None of us can predict from which direction and whose mouths the pivotal words of wisdom will come that eventually form the pylons of our philosophy of life. In fact, too often, we don’t even recognize these words for what they are when they come our way.

Case in point, the year I turned 21, I was living in a house with several college students. At the time, I wasn’t a student myself, because this was the first semester of my “I’m going to drop out of school, write my first novel, and travel around the country” phase. But that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say I’d already signed the lease on my little 10 x 10 room, and figured it was as good a place as any to pound out the 50 thousand or so words that would make me the next Ernest Hemingway (spoiler alert: they didn’t).

In the meantime, like Hemingway, I took advantage of my new “legal” status and the time on my hands between assorted blue-collar temp jobs to explore the bar scene for the first time in my life. To fully appreciate this statement, it’s important to know that I’ve always looked much younger than I am. Which is a definite bonus now, when I’m middle-aged. But it was a considerable nuisance during my late teens, when my friends could somehow bluff their way through getting a bartender to sell them a beer and I couldn’t, because I looked like somebody planning to attend his junior prom next week. As it was, even with an official state-issued ID declaring my age, I continued to be carded and given a dubious once-over when ordering alcohol well into my late twenties.

Still, in spite of being legal, my introverted nature proved an obstacle to my romantic plans of becoming a barfly novelist. I simply wasn’t the type of person to walk into a bar and strike up a conversation with strangers, and didn’t feel comfortable being the guy who sits at the end of the bar staring into his drink all night, stumbling through awkward conversations with the bartender. To make matters worse, all of the friends I’d made at college the two years prior had graduated the semester before, and my housemates, while incredibly nice guys, were ultra-responsible Economics majors who studied hard and rarely stepped out on the town. All except one …

For the sake of the memory and to protect his identity, let’s call this other housemate Mateo. A super-senior accounting major, Mateo was one of those people who embodied the phrase “Larger Than Life” and made his presence known wherever he went. Which effectively made him the complete opposite of me, who at the time could probably walk into a room with my hair on fire and not be noticed. I say this with no resentment. We each are who we are, and part of me has always enjoyed being able to fly under the radar.

That said, since an early age, I have always been drawn to people who chose not to shrink from life as I did. Many of my best friends have been shameless extroverts, and I have just as shamelessly accepted the role of Robin to their Batman, Samwise to their Frodo, Goose to their Maverick … you get the idea. After all, if one can’t be the life of the party, there are worse places to stand than on the coattails of the person who is. So it wasn’t all that surprising that Mateo and I should become fast friends.

Many was the night during the week when Mateo would come knocking on my door around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, whenever his last class for the day let out, and say, “Squirrel, stop writing and get your shoes on! It’s ten-cent wing night at {Insert Bar Name Here}!” (I forgot to mention, he called me Squirrel. It was a whole thing involving me jumping onto and off of something on the sidewalk once, in a squirrel-like way. It stuck.) Or maybe, “Squirrel, find yourself a pitcher! It’s fill your own pitcher for a dollar night at {Some Other Bar}!” If knowing the specials of every single bar in town on any given night of the week was a superpower, then Mateo was blessed with it. And I was more than happy to be his trusty sidekick while he put that great power to good (if irresponsible) use.

Something most of the bars Mateo and I frequented during that time shared, no doubt by design on his part, was that they had pool tables. And as you might have guessed, Mateo was a bit of a superhero in that arena as well. There were clearly many hours of misspent youth at play in the way he would dominate a table, the details of which I didn’t ask about and he didn’t tell. So while the whole legal drinking thing was fun for all of a month or so, the education I received in how to play pool was really what drew me to step out with him night after night, long after my liver started to protest.

I had, of course, learned the basics of playing pool on a beat-up table at the corner store down the street in the small town I grew up in. I knew the rules, and my friends and I had hours of fun pretending to be Minnesota Fats or one of the other famous players we’d catch on TV sometimes. But until Mateo took me under his wing, walking me patiently through the logic and technique of each shot, I had never actually played the game with anything remotely resembling skill. Being honest, I’m not sure how much skill I actually played it with even then. But it was at least enough to not look like a complete amateur, and to keep our team alive until it was Mateo’s turn to shoot again.

In the midst of one of the countless games of pool Mateo and I played, in the back corner of one of the countless local bars we frequented that year, he hit me with some of those pivotal words of wisdom that we can never see coming, and never recognize for what they are when we hear them. They came at a moment when I had absolutely no shot. Nothing. We were the high balls (stripes), and it seemed like every pocket was covered by a low ball (solids). No matter how many times I paced around the table, doing the geometry in my beer-addled head, I couldn’t see a decent opening anywhere.

Seeing my frustration, Mateo pulled me aside. I asked him what he suggested. Then, talking quietly and seriously, he said this (or something like it): “Squirrel, sometimes you just gotta come up with the craziest combination shot you can think of. This ball off of that ball off the other ball off the bumper. But call it like you’re the best player in the world. Like you’re 100% convinced it’s gonna work. Then take the shot. If you miss it, that’s okay. Because nobody really expected you to in the first place, and they’ll give you credit for trying anyway. They’ll just say it was an impossible shot. But if you call it … and it actually works … then people will think you’re a rock star. They’ll be talking about that shot the rest of their lives. They’ll be telling their kids about that shot.”

“So,” I asked, not entirely convinced by the strategy he was suggesting. “You’re saying just make up an impossible shot … then call it?”

“Always call the impossible shot,” Mateo confirmed, grinning. “But call it like you believe it. And make sure not to scratch, or I’ll kick your ass.”

And so I did as he said. “This ball off of that ball off of that ball off the bumper.” And while I don’t remember exactly how badly things went (I probably scratched), I know for sure I didn’t make the impossible shot. Still, I clearly remember the sense of empowerment in calling it as if I would. For just a few seconds, it seemed as if the guys on the other team looked at me differently, wondering if maybe I was a better player than they’d estimated me to be. They soon learned I wasn’t, but they did still seem to respect that I’d gone out on a limb. That I didn’t just throw up my hands when faced with no good option.

I haven’t played much pool since my college days. But that unexpected lesson has always stuck with me, and I probably quote Mateo’s words to somebody at least once a year as a metaphor for the given situation at hand, whether professional or personal. “Always call the impossible shot. But call it like you believe it. Because if it actually works, people will think you’re a rock star.”

It’s similar to the quote attributed to hockey player Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take,” but takes it step further. Because any game is filled with tons of shots you make or don’t make. But this is about going for the audacious shot. The one nobody in their right mind would take and for which, in the case of pool, a half-dozen or more different exchanges of kinetic energy and angular momentum have to behave the way you want them to in order for the right ball to land in the right pocket.

If that’s not a metaphor for business, I don’t know what is. Because we all want to walk away from something we’ve put our time, passion, and heart into–whether it’s an investment pitch or the culmination of a complex project–and have people think of us as a rock star. If not for the glory of it, then at least for the validation of a job well (and not easily) done.

Before we can feel that validation, however, we have to be willing to call the shot. No matter how crazy or impossible it may seem. Because calling it, and believing it, inspires confidence and trust. So that even if the ball doesn’t land in the pocket, those watching will still walk away having believed, if only for a few seconds, that it might have. They will have visualized your success along with you. And that will make it all the easier for them to believe in you when (not if) you take your next “impossible” shot.