What I Lost When I Left The Comfort of Tufts University Swimming & Diving, And How I Learned To Get It Back
My perfectionist tendencies often compel me to ensure I’ve picked the absolute best option before officially choosing. I could spend hours in a book store combing through the shelves and reading the synopses on each book, slowly adding and removing novels from my arms before I pick the most interesting, witty, well written, highly praised novel of the bunch. At age 18, this was the same way I thought friend making worked: you meticulously scanned the pool of options, giving adequate time to evaluate each possibility, and after cross-referencing all of your subjects, you pick the top tier to be in your posy. The process meshed with my calculated mindset, and at a small school for the prior 13 years, the approach was actually feasible.
Cue to freshman year at Tufts, and I all of a sudden found myself having to pick from over a pool of 5,000 specimens rather than just a few hundred. My heart was racing, my emotions amuck, and my friendship algorithm was far beyond its computing capacity. How was I possibly going to comb through this crowd with adequate detail to pick those that would truly suffice as friends? Now, cue Tufts Swimming and Diving (TUSD), a group of 80 student athletes, all with whom I would spend immense amounts of time over the next one to four years and who would prove to be the perfect population for my algorithm to attack.
For my first few weeks on campus, the team served to break down what felt like a stampede of students into a digestible quantity. I found myself making close and genuine relationships without necessarily having to survey each team member as closely as I had in the past. And so TUSD worked its first piece of magic on me: bringing me close, like minded friends that seemed to shatter the way that I had previously approached meeting people.
Flashing through the rest of my undergraduate career, my team filled every role in my life that I never knew I needed, appearing when I was low and pushing me forward when I was high. They reeled me back in when I needed to check myself, but also knew when to let me venture and explore newness for myself. This is the part that most athletes know and don’t need explained to them. It’s the most special part of being on a collegiate athletic team, and these feelings of love and appreciation are just as fresh now as they were as a student.
Cue current day: I now work for an enormous health care corporation, one with over 130,000 employees and a network spanning every country you could imagine. For an undergrad who felt little to no direction in their future career, a large corporation made sense: security, stability, and money. It felt great to drop a company name in conversation that everyone knew, and I felt validated in my decision… until I started the job.
I’ll paint my picture quickly and then bring it back to why it matters for you athletes, I promise. Essentially, I am a project manager, working on several different projects in the pharmaceutical business space, making sure our drugs are making the money they should in their respective global markets. It’s a high demand job that requires attention to detail, effective communication, and fast learning. Theoretically, it’s the ideal job for me. But my role is Remote™- my new least favorite corporate word. That means that while across my four teams I lead over 30 people, I work with not a single one in person. All of my communication is done over e-mail, all my conversations had over Skype, and all my time at the office spent in a gray cubicle. I could do my job just as effectively from a dumpster as I could from as desk, so long as said dumpster had Wi-Fi and good video lighting. I spent the better part of the first six months in this role regretting my decision and looking for ways out. I was dissatisfied in so many ways, and instead of trying to pinpoint the root of my frustrations, I wallowed, complained, and committed my days to cynical talk and passive jabs at my program. This was so unlike me, and just as I didn’t know what to do with this new job, I didn’t know what to do with this new version of myself, with whom I was completely unfamiliar.
But soon I broke out of my pity party and began to unpack all of the negative emotions I had been discarding around me since graduation. I wanted to figure out why I had been feeling like this, where my discontent was coming from, why I hadn’t felt grounded in so long.
My Personality: I’m an extravert, I gain energy and motivation from people around me. This is perhaps the most prominent quality that people notice when they meet me, and it’s a quality I have known about myself for quite some time. So it would make sense that I wouldn’t feel fulfilled from my work, even if it theoretically matched what I wanted to do, because I wasn’t interacting with anyone on a daily basis, I wasn’t engaging in innovative conversation, I wasn’t sharing relationships with the people I managed, and I certainly wasn’t having and friendly banter with the other remote workers around me. I had compromised on a core pillar of my personality without knowing it, and my frustration with work stemmed from a lack of interpersonal stimulation.
My Routine: I have had a pretty strict daily routine since I was four, and I grew into the person that I am today working my life into a rhythmic series of patterns and finding comfort in my expected activities. For the first time in my life, genuinely, I had no routine. I had no reason to be up at any certain hour for work unless I had an early meeting. I had no reason not to nap for two hours after coming home from my lack-luster job. There was no one holding me accountable for my physical, mental, and emotional fitness, and it began to show. I had compromised my daily structure simply because I could; I didn’t organize myself around any activities other than the job I resented, and I began to lose track of my own person health in the absence of regiment and accountability.
My Honesty: I feel confident in saying that I know myself better than anyone else on this planet. I know what I like, what I don’t, what makes me happy, what pisses me off, and the list continues. I know what I need to feel good and I know what I need to cut out when things become too much. But for the first time, I was going through so many new things alone. I didn’t have my family, my friends, or my team beside me to pressure check my thoughts against. I didn’t have constant sounding boards or positive affirmation. I found myself getting lost in the “newness” of being alone and compromising on the honesty that I’ve always practiced with myself. My own voice and needs were dwindling in the absence of a familiar setting.
Back to you - how do all of my personal stories and epiphanies relate to you? Well, they probably don’t, because they’re mine. The self-pity of each monotone meeting and evening on the coach was experienced by only me. BUT, I don’t doubt that many of you might feel something similar to what I’ve expressed. Over the past few months, I failed to realize how important feeling grounded is to me. I underestimated just how important having a “team” is in my life, no matter what form it takes. I might not need a 6:45 am lift, but I certainly need a community that chunks up the madness of a new state and a 130,000-employee company. I need steady people in my life that I can turn to when I need support. I need activities to bring peace to my mind and body when my personal balance is off-kilter. But no one could have told me this. I had to come to these realizations on my own because each lesson is specific to my new life. I have NO doubts that this is where our stories might have overlap.
I encourage those of you who have not yet left the comfort of a team to dig deep and find the things in your athletic career that have brought you joy. Take them with you and work them into your days, no matter what they look like.
Never doubt how well you know yourself. You spend every second of every day with you, and there’s no one else on this planet that can say the same. Ask yourself tough questions and answer them honestly. Through these conversations, you come to understand where you can reestablish balance in your life if you go astray.
Be patient and give yourself time to mess up. There’s no possible way to realize you need a change in your life, to realize something is missing, to come to terms with a new reality without having to look for it. You need to make a wrong turn before you can know you’re off the path.
Ground yourself in familiar things, even if they take new forms (I know, that reads like a paradox). We all have had regiment in our lives, so don’t now overcompensate by abandoning any and all structure upon graduation. Volunteer, coach, pick up a new hobby, meditate regularly. Do something that you can count on at least a few times a week, and don’t compromise on its importance in your day, even when things get hectic.
Finally, if you’ve spent your life as an athlete (which all of you have), don’t think you don’t have to move your body anymore. Take time and space after it ends but get moving soon. You’ve spent all of your youth, developmental years, and young adulthood being active, and your body truly won’t know how to function without movement, from a physical, emotional, and mental standpoint.
Listen to yourself, be patient and honest, and create the aspects of a team in your life that might fall away when your sport becomes a thing of the past. Your experience as a student athlete will put you in an amazing place to be a team member and successful worker. Channel your experiences into your new lives and bring along what is most important. You’ll know when you’ve struck that balance because it will feel very similar to the times you’ve spent on a team.