Getting real: a journey of hard-core soul searching
This week I turned 32. In a way, this has been a birthday like any other, this time marking also the second anniversary since my resignation from pro sports. And perhaps because of this, I have felt the need to get a bit real with you all and share some of the stuff that’s has been going on inside my head for a while.
For the past year or so, I have been doing some hard-core soul searching into who I am and what I really want to do with my life. I don’t want to get caught up in a spiral of ‘forever questioning everything,’ but I think it’s important to take stock of what I’ve accomplished thus far and consider my options.
Doing this has made me realize the way my head works and the way I want my life to unfold from now on.
Gone with the wind...
When I look back, I realize that the first two decades of my life took place almost automatically: I went to school, I went to extra-curricular activities, I did the things every German schoolboy does. Things just happened of their own and they happened to me.
Then came the first years of my career in sports; my year in the U.S, my first races there, competitions in Europe… I have already talked about it before. It all happened so fast, I have the feeling this was such a long time ago. I wouldn’t say that things happened effortlessly, because I worked really hard to get them, but they happened in such a straightforward way that I didn’t much think about the path itself. In fact, there were a few years in between where I was not satisfied with running, but success kept me going.
At the time, I had this idea about people. I believed that each of us had ‘one great talent’ and that, once you found it, you had to be grateful for it and work your ass off. This idea kept me going for a long time doing the thing I was apparently good at, striving to achieve the goals that were ahead of me, and letting the path unfold this way on and on, without much second guessing. In a way, this was a good thing, because my best years in pro sports were indeed yet to come.
As you think, so you become
Being for so long a pro sports athlete did, however, really shape my personality. I am a different person today because of the years I spent in the running world; because of my exchanges with sponsors, doctors, physios, managers, teammates, coaches; because of the multiple travels and weeks abroad in competitions and training camps far away from home; because of missing out, as well, on all the other normal stuff happening to other students in their twenties. Because, from very early on, I lived my life as if I were part of a peculiar microcosm, a very specialized enterprise: that of professional sports.
The values I learnt along the way have stuck with me to this day. To my career in pro sports I owe all my ambition, commitment, motivation, and drive, and all my planning and decision-making skills. The urge to always strive for more, to succeed and overcome my limitations, and make those I love be proud are also a part of it all. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that this has also had its drawbacks.
You are not a label
As a young man, I was under a great deal of pressure: the pressure to live up to my, and other people’s, expectations. This pressure was not explicit, but it was surely there. It is sometimes so easy to identify with the labels you (and others) pin down on yourself that, sometimes, you don’t even have to think about the label itself. You are simply it.
For me, this meant that I got really used to (and also a bit trapped by) the idea of myself first as ‘the successful athlete,’ and then, later, as ‘the Olympian.’ This was me. Being young and in the midst of it, I got hooked to the status that came with embodying both of these labels. So much so that, had I taken a minute to detach myself from these words at the time, I might have already been struck by the fear that later would come once my sports career was over and I became no longer ‘Jonas the pro athlete.’
So the things I worked for at the time, the objectives I achieved, were, in a way, just the logical outcome of the sort of pre-established path I was on.
I had such high expectations of myself, I felt as if those around me even shared the feeling. I couldn’t let them down. I had been trained for years to ‘innately’ think this way; to plan ahead and overlook the effort and hesitation, and focus on getting on to the next step on the way. On being the best. On achieving success. So, after the Olympics, once I was done with my Masters and could see that my years in pro sports were counted, I again sort of impulsively decided that the logical step was to take this experience and use it to develop a business career in sports. I didn’t look into my heart to see if this path ‘felt right’ or if ‘that was I.’
I founded a company with one of my buddies and tried to get a foot in the door into the world of sports politics and anti-doping. The motto stayed the same: try your hardest, achieve success. But this time with a nuance: try to do good as well.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going
Anti-doping gave me that good feeling; the illusion of being striving for something I really believed in and that was larger than myself. Then came the disillusionment, of course; the realization that, no matter how hard I tried to succeed, sports politics and anti-doping were too big a monster for me to beat or even to change a bit. The disappointment was so great, that I had to take a minute to reassess. And somehow yoga became the perfect counterweight right then.
I had been practicing yoga sporadically since 2012, and my feelings for it can only be described as love. I know it’s cheesy, but you get my point. In yoga I found an all-rounder. All of a sudden, at the age of 30, the curious multi-tasker, overachiever that I was, found this practice that combined all of the aspects and things I really believed in: from nutrition to anatomy, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, passing through ethics, sustainability, and world-friendliness, yoga came strong into my life at this juncture, this time to stay. And I must confess I will be forever thankful for it.
Finding myself, again
Sometimes, all you need is time to make things fall into place. I guess that a big part of growing up and growing old has to do with getting real with yourself; with being brave enough to ask the questions (and, if you’re lucky, find the answers) you know you have inside yourself. Yoga has helped me do this a bit faster and deeper than I would have otherwise.
At a time when most of my best friends were settling down, getting promotions in steady jobs, and pretty much having the life that one thinks you are supposed to have when you’re thirty, I started asking all of these existentialist and somewhat uncomfortable questions: What do I really want? What is a life worth striving for like? Am I doing what I’m supposed to do with my life right now? Is this really who I am?
My inner battle was one between what I thought I wanted and what I really wanted. Seeing almost everybody around me choose the -in my view- ‘safer route,’ many questions troubled me: Did I have what was necessary to run my own business, or was working for someone else the most ‘reasonable’ (and safer) thing to do? Should I opt for ‘self-employment’ then; or, is it better (and faster) if I just pursue a corporate career? Will that fulfil me? I’m sure I can do it, I have been trained to. But will I enjoy it? Can I be happy just following what seems to be the logical way, once again, or is that just not who I am? And most important of all, will doing so allow me to flourish? What do I REALLY, REALLY want?
Creating a tiny empire
After much consideration, I know that what I want is to make something great from scratch; something for me and others who share the same values and that can be built together. I want to contribute to something that means something to someone, something that is good, and whole, and full of ideas, and projects, and hope. I picture it as a tiny empire: a little oasis of creativity and exchange combining different fields, with both yoga and running as the backdrop. It may sound a bit idealistic, but being really honest, this is what I really want.
How to get there, though, is still in the making. You can only realize so much at a time! But again, time has way to make things slowly fall into place so, perhaps, all I need to do is to wait and keep doing what I like. Will I do it on my own? Will it happen tomorrow? Most likely not. But one thing is for sure: working on myself comes first. I can no longer go about life as if I were just a passenger of the things that happen to me. I choose the way now.
I really believe that, if you put in the work and come to terms with you who really are –find yourself as they say, and with it, your path– then, everything else follows. So, I’ll stay curious, and honest, and real, and open, and mingle as much as possible with interesting others, and try to become the energy I share until I am unstoppable.
As you think, so you become!