Don’t Quote Me: Insights From Elite Athletics

We watched a lot of Olympics in the last two weeks. It’s entertaining and inspiring; a source of national pride and global camaraderie. After so many frustrating and sad stories hitting our newsfeed the last few years – pandemics, political upheaval, catastrophic fires, floods, and other disasters – it feels like a breath of fresh air to see countries coming together in a celebration of tenacity, hope, and endurance.

I realized this year, like never before, that there is a lot to be learned from Olympic athletes. Admittedly, their career path is not one most of us can fully emulate – a singular focus to reach the pinnacle of a specific sporting event is a niche lifestyle. But over and over I was struck by the relatability of these public figures. Their struggles and triumphs could be our own if we squint hard enough.

Most of us won’t trip over a hurdle and fall to the track in the middle of our race, but we might just get stage fright and blank when delivering that elevator pitch we’ve been perfecting for months. We might not win gold in the decathlon, but we might watch with pride as our book tops the New York Times Bestseller list.

I always love getting glimpses behind-the-scenes; I cheered along with the rest of Canada as Andre de Grasse carried the hopes of our nation down that 200 m track. As impressive as his gold medal was, what struck me most happened earlier in the competition during an interview after a qualifying heat. He talked about how critical the support of his family was to his success; then he talked about heading back to his room, getting as much sleep as possible, drinking lots of water – taking time to replenish his body. His desire to win a gold medal impacted all his lower-level goals and intentions.

So what can I learn from an elite athlete? There are lots of lessons, but here are four that came to mind after watching that 2-minute interview:

  1. The importance of my support network. Coaches, family, teammates, national sponsorships and training programs, physical therapists, sports phsycologists. No one reaches the top in isolation. It takes an intricate choreography from many people behind the scenes to propel an athelete to greatness. Takeaway = I need support. Parents, mentors, counselors/therapists, friends, collegues. We’re better – stronger – together.
  2. Focus, focus, focus. Most top athletes participate in a single or, at most, handful, of events. When my daughter, very earnestly, said she wanted to compete in every sport, she failed to recognize the intricacies of perfecting certain skill sets. Don’t expect to see Simone Biles competing in the high jump or discus competitions. You train your body and mind differently for the 100-metre dash than you do for the marathon. To truly excel in one area, you have to hone your body and mind for the specific nuances of that particular discipline. Takeaway = focus on my skills and interests. The rest may be white noise. Also, nobody is good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.
  3. Sleep, sleep, and sleep some more. The media is saturated with articles that extol the wonders of sleep. After years of glorifying people who could “burn the candle at both ends,” the narrative is shifting. Sleep is in. I recently read an autobiography of a marathon runner (talk about fascinating behind-the-scenes insights); she wrote about waking up and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, completing a long run, coming home to recuperate by taking a long mid-afternoon nap, before heading out for her evening running session, and then home for more sleep. Sleep was a critical component of her training program; without proper rest she was never going to excel at running. Takeaway = I need more sleep. Naps would be a nice addition to my weekly repetoire as well.
  4. Nutrition and water matter. Eating the right food, not too much, and staying hydrated is a foundational element in athletics training. Takeaway = what I put in my body matters. In general I feel so much better when I’m consuming whole foods, limting sugar/caffeine, and drinking plenty of water.

Tom Seaver was one of baseball’s greatest pitcher. He died a year ago, but left behind a legacy of sporting excellence and spoke of how his relentless pursuit of improvement and success in his field coloured every decision in his life.

Pitching…determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I’m awake. It determines how I spend my life when I’m not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can’t get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun…If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too. If it means in the winter I eat cottage cheese instead of chocolate chip cookies in order to keep my weight down, then I eat cottage cheese. 

Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it…I’ve made up my mind what I want to do. I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do things that help me be happy.

Tom Seaver

I’m not heading out to run a 200 m sprint tomorrow morning and I doubt I’ll hurl a giant spear the length of a field (or, if I do, it won’t be televised). I’m most certainly never going to be a major-league pitcher, and I don’t see any need to start petting dogs with my left hand. But I am in the busy middle years.

