Today, on this random Tuesday, I am going to ask something of you that I don't ask very often: I am going to ask you to let me talk about men's tennis. Actually, I'm going to take it one step further, because I don't just want to talk about men's tennis; I want to talk about the kind of tennis played by the GOAT.
That's right – I want to ask you to let me talk about Roger Federer. He won his 20th Grand Slam before I woke up on Sunday morning. I read the news and literally gasped.
Now, it's a big week for big names in men's professional sports, and you're probably as exhausted of it as I am. Tiger Woods returned to competitive play this past weekend, after a long hiatus from golf of any kind. His downward spiral for years on end was both personal and professional, and he's had surgery that makes him think he can find his way back. This is not unusual, because golfers play pretty much until the day they expire, but it's not all that interesting, either. This is also the week that Tom Brady will compete for his 6th Super Bowl win at the age of 40. This is unusual, because football grinds player's bodies down to dust – but not for Tom Brady, because he eats only lean, unseasoned meat or something, and drinks so much water he can't get sunburned.
I can't stand either player. I don't know them well enough to dislike them on a personal level, of course, but I can't stomach the breathless media coverage of their exploits, as if players who've followed in their footsteps are less compelling, as if those younger players are less important or impressive. In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Case in point: yes, Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships in his day, and yes, he is likely to be the GOAT as well. But he claimed only 73 victories in his career, and Sam Snead claimed a whopping 82. And sure, Tom Brady has won five Super Bowls (and sure, he is the only player to win them all while playing for one team), but Drew Brees, who's 39, has some career stats that rival his, which means that there are other, current players who are equally captivating to watch on the field. And, like it or not, any conversation about the Greatest Quarterback of All Time will include Peyton Manning and Joe Montana.
In other words, there are so many different metrics to weigh that who is the GOAT in every sport will be debated forever and ever, ad nauseum. And arguments like that interest only statistics nerds and player loyalists. Perfection is boring, plain and simple. (Which is why so many people on Sunday will root for the Eagles.) As a storyteller, I am much more interested in the background and trajectory of scrappy underdogs, who defy the odds and occasionally beat the GOATs in important head-to-head matches.
But something inside me has always loved Roger Federer, and I've never been able to understand why. He's handsome, yes, but there are athletes I find much more attractive. He carries himself well, too, and I am obsessed with the fact that he's made over $100 million but still chooses to practice on public courts. I'm a sucker for a family man who is the epitome of good sportsmanship as well; power corrupts so easily and often that it's notable when it doesn't. But in general, the reason I love him has always been hard to explain, because it goes against everything I stand for. It's just never made sense.
But then, Roger Federer grew older. Peter de Jonge explained this, this past summer, in a feature story entitled, "How Roger Federer Upgraded His Game": "Consider: Andre Agassi won his final major at 32, Laver and Pete Sampras won their final majors at 31 and John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg won theirs at 25." Federer is still winning majors at 36. Which means, as Rosecrans Baldwin noted in his brilliant piece, "Will Roger Federer Ever Be Done?", he's winning "[n]ot as the unflappable perfectionist but, for the first time, as a rangy underdog."
Peter de Jonge's piece about Federer blew my mind. He chronicles not just that he is succeeding against all odds, after his own, years-long dry spell, but how. The story is the most compelling thing I've read in the last two years, which is why I keep returning to this piece again and again. It's an inspirational instructional manual on career resurgence (which John White wrote about for Inc.), and it turns out I could use that sort of thing right now. (I'm also just about turn to 36.)
Point 1: "Federer seems to take consistent and obvious pleasure in what he is doing on the court." If Federer had started his comeback before I left my unfulfilling career, I might have realized that trying to get ahead in a soulless, dead-end career is a futile endeavor. You can get by doing what you despise but are good at; you won't get ahead. Knowing that Federer loves what he does matters, because you'll only practice at and want to perfect what you enjoy.
