At some point in time, everyone encounters pivotal moments that shape their future. This occurs, of course, whether we know they’re occurring or not, yet they do. However, more rare are the circumstances that don’t just shift our future, they shift our identity. Who we are, how we’re perceived by others. These circumstances may be more rare or just simply more subtle.
One of the greatest, purest joys in my life has always been running. In first grade, I begged my teacher to let me go run on the track during recess, instead of playing. Smelling the rubber, feeling the wind in my hair and my blood pumping- that’s what fulfilled me, even at just 6 years old. That feeling never went away, and I got goosebumps every time I walked onto a track, until I turned 18.
At 18, I learned the lesson that loving something doesn’t mean you get to have it forever. In my last race of high school, my back broke. It quite literally snapped, like a gunshot going off, just yards away from the finish line of a relay. I’ll never forget that moment of laying on the track temporarily unable to use my legs, wondering for a split second if that was it. If those last, painful 400 yards were the last time my legs would move.
Fortunately, I was not paralyzed, but I very soon after went into surgery. So, instead of spending my last pre-college summer with my friends, I spent it teaching myself to walk; walking the quarter mile with my dad down the driveway coaching my every step, trying to surpass every measurable standard of healing set. And, teaching my legs to run again. After all, I’d accepted an offer to run track at the University of Tulsa, a D1 program.
My first day of practice was my first day to sprint since the day my spine broke. I poured my heart and soul into my sport; and there was nothing better that I could imagine than the days I got to leave my favorite classes, and go run.
But in the end, it didn’t matter how determined I was to compete-my body just couldn’t handle the ardent strain of a D1 program. After a year of trying to sprint with titanium in my spine, followed by hours in the training room trying to undo the damage to my body, I had to walk away from the sport I was so passionate about.
I’ll never forget one day as I walked by the track during practice. It was from a distance, and even though it wasn’t the first time I’d walked by, this time I stopped. This time, I realized that now I was on the outside of the gates. My teammates were all on the inside. I had no team; and for the first time since the first grade, I couldn’t experience that joy. I wasn’t “an athlete” any more.
I didn’t realize how much of my identity had been tied to “being an athlete” until that moment when I no longer had it. I distinctly thought to myself that I would never, ever let my passion blur the lines with my identity again. You see, being a college athlete meant that our sports were our jobs, leaving time for little else. When I suddenly had no team, it was the first time in my life I had to figure out who I was if I “wasn’t an athlete”. I had no idea.
Being an entrepreneur reminds me a lot of that experience; that moment. If my experiences have taught me anything, it’s this: no passion, nothing worth pursuing is void of conflict or tension. Your path will never be absent of trials along the way. But that shouldn’t steal from your joy. I’d go back and do it all over again in a heartbeat; even up to that moment of laying on the ground, unsure of if my legs would ever move again. But this time, I wouldn’t let what I love to do define who I am.
Love your passion, compete in it, enjoy every minute of trying to master it. But hang on to the balance of really having fun with it-not just consuming yourself with it. If you take a cold, hard look at your life and your occupation, and realize there’s really no separation between who you are and what you do, create space. This allows you the flexibility to deal with the other twists and turns that may pop up along the way. And after all, those are what make up the good stuff of life.