So how can I build a support network that will propel me forward? I want to be intentional; what am I working toward, what do I want my focus – or foci – to be? And then, how can I ensure I get enough sleep, wholesome food, and water so my mind has the benefits of a strong and healthy body?

Don’t Quote Me: New Landscape or New Eyes?

This week it feels like I need a new set of eyes.

In the throes of renovating, a busy work schedule, and the kids home on summer break, it’s easy to lose sight of reality. There has been some spiraling into negative emotions, mostly fueled by a sudden onset of insomnia and my stress levels that flare dramatically with renovating (decisions, noise, mess, strange people in my house, all coupled with my perfectionist tendencies); and, of course, these two issues create a vicious cycle.

I’ve been daydreaming a lot about a future reality; work completed on the house, kids back in school, pressures alleviated with work. But maybe I need to settle into where I’m at – it’s temporary, I know – and look at things differently. Maybe I need to watch her tennis lessons instead of scrolling on my phone and better learn the rules of the game. Maybe I need to take notes on the how-to’s of renovations, a cheat sheet for the future, instead of catastrophizing over every hiccup. Maybe I need to snuggle my gap-toothed boy at night again and take the time – real time, minutes, not seconds – to study his face and marvel at just how big he’s become.

I’m not sure how well these thoughts actually tie in with the quote below, but I keep ending up considering how to look at the familiar until it becomes unfamiliar again – both to marvel at the beauty and novelty of things in my life while recognizing that there is so much to be learned by the things currently surrounding me.

Even armed with this knowledge I feel stressed (literally, this very minute; I may have already ugly-sobbed today*). But maybe, that too, is part of the voyage? Clearing out the emotional cobwebs, wiping the tears from my eyes, and looking around with a fresh perspective.

It’s worth a try…

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

*I wrote this several days ago and am happy to report there has been no sobbing – ugly or pretty – since.

Don’t Quote Me: A Sense of Loss in the Midst of Joy

I think a lot about family in the summer. Time at the lake brings full immersion in the waves of nostalgia. I spend evenings flipping through old photo-albums, decades of memories at my fingertips. Looking at the faces of loved ones that have passed reminds me of how things used to be; I laugh at the irrefutable evidence of hairlines that have receded and marvel that, for years, I spent most of my summers without electricity and running water. But lately, summer has been a prompt for future-think.

One evening, several years ago, my father took me out boating. My daughter, maybe six at the time, was with us. The sun was setting over a mirror-calm lake, our bellies were full of delicious home cooking – everything about the moment was perfect. And I had the overwhelming urge to cry.

The joy of the moment felt like too much to bear and the weight of the future felt crushing – the realization that these moments will end. As my parents age, I find myself wondering how many more of these memories we have ahead. How many more of those sunset boat rides? I’ve come to the lake every summer for over 30 years, and not much has changed. But how much longer will my father be able to start the motor? How many more sunny days will my mother be able to cannonball off the raft? Maybe many more, but definitely fewer than last year, and the year before that.

I try to embrace some moments more tightly because I’m starting to recognize the brevity of this season of life. It’s not just my parents. My role in motherhood is changing – fast. I struggle to lift Levi up; he doesn’t fit on my hip anymore. While I love the independence – celebrate it – it can still feel like a loss.

A few months ago I was reading E. L. Konigsburg’s A View From Saturday. In it, one of the main characters has experienced a very traumatic accident that leaves her wheelchair-bound. It, of course, impacts her life in significant ways. She goes on to lead her team of academic quiz competitors to victory, and when I read the passage about her reaction to this major triumph, the words ran true.

Mrs. Olinski felt a strange sense of loss. She did not feel like a loser, but she did feel a sense of loss. She drove for miles worrying about it. Finally, almost involuntarily, she said out loud, ‘Win some. Lose some.’ She glanced at Mr. Singh and laughed. ‘Why did I say that?’ 

Mr. Singh replied, ‘Because it is how you feel at this moment, Mrs. Olinski.”