Point 2: Having the guts – and taking the time – to teach himself a new backhand (which, it's worth remembering, was part of his success for so many years) "transformed [him] from a grinder to a shot maker" – and suddenly "the game became immensely more enjoyable for him." In other words, you have to be willing to self-examine, and you have to be willing to do hard things. If you do, you'll be transformed from someone who just gets by to someone who excels at something new. That leads to greater enjoyment, which leads to more willingness to do the work, which leads to further self-examination and reinvention. It really is a positive feedback loop.
Point 3: Federer "savor[s] every secondary and tertiary aspect" of playing tennis. Said differently: he doesn't just love the game, he loves the experience of the game – feeling the ball on the racket, talking to the ball boys/girls, being outside, walking to his chair to take a break, etc. "'I always tell people,' Mats Wilander says, 'that when you watch Federer, don't just watch him play the point. Watch what he does in between points. ... Nobody else does that. Nobody has ever done that. And he still does it." He's won 20 Grand Slams, three in the last 13 months, an Open Era record – but he doesn't enjoy winning; he enjoys everything about playing professional tennis (including the big courts).
Point 4: "His long break [from tennis] rejuvenated him, and, he said, gave him the chance to 'reset my ideas about the game.'" He took a step back. In doing so, his ideas about the game changed completely. That's incredibly insightful: to use the possibility of defeat as a chance to reconsider closely-held ideas about tennis, his game, himself.
Point 5: He limits his exposure to "the highs and lows to which he is naturally inclined" by staying "focused and out of his own way. Off the court and in conversation, he is expansive, voluble, prickly (particularly about the press) and opinionated, a bon vivant and seeker of new experiences and repeater of old ones he likes." Follow your curiosity, but be yourself. Federer says what he means and does what he enjoys, because it puts him in the best frame of mind to excel.
Point 6: "[I]n the process of wearing down the competition, his [competitors] have also worn down themselves. Federer's free flowing shot-making exacts much less of a toll, and his fluid movement has enabled him to sidestep serious injury to a remarkable degree." This concept is mind boggling to me: Federer isn't worried about his competition anymore; he's focused on improving his own game, enjoying his own life. As a result, they're struggling and he's thriving.
Point 7: Federer's "unquenchable optimism" and "effortless grace' are well-suited to tennis. This is important, because "[s]et by set, game by game, sometimes even point by point, matches are strewn with frustrations ... and somehow you have to see the big picture, recognize how good your life is compared with the average civilian's and not go dark. It's harder than it looks. [John] McEnroe couldn't do it. The immensely talented Nick Kyrgios can't do it for two weeks in a row. It's always been a challenge for [Andy] Murray, and lately it seems too much for even [Novak] Djokovic." The ability to see the big picture and not get frustrated moment-to-moment is what has sustained his career.
Point 8: Federer recognizes that he has to stick with his new backhand strategy even when it isn't working. It's hard to keep at it, he says, when it's gone wrong five times in a row. You have to trust what you learned about long-term success when you're feeling short-term frustration.
Point 9: The changes he made to his backhand were necessary and humble. As Peter de Jonge explains, "I figured that the backhand drive had been the focus of his six-month break from the tour [in 2016]. Federer insisted that that wasn't the case and that the primary focus during his layoff was a much humbler backhand, a subtle little block return of serve, hit as early as possible and with just a touch of topspin, that enabled him to start return points more advantageously than his chip or slice and that could be used against anyone except the biggest of servers." Are you getting this?!? He didn't set out to make dramatic changes; he made subtle ones that made a powerful impact. He prepared to defend himself against 85% of the players he played, and it worked. "[B]ecause he doesn't have to protect the backhand, his footwork is now more efficient, and because he's more inclined to stay put, he's in better position to hit his forehand as well." So, small changes lead to big effect, because they're cumulative.
