“I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had all counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every work, all of it.”
Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1976
I’m at the time in my life when my friends are beginning to consider their careers. They’re taking entry exams for grad school, applying to unpaid internships and scrambling to design the path that will lead them to their personal success. Theses, resumes, applications, interviews. Exams, contacts, signing bonuses, salaries. These are the tools they have accrued for their entry into the real world.
I hear all the time, both at school and on the trail, what will happen and where we will go when we enter this world, one whose reality is somehow more dignified and altogether permissible when held against what we’re doing now: studying, training, exploring.
When I tell people that I am a philosophy major, I regularly encounter a stalemate in conversation. “Oh,” they say, not sure whether to smile or grimace, “what are you going to do with that?” Similarly, when I talk about my skiing career, the focus of the dialogue always ends with the same turnaround: what am I going to do after? What do I want to do for my real job?
These words are not taken in offense, they are not designed to degrade what I do now, or to devalue what work I put into my pursuits by questioning their authenticity. They are meant to remind me that I can’t do this forever: that the real world is going to catch up to me someday, no matter how fast I can ski away from it.
And I recognize that. I am fully aware that the work that I do is not a typical 9-5 day job, it does not demand a punch card, or tax forms, or desks. That being said, it also does not include insurance benefits, vacation, weekends/mornings/evenings off, or, unfortunately, pay. Perhaps that’s what people mean, perhaps they recognize that living the way I do is unsustainable because it’s too hard, not too easy.
Either way, I’m still in the dark about how the way I’ve chosen to spend my twenties is in some way not real. How it doesn’t count. Everywhere in the US, including within the sport, I see skiing treated as a procrastination of sorts, as a hobby used to avoid the inevitable onset of all of those desks, benefits and tax forms.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not avoiding anything. All of the training, volunteering, organizing, writing, fundraising and racing, to me, is so undeniably active, so incredibly valuable, that I could never reduce it to a mere distraction from adulthood. Every step of it is filled with challenge and triumph, and, certainly, does not lack in toil.
The responsibility that came with taking on skiing full time surprised me at first. I had dropped out of school, joined a pro ski team and moved myself to a new place with little inhibition, all in, as they say, and was suddenly overcome with a resounding sense of insecurity, in the most literal form of the word. I no longer had my ‘out’ from skiing that was school and its slew of visible career paths. In a way, I had been using school to procrastinate my skiing, and I was overwhelmed by the reality of chasing my true dream.
Everyday, every training session, suddenly had a concrete impact on my future. Like a pre-med student treats a failed test as a major impediment to his career, every imperfect session turned into a negative mark on my transcript. Just out of my sophomore year of college, I found myself staring down the barrel of a year of independent fundraising, high-level training, constant traveling and little time or money to sort any of it out. Skiing was no longer solely about winding down between classes, or staying fit, or having fun. All of the details carried import. It felt incredibly real.
Over a year later, I am still skiing full time and have recommitted myself to being a student and treat neither like they are platforms between the actual and legitimate. I have taken down the drama from both, enjoying what highs I encounter but considering and understanding the lows (now, I try to treat those failed training sessions like missed questions on homework, not an F on the exam). I put effort into everything I do, keeping the perspective that what happens now matters. It will shape me. It will count.
A good friend of mine always told me that sport is a philosophically valid way to organize one’s life. At first, I thought that he meant your usual hour-a-day spiel (exercise give you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people just don’t kill their husbands, yada yada yada). Today, I think I understand what he meant. In addition to the healthy body, sport provides for me an outline for human interaction. It includes conflict, challenge, triumph and failure. It inspires communication, planning, independence and teamwork. Professional sport has the authenticity of humanity, with the rigor of society. It is a lot of work, but has a lot of payback, just like any other job.
Yes, the world formerly known as real will catch up to me. Until then, I will continue to find productivity in every day, to treat my choices with legitimacy, and respect what what my teammates and I do.
You know, keeping it real.