“I am happy that we won, Mr. Singh. But I don’t understand why I feel a sense of loss. This is not like my accident when my loss was overwhelming. Why, after this wonderful victory, do I feel that something is missing?”

“Because something is.” Miles hummed past before his voice floated back to her. “For many months now, you have been in a state of perpetual preparation and excitement. Each victory was a preparation for the next. You are missing future victories. Have you enjoyed the journey out, Mrs. Olinski?”

“Very much. Every cupful…”

E. L. Konigsburg

I’m already missing future boat rides on the lake. I’m already missing phone calls to my Mom. Already missing baby teeth and boys that can fit on my hip. I’m already missing the gaggle of American nieces and nephews that descend on the lake every second summer – for years it was the pure chaos of pack-and-plays, diapers, and watching toddlers navigate the rocky shoreline. Now many of them are poised to start summer jobs, leave for college and spread their wings. Will we ever all be together again?

I don’t want to distract from the moment by living with one foot behind and another ahead, but sometimes accounting for the past and the future can help bring into sharper focus just how blessed I’ve been and also how special these moments, here and now, really are.

I don’t know what a day, a week, or a month will bring. Today is here and I try, not always successfully, to embrace it. I stress and rush and cry. But I also binge and savour; prioritize adventure over possessions.

In A View from Saturday, Mr. Singh concludes the exchange with this sage advice:

“Now, you must put down anchor, look around, enjoy this port of call. Your stay will be brief. You must do it, Mrs. Olinski.”

Today I’m putting my anchor down, looking around and enjoying the port of call. The stay may be brief but oh how I’ve enjoyed the journey out. Every cupful.

Don’t Quote Me: Leaving to Return

One of the most vivid and enduring memories from my childhood is coming home.

Each summer we would drive to our rustic cottage for a month off-grid. And I do mean rustic. No electricity – we went to bed when the sun went down or read by flickering candlelight. No running water – we carted water from a nearby spring and heated it on the propane stove in an old iron kettle. No air conditioning (the window), no shower (the lake), no toilet (the outhouse).

The bathtub; I seem to be awfully thorough in cleaning my feet for a 5-year old?

And it was perfect. Looking back, I can only imagine how freeing it was for my parents. No phone calls, no fussy meals, no e-mails (though I guess e-mails weren’t really a thing back then anyway?), no enforcing bedtimes, no electric bills. In our world of hyperconnectivity and pseudo-vacations (can anyone fully unplug these days, despite what those OOO auto-responses suggest) could we even imagine a week, let alone a month, of this lifestyle?

If it was sunny we picked wild berries in the morning and went swimming in the afternoon. If it rained, we played boardgames, or read books, or just sat and looked out the window. We had bonfires and went canoeing; I’d lay in the hammock and listen to cicadas by the hour (one of the most enduring sound memories from my childhood).

And then it would be time to leave. It devastated me every year. Nothing looked right. The raft came in; canoes got stowed away. The inside of the cottage was piled high with the detritus of summer living – lifejackets and deck chairs and swimming shoes. Things that weren’t meant to be inside; things that needed to see sunshine and water to come alive. Decades on I can still remember the almost physical pain I felt having the last glimpse of the lake be so forlorn; like all it’s character had been stripped away now that we were leaving.

But after wallowing for an hour or so, my sights were set on the next adventure. Home. It wasn’t because I was overly excited to be home (summer cottage life is hard to beat), but because I loved the unique sensation of returning home.

Of having the familiar become unfamiliar.

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors…Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

Terry Pratchett

As soon as we unlocked the door there’d be a huge stack of mail in the entryway. Something about that thrilled me. And then I’d get hit by the smell – a mix of freshly-cut grass and furnace oil. When you live in a space, the unique scent profile becomes indistinguishable. Coming home, you get to experience the olfactory reality for every stranger that crosses the threshold.

I remember walking through all the rooms – we’d leave things neat and tidy when we left – and it felt like some sort of out-of-body experience. The texture of my bedspread, the colour of the kitchen linoleum. Everything seemed brighter, magnified, distinctive. Look at the wall – light switches! And here a toilet! These ordinary things, these things I used 11 months of the year without so much as a second thought, suddenly seemed novel and exciting. It was like seeing the world through a new set of glasses.