Point 10: Winning may look easy, but Federer really tries. "He says that when he wins, people think it was a cakewalk, and that when he loses, people think he phoned it in. 'Because I don't sweat as much as others, or grunt as much as others, or make faces when I hit the ball, and it's it's harder for people to see that I'm actually really trying.'"
Taking the leap to do something creative was the hardest thing I've ever done, and it still is: my husband and I made a strategic, long-term decision that we thought would benefit both our family and my career, but not making a salary or going into the office day-to-day is flat-out hard. It's hard to stick with that strategy when I feel like I'm failing right and left.
But boy, do I love it. And that's how I know I'm doing the right thing. I love drinking coffee, being surrounded by books, interviewing amazing women, recording narration, deciding where to make edits, seeking wisdom, reinventing myself. It's fulfilling on a whole other level. I don't know if I'll ever have 0.001% of the professional success that Federer has had, but I know that I will reach my greatest potential doing what I'm doing right here, right now. I have to take breaks and reset now and then, yes. We all do.
I have to work on better weathering the highs and lows, too, because that will give me the edge. This means, of course, that I need to stay focused on increasing my own abilities rather than comparing myself to or mentally competing with others. It means I need to regularly self-examine, and make small changes that make a big difference. It means focusing on the task at hand, seeing the big picture and valuing getting better instead of getting ahead.
It may look like a cakewalk, but it isn't. I'm actually really trying.
For one quick minute during my crazy busy week*, I want to stop and tell you about how blessed I am to be encouraged by so many incredible creatives. I don't talk about this much, because it feels like bragging (and, hell, I don't know – maybe it is), but it's sustained me during my darkest, most frustrated hours over the past year. It's worth sharing here.
Let's start with this:
From 2011 - 2012, I had an anonymous blog where I chronicled a year-long project to get through a negative period in my (personal and professional) life. It had a very, very, very small readership. I had an equally small Twitter following. It's never easy to share your thoughts, much less when you fear no one will listen. But during that year both Cheryl Strayed and Laura Munson cheered me on. Some of their works – respectively, Dear Sugar's "How You Get Unstuck" and This Is Not the Story You Think It Is – touched my life, and their kind words were more than enough encouragement to finish the project. (Recently I received a request from someone to continue it, and I'm still considering that.)
For the last few years, I have developed an obsession with Brad Montague, the genius who created Kid President. His new creative undertaking – Montague Workshop – is trying to an incite a joyful rebellion. I have loved everything he's ever done, and cried at 82.8% of it. My favorite is the video, "Smuggling Hope." There's literally nothing like it out there in the world. The day he followed me on Twitter was a day I said, "Okay, self: it's okay not to be cynical. It's okay to be eager. It's okay to value simple storytelling and compelling ideas." I'll never forget that tiny gesture.
While we're on the subject of Twitter followers, let me tell you about three more who knock my socks off:
There are a lot of negative things about social media. The Hubs and I have independently decided (for our own reasons, and at our own times) to spend less time on it this year. But there are positive things about it. Especially Instagram. I don't mean brand-conscious, picturesque Instagram, either. (I've unfollowed almost all of those accounts, thanks to friend and follower Britt.) I mean the honest, in-depth look Instagram can offer into the creative process. Just this evening I got a message from an artist in London (whose day job = psychologist), encouraging me to dig deep and pursue my dreams. She regularly inspires me by putting herself out there, but today she saw fit to encourage me from all the way 'across the pond'. She's incredibly supportive of Compelling Women, and it means the world to this scared girl.
I tried so hard to force my way into a different career. It never worked. I was terrified to pursue this one. But little by little, creatives are saying, "Take your time. This is scary and hard. You are one of us."
Here's hoping you find that tribe ASAP.
* Compelling Women podcast launch!
It's Friday, and a Twitter friend of mine broke through the noise today to share his answers to a bunch of questions about himself and how he perceives life. I humbly share my own answers here, to distract myself from heavy subjects.
