not sure how to feel about that either). He played with Ralph Sampson. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz. He played in Austria and Spain. He was on little cards looking very sporty, like this:

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Photo courtesy of Rachel Miller

After years of having people whispering about me, now they were whispering to me, about Jim.

Let me make something clear: I think Jim was more famous than me. There was actually a POSTER of him that college students used to hang in their dorms. Sure, I was on the Mrs. Doubtfire poster but I was one of five people, and my face was mostly obscured by Robin Williams’ breast. So I’m pretty sure this means Jim was more famous than me.

But regardless of who was more famous, we have a lot in common and that’s incredibly comforting since I have spent so much of my life feeling like a weirdo. It’s good to know that other people have left high-profile careers and are doing just fine.

I sat down with Jim recently to talk about his past and his experience with retirement – things we had never talked about before. After several hours of comparing notes, I was even more reassured that the superficial differences between people are so misleading.

When he thinks back on his career, his favorite things sound just like mine. He found that relationships and travel were the most rewarding part of his job. It wasn’t all about the fancy things like sitting in the VIP section of a club on Sunset with Lawrence Fishburne. It wasn’t all about the awards that he keeps in his basement somewhere. It was about the people. The places. The experiences.

I was most interested in how he made his decision to retire, and wondered if it had been as difficult as my decision had been. After being drafted by an NBA team and released, Jim was playing in the Continental Basketball Association – the minor leagues – playing with guys who were 10 years older than him. They were well into their 30s and still clung to their hopes of playing in the NBA. That possibility became less likely by the year, but they were still chasing the dream. Seeing that made Jim realize that he didn’t “want to be one of those guys, lost in the CBA.”

That instantly reminded me of a very similar moment in my life. I was siting in a waiting room in a casting office. It had taken me two hours in L.A. traffic to get to the audition and it wasn’t even a script I was excited about. I saw a woman in her 40s come out of what must have been a bad audition. She looked exhausted and decided to take it out on the receptionist and yell at her about why they didn’t validate parking.

There are moments in any profession where we get a glimpse of our own future – and it might not jive with what we want for ourselves. I was 22 years old. I really didn’t want to be 40 and still going to crappy auditions where they decided to hire the buxom blond instead. I didn’t have a devotion to the work that could fuel me through the hard times.

Jim and I talked about the difficulty of deciding to retire, even when the job was not fulfilling anymore. With professions like ours, you feel obligated to stick it out, give it one last try. But, finally, he said you just have to “have your ‘Come to Jesus’ moment and look in the mirror” and make the hard decision.

In his mid-20s, Jim retired from basketball – the thing that had been the center of his life since he was 9 years old. He had to figure out who he was beneath the basketball player, but he felt that since all his energy had been so focused, he was not properly trained for the world outside of professional sports.  I totally related – it seemed that neither one of us had any direction after retirement. So, he took to a trial and error approach, just like I did.

We both felt the pressure to do something “important” to fill that void. We needed to do something that somehow justified our decision to leave. Something that seemed just as cool. But really, what were either of us going to do to fill the massive void left by Hollywood or professional sports? Those careers have been idolized to such a degree (just check out E! or ESPN for a reminder of the extent of the hero-worshiping) that it’s hard to imagine where you go from there that doesn’t seem like a disappointment to other people.

But as Jim said, it can be really dangerous when you tie up your self esteem with what other people think of you. Because then you are living for others, not yourself. Your sense of self-worth needs to come from somewhere else, somewhere deeper than your resume. But that can be difficult when you’ve tied up your identity with one thing for so long.

Jim now loves being a husband, a dad and running his own financial consulting firm. He talks about this phase of life being his halftime. He is assessing the things that looked important in the first half of his life, and seeing if they still deserve his focus and energy. He is making adjustments. He is choosing to do some things differently in the second half. He’s not afraid to change the line up of his priorities.

I find that so inspiring, because I think many of us operate from a place of momentum. We do what we’ve always done. We think we are too busy/tired/stubborn to do something different, even if it would make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.

But if we can just give ourselves a little break and really examine where we are, we can get back out there even stronger and play this life according to our own rules.

*proof of Jim and I in our short shorts.

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Jim, playing for the University of Virginia. Me in Independence Day.

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