Though intense and exhilarating, the experience was temporary. I lost the ability to distinguish the faint smell of furnace oil after a day or so; very soon I didn’t think twice about opening a refrigerator and removing a cold beverage, flushing a toilet, or taking a hot shower. But it’s a memory and sensation that has stayed with me for life.

G. K. Chesterton said: “Look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.” Sometimes, the easiest way to do this – to gain perspective, appreciation, and a new way forward – is to leave. Why go? So we can come back.

Don’t Quote Me: Bite Now. Chew Later.

If you’re anything like me, you prefer to enter situations with a 10-step plan already in place. It can be easy to put things off – or avoid decisions and situations entirely – if you feel unable to “fully” prepare.

Often it is wise to play it safe. Research. Plan. Organize a backup. Consider potential impacts and ramifications. But, sometimes, you just have to take a big ol’ bite…

Bite off more than you can chew. You can figure out how to chew later.

Elliot Bisnow

My husband, in the midst of a stressful work situation, once likened the experience to drinking from a fire hose. The learning curve was steep, stress levels high. He certainly felt as though he had bitten off more than he could chew. But he took things one step at a time and, eventually, it felt more like drinking from a very high-pressure garden hose.

Some changes are impossible to prepare for; there are too many variables, too much uncertainty. Ultimately, the older we get, I suspect we all realize that life is unpredictable and sometimes you just have to open up real wide, take a giant bite, and have faith the chewing part will come later. But some helpful caveats:

First, make sure you have teeth. In other words, don’t accept the Head of Neurology position with no medical training in your back pocket (as ludicrous as this sounds, I am shocked how frequently I read about stories not so unlike this seemingly far-fetched example; people dangerously underqualified for positions they assume, usually under false pretenses).

Second, know what sort of food you want in your body. Are you a kale smoothie aficionado, or do you prefer Mars bars washed down with some Peach Snapple? In other words, it helps to know where you want to get to. What do you value at the end of the day – even if the getting there part seems daunting?

Biting off more than you can chew might look like:

  • Starting a business
  • Adopting a child (or a second, or a third)
  • Moving to a new country
  • Building a house and serving as general contractor on the project
  • Selling a house and downsizing to an apartment
  • Switching careers
  • Hosting an exchange student
  • Buying a puppy
  • Going back to school as a mature student
  • Signing up for a triathlon

I’ve co-founded two businesses and birthed two children – both require huge investments of time and other resources. Both put me in uncharted territory where I felt like I had a mouth full of birthday cake, at a party I wasn’t invited to. But over time I learned how to change a diaper in the dark and how to navigate the emergency department at 2 am with a feverish child; I muddled my way through preparing business plans and grant applications.

Mileage will vary – interestingly, a big bite to one could be a tiny nibble to another. Back to the motherhood example: no matter how long I waited, I was never going to feel prepared for the adjustment. If I’d waited until I was ready, I’d still be waiting. For many, entering motherhood feels like drinking from a fire hose; for one of my sisters, it was a tiny blip on her radar. Work, life, travel – they just continued on, fitting in and around her new responsibilities as primary caretaker to a helpless infant. No stress or tears, and by 6 months she was ready for another one.

I’m a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin’s work, and she’s discussed a personal mantra to: Choose the bigger life. It can be a helpful rubric through which to evaluate decisions; I might want to consider “choosing the bigger life” when someone suggests a last-minute weekend getaway (it would be easier to just stay home), when my husband wants to wake the kids up to see a once-a-summer meteor shower (they’ll be so cranky in the morning), or if I’m considering a major career transition (too scary, too hard, too exhausting). Choosing the bigger life can often mean biting off more than I think I can chew…or taking a leap of faith.

Last year our family visited a new-to-us beach, which happens to have a well-known jump zone. I hate getting cold. I’m not a big fan of heights. This wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.