Explain your Twitter / blog handle. Well, the older I get, the wiser I feel – and the more I'm absolutely certain that I know very, very little.
Who inspires you, and why? The women whose stories I'm telling. They are ordinary, yet extraordinary, and I am humbled to know them. Also, my husband, who gives selflessly, generously, constantly and without hesitation. He's not perfect, but he's as close to perfect as a person gets.
Do you care what others think about you? Yes. I really, really wish I didn't.
What are you most looking forward to? Launching the Compelling Women podcast.
What is one life rule you follow? Be authentic. It's more rewarding and less complicated than the opposite.
What's your dream job? Telling stories that speak to women's souls. If I had the opportunity to travel to amazing places (i.e. Italy, France, Spain or Portugal – even stateside places like Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco or Seattle), that'd be icing on the cake.
Which fictional character do you wish you could meet? Abby Bartlett.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I used to practice being a conductor in my bedroom.
If you were a cartoon character, who would you be? Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog.
What skill would you like to master? Storytelling, obviously. Water color painting is a close second.
In what situation would you feel most out of place? In a crowded room of Wall Street execs. I've been there more times than I can count. I always had a glass of wine in hand.
What artist do you really like, but rarely admit to liking? Good old T-Swift.
What gets you fired up? Selfishness. Injustice. Arrogance. Abuse. Anyone who refuses to self-examine.
What annoys you most about the fandoms you're a part of? I can't possibly choose one thing about T-Swift fans.
What do you do to get rid of stress? I take so many epsom salt bubble baths that I should own stock in Dr. Teal's.
You have to relive one day of your life forever. Which day do you choose? This is so ridiculously hard. I can't choose when we got married, were in Italy or on our honeymoon, because the pups weren't there. I can't choose the day we got engaged, because I was super duper sick. I think the answer is my birthday last year. It was quiet, but perfect from start to finish. The Hubs was there for all of it.
How quickly do you jump to conclusions about people? Recently I think: "not quickly enough."
If you were a doll, what accessories would you be sold with? My wedding and engagement rings, a pair of real gold but fake diamond earrings, Jackie O sunglasses, a pair of leopard ballet flats and a black Italian leather purse.
What have you done in life that gives you the most satisfaction? Being the primary caretaker for our dog as he got sicker the summer we lost him. It was gut-wrenching, but also the most precious and important work I've ever done. He taught me how to love, be selfless and focus on the moment at hand. I really believe he prepared me for the day I eventually become a mother. That was his gift to me in the end.
What would be the worst thing to put in a pinata? Snakes.
What's the biggest waste of money you've seen? I saw far, far too much excess when I worked for Wall Street. But paying not to interact with 'peons' is the most disturbing. This happens in a variety of contexts, none better than the next.
What common misconception do you hate to hear repeated as fact? That all Southerners are backwards and ignorant.
Where is the best place to meet awesome people? I don't have a preference on this one. I've met amazing friends through work, other friends and, yes, the internet.
What food do you crave most? I am borderline obsessed with salted pistachios. For this reason we don't usually keep them around.
What TV series do you keep coming back and re-watching? I have watched The West Wing more times than I can count. For years I didn't have cable or an antenna, and I just watched the series over and over again. (Confession: I usually stop halfway through Season 5.)
Among your friends, what are you best known for? Speaking my mind and being protective.
Who of your friends is most like you? None of them. I can only handle so much of myself.
What was the most traumatizing moment of your life? Being physically manhandled and, in my mind, endangered by a very rich, even more powerful man (October 2014).
What's the best lesson you've learned from a work of fiction? "If a guy is a good neighbor, if he puts in a day, if every once in a while he laughs, if every once in a while he thinks about somebody else and, above all else, if he can find his way to compassion and tolerance, then he's my brother. And I don't give a damn if he didn't get past finger painting. What I can't stomach are people who are out to convince people that the educated are soft and privileged. ... Especially when we know that education can be the silver bullet: for crime, poverty, unemployment, drugs, hatred."
