Molly Bloom, a CU Boulder alumna, bestselling author and entrepreneur best known for her memoir Molly’s Game, will speak in Macky Auditorium on Monday, Feb. 27. She chatted briefly with CU Boulder Today on topics including the real-life story behind Molly's Game, the value of reinvention in life and what leadership means to her.
Molly's Game is based on my memoir, and it chronicles my early adulthood as a competitive mogul skier. I had already had to overcome some pretty extraordinary circumstances where I had spinal reconstructive surgery. At that time I was told I couldn't compete in moguls ever again, but I ended up making the National Development Group, where I was ranked third overall in North America and made it to an Olympic qualifying event.
And then in this very strange sequence of events, I tripped on a piece of pine bough on a ski course, and that sent my life literally and figuratively spiraling downward. I was a student at the University of Colorado at the time but decided to take a year off to get my head straight. I went to L.A. to do that. I'll say now, don't ever go to L.A. to get your head straight—it's definitely not the place to go for that.
I ended up being a waitress at these high stakes poker games. I had this incredible opportunity to learn about the world from these really influential, powerful, well-connected people that were playing in these games. I thought it was a great thing to do in my early 20s, where I could make a lot of money and learn about entrepreneurship. But I took it way too far and ended up running one of the biggest poker games in the world, out of New York City and Los Angeles, where I got into a lot of trouble and blew my life up.
I found myself 35 years old and millions of dollars in debt. I had run-ins with both the feds and organized crime. And I tried to sort that story out. That's kind of where the movie ends. It's really about what it means to be a human being, to get into the world and get messy and make some mistakes, while trying to navigate the landscape of people, circumstances, desires and ambitions. That's the 30,000 foot view of it.
When I was a student at the University of Colorado, it was perhaps one of the times in my life that I felt the most pressure to figure out exactly who I had to be and to execute that perfectly. And very clearly I did not do that, which is one of the best things that has happened to me in my whole life.
As soon as you understand the essence of failure and the essence of making a mistake and having to stand for it, but also forgiving yourself and moving on, your world will expand exponentially. Understand that you don't have to be that perfect person who has things figured out, but in fact, you may have many lives, many reinventions, many chapters. The world is a lot bigger than many people realize. There is a lot of grace for making mistakes, particularly if you start to have a lighter sense of yourself and allow a more realistic view that humans are flawed and that part of life is making mistakes.
One thing that I learned during periods of reinvention that has helped me is managing my mind rather than letting it manage me. I remember contending with a relentless inner critic, contending with fear and doubt and not having the adequate tools to get above that. We have more choice and agency over our mind than we might originally believe, and I found that meditation and mindfulness is a great path to discovering that.
Fear: A thief of dreams in life
I would say you can feel fear, and you can move through it. You can have the fear-based thoughts. Things can be scary. But if you take action and you walk through that fear over and over and over again, you start to build a resilience against it. Fear is a major thief of dreams in life.
There is something my dad calls constructive suffering, which is learning about discipline and learning how to get uncomfortable and stay uncomfortable for long periods of time in order to build a skill or to become great at something. It's really just reframing this perspective and this experience we have with discomfort.
There are things that cause you discomfort that you should pay attention to and not ignore. But, with discipline and hard work, you can withstand that clunkiness you feel when you are trying to learn something or become great at something. Take a breath and keep moving through it. That is huge for me.
Gain vs. give
Something my mom said to me when I started running those games, and I wanted to stay in the same room with these big, important people, but I didn't know how to confer value. She said that she has always stood by the concept of “what can you do for the world.” So when I called her to ask her what I needed to do to stay in these rooms, she said, “You're thinking about it wrong; you're thinking about what you can gain instead of what you can give.” That was a huge pivotal shift for me in my life.
Something I had to learn how to do, because my life and future depended on it, was to be responsible for my own life—to not point fingers and to take responsibility, but at the same time to learn to forgive myself. I found myself millions of dollars in debt and a convicted felon. I have these two brothers who are incredible human beings, incredible high-achieving people, and I was raised in a good family. I had so much shame about the choices that I made and where I was in life, and I had to learn how to forgive myself.
Because I saw how you could stay forever in this place of guilt and shame. I just wouldn't have much of a life. So I say take radical responsibility for your life and control what happens to you, because you control your response. And then learn to be kind to yourself and learn to move on.
Effective presence in leadership
There's a concept I've become increasingly interested in, and it's called effective presence. It is essentially the science of how people feel when they're around you. It is massively predictive of success in life, of happiness and of relationships. It basically has two parts: It's the ability to get your own emotions in check, and then to become extremely conscious of how you are emitting to other people.
I think for leaders, the importance of effective presence cannot be overstated. As we get more into this age of self-focus, we are always promoting ourselves on social media; we're always thinking about what pictures we are going to take of ourselves and what media we're going to broadcast about ourselves.
It's becoming a lost art—being interested in other people and being aware of their plight and what they're going through and how we can engage with them and establish true connections. I think it's important to look into effective presence and figure out what your contribution to a room is, to an institution, to the world, and to do work on that.