My husband, a true adventurer, didn’t even hesitate; when he came out of the water, I was still dithering about what to do. Then I turned to him and said: “This would definitely be choosing the bigger life.” So I jumped. It was freezing and terrifying and I screamed the whole way down and I don’t know if I’d ever do it again – but it was a highlight of my summer. Why? Because it was daunting and scary. Because it was spontaneous and unplanned. Because it was slightly dangerous (or at least it felt slightly dangerous).

It was so much scarier than it looks!!

Stuck in a rut? Confused about what should come next? Sometimes you might want to consider biting off more than you can chew.

Don’t Quote Me: Where Do You Want to Get To?

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. Living under the same roof as my (wonderful) parents, I strove for independence. At university, four years were dedicated to the goal of graduation; on to grad school and ditto. Throw in marriage, two kids, and a few passive career decisions and I simply moved from one clearly defined trajectory to another.

But the years slip by. Sometimes the way forward is crystal clear; other times we hang out on autopilot with decisions about marriage, children, and careers behind us. But kids get older, horizons blur, passions and aspirations evolve, and suddenly the path can seem less obvious. Major life changes could throw us irreversibly off course. Our priorities and values may do an about-turn. Many of us will, eventually, have our own Robert Frost experience, pondering those “two roads in a yellow wood.”

And what then?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat provides a wise insight: the way we “ought” to go very much depends on where we want to get to. And where we want to get to may be driven more by values than distinct goals.

Values are qualities that permeate our life. Things like spiritual faith, compassion, honesty, and adventure. If goals are ahead, values are now. We can’t achieve a value, we can only continue working toward it (and inside of it). If you’re full of compassion, you can never exhaust the need for compassion.

Goals are: become CEO of a major company; get an A+ on my Animal Physiology midterm; lose 10 pounds and finally run that 10K. Values are: use my leadership skills to grow and nurture a team; gain knowledge and do my best; pursue a healthy lifestyle, embracing habits that improve my wellbeing.

Values, then, can direct our goals and decisions.

If I value leading a healthy lifestyle – pursuing wellness in body and mind – committing to a daily walk around my neighbourhood seems like a fitting goal. What if I also value treating myself with kindness and respect? Perhaps reaching a specific number on the scale no longer seems like a worthwhile goal if I identify potentially damaging impacts on my mental health.

Ask yourself – when I take a step back, what am I aiming for? A closer relationship with God, financial independence, more time with family, less career stress? Do I want to work until my foot’s in the grave or retire at 45? Live big or small? Stay close or travel far? If I want to be affluent in retirement, but value honesty, using a Ponzi scheme to accrue wealth is not the ideal tactic (hopefully this is obvious even to people who might not value honesty; Ponzi schemes = bad news).

Once I know where I want to get to (and the values I want to exhibit along the way) I’m better able to determine how to get there.

Debating which way to go? The first step toward finding an answer may be identifying where you want to get to.

Don’t Quote Me: Hiring A Dog? Don’t Bark.

Sound familiar?

Don’t hire a dog, then bark yourself.

David Ogilvy

Wait, you’ve never hired a dog?

Okay, maybe dog hiring isn’t really the rage anymore…but I bet you’ve asked your teenager to pack their own lunchbox or convinced your co-worker to take the lead on an important project or asked your husband to book plane tickets for spring break.

I love the idea of delegating, but often have a hard time letting go of a sense of control. For instance, I’ll ask my husband to handle switching insurance companies but then check in every few days to get an update: what are the rates, which brokers have you tried, do we have all the temporary paperwork we need, and so forth. Basically, I’ve hired a “dog” (my husband) but I’m still barking.

Sometimes the answer is to not hire a dog at all, and keep right on barking myself. If I can’t fully relinquish control of a task, why bother delegating? I’ll both aggravate the “dog” and add a layer of complexity to the job itself. If it’s important enough to me, I should just do it myself.

But other times, I need to delegate and let go…

Yesterday, after a busy day of work and errands, we capped off the hot afternoon by floating in a friend’s pool. Fun, but then home to a pile of wet towels and bathing suits I didn’t have the energy to deal with.