What's something you'll never do again? Work in government affairs.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If you are a person who watches the news or has a social media account or simply exists in a world where you interact with a variety of other humans, you already know this. It’s one of the saddest, most inspiring days each year, in that we mourn the loss of his wisdom and example while remembering his words and actions. From quotes about hope to reminders that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, his words tell us to rise in the face of adversity. To stand up for what we believe in. The 50th anniversary of his death in April will bring all of that emotion to the surface again.
He would’ve been 89 years old this year.
But today, as I think about the setbacks over the past year and look for hope in unlikely places, I’m thinking about the Saints. For those of you who don’t watch or follow NFL football, it’s playoff season. Yesterday, the Saints played the Minnesota Vikings, in Minnesota. It is the site of the upcoming Super Bowl, and their hometown team is in contention. It was a rowdy crowd.
Going into halftime, the Saints were down 17-0. This is a crazy deficit, even for the best teams in the league, but by the 4th quarter, the Saints had come back and were in the lead, 21-20. Then Minnesota scored, making the score 23-21. There was less than a minute left on the clock, and the Saints had only one timeout left. But they answered Minnesota’s score, making it a 24-23 game. There were only 10 seconds left on the clock. They could practically taste victory. All they had to do was stop the Vikings in their tracks. If they did, they’d be off to a championship game and only one game away from a Super Bowl.
But it wasn’t meant to be. In the last play of the game, the quarterback for the Vikings made a crazy, Hail Mary pass, and his wide receiver caught it. It’ll be the Vikings that head to that championship instead, the Vikings who’ll be only one game away from playing the Super Bowl in their own dome.
It was a heartbreaking, crushing defeat. The Saints had overcome so much in so little time. Individuals with mountains more sports experience than I will parse this game and that last play (already dubbed “The Minnesota Miracle”) for years to come. The Saints players will be sad for weeks, even months on end, then realize it was a hell of an experience.
What interests me, though, are Saints fans. They didn’t share the on-the-ground, out-of-body experience. They shared only in the defeat. But a video made the rounds this morning, of Saints fans lining up at 1:30am to greet the heartbroken team after their almost victory. They created posters, held balloon banners and screamed so loudly you’d have thought it was a victorious team they were thanking for the ride. But it wasn’t. It was a losing team, who desperately needed a morale boost. And Saints fans rose to the occasion.
Here’s hoping we mourn the loss of the greats today while remembering that hope springs eternal.
We belong to each other. Let’s take care of each other.
You’ve heard me say this before (so much that you're probably exhausted of it), but for the purposes of this blog post, it’s worth repeating: I quit my job in July of 2016. I quit it for more reasons than I can enumerate here, but mostly because it was leading me farther and farther away from who I wanted to be as a person. I quit even though I was scared about what came next, and had a lot of money and time invested.
I have never once regretted this decision.
Less than 90 days later, I got married to my husband. Our relationship is the opposite of my old career: in it, I have never felt MORE like myself. But this goes beyond me feeling loved for who I am; I also feel free to become who I want to become. This, in turn, makes me feel whole — fully ‘at home’. The inevitable bad days feel like opportunities for us to learn and grow.
I’m so, so proud of us.
Then suddenly, in October of 2016, all went quiet. There was no toxic job to occupy my time. There was no wedding to plan. There was, however, a husband who’d recently pursued his own dreams, who wanted me to spend the next few years (kid-free) setting up my next 30. There was space to do ANYTHING I WANTED. But having the freedom to pursue my dreams didn’t mean I had direction. I was lost. What did I want my legacy to be? Devoted wife and co-head of our family, yes. Those are easy. Beyond that, though, I knew next to nothing.
What WAS my life’s purpose? Did I even have a ‘calling’?
