Today, I thought I’d tackle a topic I’m a huge expert in: sports. Okay, so “expert” is maybe a slight exaggeration there. Although I did just recently go to my first NBA game, and I’ve decided that I most definitely could go pro now – sooooo screenshot this while you can!
But in all seriousness, my day job allows me a wonderful opportunity to speak with entrepreneurs from all walks of life. Many of them are students or recent graduates with big dreams. They want to revolutionize society with cool apps; they want to make an impact by creating ventures that support people in need; they hope to make a difference and create a bit of a legacy.
In hearing their stories around their businesses and what sparked their interest in pursuing entrepreneurship, I often get to know them personally. And recently, I found myself observing something I hadn’t really paid much attention to before. Although I knew entrepreneurship was difficult – most startups will fail and that’s just a fact – I hadn’t realized how much the skills people develop from other areas of their life can truly help prepare them for walking down this hard path. Case in point: sports.
A delightful young man I’ve been working with from South Africa told me about his past career as a pro soccer player. And to back-up, I should say that this man is probably one of the most dedicated people I’ve met. He wakes up at 5am to workout and gain some mental clarity, and then he signs up for as much as possible in order to hone his mindset and develop his skills. Truly, he’s awe-inspiring. So, it’s no surprise that his story of soccer would stay with me. He told me recently that he felt prepared to be a start-up founder because failure didn’t really scare him. He said that in his soccer days, the reality of the situation was that he “lost more matches than won”. He was often on display in front of crowds and received harsh criticism from coaches who almost seemed like they were trying to break him instead of building him up. But despite the hardships, he loved the game, and therefore he found playing always worthwhile.
Listening to him got me excited. I had to stop myself from organizing a panel on athletes turned entrepreneurs right then and there, as I thought about the old swim star who also founded a charity the previous year, and the bodybuilder who abandoned marketing to develop his own business.
See, in entrepreneurship, you’re constantly making yourself vulnerable to the feedback of others. You’re pitching ideas to people in power who can determine if you get funded (much like a recruiter might hold a scholarship over your head when they watch you from afar). You’re also playing against those odds and risking everything just because you love what you’re pursuing. You put in grueling hours to work on your idea much like an athlete wakes early to train before the crowd files in. You hope in your wildest dreams to hit it big, but you’re just as happy to be successful. In both paths, you have to stay dedicated and work hard. You need to have clear focus and you need to know when to seek help—and from whom. Instead of consulting a sports psychologist, nutritionist, or coach, you’re seeking out mentors, business incubators, and funding sources.
I think this connection is really fascinating. We so often divide things up in life into these buckets… here’s the business bucket… over there is the sports one… a little farther down is the bucket for arts and creativity.
In all actuality though, these so often intersect and relate to one another. If you fill up one bucket, you’re able more easily to dabble into another. Taking a step back, that’s beautiful, isn’t it? To me, it’s a reminder that we aren’t all just one thing all the time. Who we were yesterday doesn’t have to define us. And if we move away from a past life, we can still claim it, as we explore another path because inevitably, it will seep its way into the new part of ourselves.
It reminds me of my own relationship with counselling. From an educational standpoint, that’s what my background is in, after all. After getting my graduate degree in the field, I spent a year working in a crisis centre speaking with women who had survived sexual assault, people who had walked in on their loved ones’ suicides, refugees escaping war, etc., In the couple of years that followed that, I spoke to countless more people of all ages and backgrounds as they were grappling with PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety. I supported youth in career counselling as they tried to figure out how to make themselves happy even if it meant disappointing their parents. I worked with them to make hard decisions like knowing when to leave university, choose a new program, or take a risk and volunteer somewhere scary. All of the work I did both in the counselling space with these individuals, and in the privacy of my office as I laboured away on long reports to help them access treatment and convince their insurance companies that they weren’t scammers truly meant a lot to me. My status as a counsellor was something I identified with greatly.
Hence, when I left the field in 2018 to explore an opportunity to work with faculty in higher education by developing some experiential learning programming, I was scared. I felt like some card was being taken away from me and I wondered if my “authority” in mental health would die. Going forward, I also had this same worry when I accepted the role in the campus incubator. In the back of my mind, I always wondered if I should ever return to traditional counselling, and I contemplated how messy my resume might look, or if I would come across as someone who couldn’t cut it her initial chosen field. But I realize now it isn’t all that messy. Most people in life have a non-linear path, but there are always dots to connect if you look closely. Much like a soccer player can be a start-up founder, a counsellor can be a higher ed administrator. The thread of my own path is that in whatever I’m doing, I love to help people share their stories, I love to listen, and I love to connect them to meaningful resources. I see it as a privilege when people share their insecurities and their tears with me. It means a lot when they return to see me again because something small I said stuck with them, or made them feel heard.
In all honesty, we just do ourselves and others such a disservice when we exclaim with surprise, “ohhh, you’re doing that now? Well, what about X?” People can always decide to re-explore an old experience if they choose in some way, shape, or form… but it’s also lovely to let them explore new parts to themselves that can allow them to build off of what they’ve learned so far.
So, here’s a little unsolicited advice: encourage people to evolve and help them articulate or “pitch” themselves to others when they struggle to see the “common sense” in their path. I’ve come to love my journey and know that I have a great response to an interview question when people ask me to explain my various hats in life. At core, I’m a storyteller and a story-lover. I’m a helper. I’m a person who listens with compassion and does everything I can to help people navigate speedbumps, and celebrate successes. I’m not that different from the soccer player turned entrepreneur who rises before everyone else to mentally prepare for the day ahead. The one who is afraid to fail in front of the world, but steps out onto the field – and onto a pitching stage – to risk it anyway. The one who doubts himself whenever he realizes he isn’t quite as far as he’d like to be, but uses that as motivation to just keep going. The person who is elated when he scores big and feels crushed when he fumbles, but loves the rush of it all.
The call to action is this: let people be themselves in all of their multi-dimensional glory. It’s better that way.