Then I remembered: over a decade ago I birthed a child that is now perfectly capable of handling this job! Every item ended up askew in ways that defied the basic laws of Physics, but it was done. I didn’t correct or make suggestions (though I may have cringed slightly on the inside). The clothes ended up being perfectly dry after several hours on the line (bonus points: I had her get the clothes off the line, too). And yes, there was huffing from my pint-sized helper. But, from my end, absolutely no barking.

My little porpoise.
My water baby, turned forced-labour laundry guru. Also, cutest watermelon bathing suit, ever.

Don’t Quote Me: What Would This Look Like If It Were Easy?

Sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy. I’m my own worst enemy. If there is a way to complicate a situation, I will find it.

For many of us, the majority of our time is focussed on maximizing – a situation, financial expenditures, time. Indeed, for some, life has become one giant experiment constantly being tinkered with as we’re coached to improve, iterate, and embrace the challenge. We channel our inner Sheryl Sandberg and “lean-in.” If life doesn’t feel overwhelming, surely we’re doing something wrong?

The “easy” way can seem like a trap.

For example, I’ll follow a mental path that goes a little something like this: “If I give feed the kids cereal for supper one night…then I’ll become someone who feeds my kids cereal for supper every night.” Intellectually I know that’s false. My kids eat cereal for supper a handful of times each year; far too infrequently for their liking. They do not spontaneously combust these evenings. They do not wake in the night complaining of hunger pains. Child services does not knock on my door and declare me an unfit mother. In short, the kids are just fine. Literally nothing bad happens.

Self-discipline and hard work are great, and I’m not advocating for laziness, but sometimes we just need to cut ourselves some slack. Several years ago I read Tim Ferris’ Tribe of Mentors. It’s a compilation of “wisdom” from a broad cross-section of creative, entrepreneurial and athletic types. The quote that stuck in my psyche:

What would this look like if it were easy?

Tim Ferris

While the quote had more to do with existential questions of purpose, trajectory and, for Tim Ferris, a self-declared mid-life crisis, I think there is reason to apply this principle to smaller aspects of daily life. I can ask myself – would it make my life easier if I:

  • Put on a movie when I’m rushing to meet a work deadline and the kids are climbing the walls (mine literally do this, in the hallway, and find it quite a lark to touch the ceiling)?
  • Had everyone use the same shampoo and toothpaste to make shopping, organization and general hygiene more convenient?
  • Put the clothes in the dryer instead of hanging them on the line to dry?
  • Served supper on paper plates, made the dinner party a potluck, or ordered in take-out for Thanksgiving dinner?
  • Said no to that evening meeting that could be handled via e-mail in the morning?
  • Bought everyone on my Christmas list the same gift (instead of brainstorming and shopping for hours to find a different “perfect” gift for everyone)?

Or what if I: hired someone to deep-clean my house before company arrived for the holidays, started working from home every Friday, upgraded my computer to a 3-monitor setup, or made a single recipe for my lunches all week. Easier doesn’t mean lazy; a 3-monitor setup will make me more productive and efficient. I like the word “easy” because it feels more whimsical – and less clinical – than some terminology often associated with productivity.

An important step toward finding an easier way: identifying the problem – whether that’s a mid-life crisis, a long commute, or the frustration of having six different shampoo bottles in the shower.

When I wanted to start a website, I was overwhelmed with options. Platforms, aesthetics, hosting, fonts.

Question: What would this look like if it were easy? Answer: Having someone I already know and trust take the lead on the project.

Minutes later I had a software developer I’ve been working with for almost a decade agree to get things off the ground for me. No research, no struggling to do things all by myself.

Life is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s important to embrace the challenge, push ourselves to excel, and expect more from ourselves. A willingness to embrace those qualities is how my husband and I co-founded two businesses and why I received research scholarships and completed a Master’s degree. It’s why I take the time to cook most meals from scratch and why I don’t feed my kids cereal for supper every night. But, sometimes we can avoid unnecessary worry and stress by asking: What would this look like if it were easy? The answers might be surprising.

But don’t quote me.