I started asking myself these questions in earnest in the spring of 2013, but for three years, life intervened. In the fall of 2016, I began rereading the old books I’d bought on the subject, and buying new ones that I thought might inspire. I started paying attention to what I paid attention to, noticing what doors opened and identifying what about me other people gravitated to. I hung up post-it notes in the office of all the things I felt drawn to. I stared at them for weeks on end. After reading them so many times that I could recite them — coffee, a better world, food, peace, women, travel, love and stories — I figured it out while drinking coffee with my husband one morning: my life’s purpose is to be a matriarch, a refuge for other women.
It took another few months to realize I’d already been filling this role. Since I left my job, I’ve spent hundreds of hours counseling female friends — offering love, support, assistance. These women have gotten unglamorous DUIs, and finally decided to deal with the issues that led them there; been fired from jobs they hated but needed to provide for young children; had mini-breakdowns in other countries due to illnesses and infections; been beaten and almost killed by deadbeat husbands; reached a breaking point, because they’re 26 years old and responsible for the care of a dying father who never really fit that description; needed help with scholarship applications; had to confront cheating husbands; lost themselves while taking care of 4 small children; lost beloved parents; felt a lack of enthusiasm towards their ministries; and the list goes on and on.
I started to imagine myself The Wise Old Woman in a Disney movie: not the perfect looking princess, but the honest and empathic guide who helps said princess on her journey, who’s willing to help really anybody who makes the trek up to the snow-covered cottage at the top of the hill. I don’t offer advice unsolicited, in other words, and I’m not sure I help all the time. Sometimes I’m sure I learn more than they do. But I always try — sharing both my experiences and those of other women with this self-selected tribe. I make cups of tea, loan books, send little gifts, regularly check in.
It is the holiest work I’ve ever done.
Yet the calling isn’t just to be a matriarch; it’s to be a matriarch AND storyteller. These two things go hand-in-hand. Storytelling is an art, and one I’ve far from mastered, but I’ve devoted myself to the pursuit of getting better because this is the way to expand the tribe, make a bigger impact. Supporting women one-on-one is fulfilling, but not a full-time job. Some days I take 4 phone calls; some times I don’t get a call for a week. So, I started this blog, to share the occasional lesson learned or thought process. I share poetry and snippets of encouragement on Instagram, and I engage with the world about much less consequential things via Twitter. I’m working hard on my first book.
But my labor of love has been and will continue to be the Compelling Women podcast. The idea for it came to me on our honeymoon, and I ran it by the Hubs. He loved it. (It’s so simple!) This led to me spending a full 90 days obsessing over the name. Then I commissioned a logo, and lined up interviewees. I secured theme music. I sat down with those women, and listened to them tell their stories. I hired an editor / producer, who is himself a teller of stories. I invested money from my few gigs doing resume writing and event planning, which got this off the ground financially. I reached out regularly to the women, to introduce them to each other and explain that delays are the result of physical limitations, not a lack of passion.
On Friday, I sent my producer the first interview and the accompanying narration. I sent requested format and edits, too. We’ll tweak from there. The hope is that it will be published on February 1st. My publishing timeline has shifted (it’s starting three months later than planned, and episodes won’t be released every two weeks, but once a month), though this was arbitrary to begin with. A wiser me would’ve given myself more time and less pressure at the outset, but I’m a work in progress. What matters is that soon anyone will be able to hear the stories of these ordinary yet extraordinary women. I don’t imagine the podcast will garner a big audience, but that’s okay: I never intended to be famous. I intended to reach a few more women.
It’s important to note that the thing I’ve felt most ashamed of in my life — my authenticity — has led me to this place, and it’s a central requirement for fulfilling my life’s purpose. That’s because women don’t and won’t seek comfort or assistance from someone who isn’t authentic. In order to support them, I have to have their best interests in mind. They have to know I'm genuine.
I’m doing what I’m meant to do. Finally. I think that’s cause for celebration.
Here’s hoping you enjoy listening to these stories as much as I did. It’s been the most humbling and rewarding experience of my life.