I love sports. (And yes, it’s been a sad six months in my household with no sports and the postponement of the Olympics due to Covid.) Tennis, basketball, football… You name it, I’ll probably watch it. Part of what interests me, beyond just the scoreline and jaw-dropping highlights, is the “athletic career.” It seems like such an odd way to live; to plan your life around something so fleeting and something that can easily end at any moment. It makes me root for the individuals as much as the team because I know that time is ticking and I want them to achieve their dreams.
For most sports, an athlete’s career is finite, usually ended somewhere in their thirties. Some sports have shorter careers, other slightly longer, and injury can put you out before you’re ready. But no matter how you look at it, an athletic career has an expiration date. After that date, you’ve got to find something else to do in life, or prepare to retire on whatever money you’ve made. It’s that looming expiration date that makes such a career so precious.
It’s interesting to watch how different athletes handle this knowledge. Some ignore it, wasting talent and time through their early career until the lightbulb goes on and they start trying to maximize whatever time is left. Others work hard from the very beginning, determined to squeeze everything they can from a finite career. Others try to maximize their time, only to have it end prematurely through injury or other circumstances beyond their control. Some stick on long after they are past their peak (or they attempt a comeback after injury or retirement), either because they love it so much or because they’re chasing unfinished business like a gold medal or world championship.
However they manage it, every athlete knows that time is ticking and they’d better make the most of it before it’s too late. It’s this fleeting aspect to a career, the knowledge that time is short, that makes me want to write like a professional athlete. Writers are lucky in that our careers can generally last as long as we do. Barring something unfortunate like Alzheimer’s or another illness or injury that takes out our minds, we can keep going. Thanks to voice recognition technology, we can keep going even if our writing hands are damaged. There’s not much that can stop a writer from writing.
We’re not chasing a clock. That’s an advantage because it gives us lots of time to learn, try, make mistakes, fail, fail better, and ultimately find success. We can play the long game. We’re not done by thirty; done in by a body that refuses to work at the highest level. And that’s really comforting. But…
Maybe we should act like that clock is ticking. See, when you think you have a lot of time, you tend to squander it. It’s why you see young athletes sometimes squander the early part of their careers. They think they have all the time in the world, so there’s no need to work so hard today. They feel immortal (as we all do at twenty) and don’t realize just how fast time flies by. There’s always “later,” so they figure, “I might as well do some other things while I’m young!”
We writers, even if we’re old, aren’t much different. With no clock running, we can take today off and it’s okay. Tomorrow, too. There will be plenty of time later. Even if we know how fast time flies, the fact that we don’t have to achieve something today makes us complacent. Even lazy. But then we wake up one day to find that time has advanced, and we worry. How will I do the things I want before time runs out? Just how much time do I have left? Could I have done more with my career if only I hadn’t wasted that month, or year?
I think writers should write like athletes. Write like that clock is constantly ticking, because it is, even if you don’t feel it as acutely as a gymnast or a tennis player. Get up every day determined to maximize your talent and opportunities. Don’t slack off because “there’s time.” There might be, but there might not be. The fact is that the clock is ticking for all of us. Our careers might not be as short as an athlete’s, but life ends for everyone. Do you want to come to the end of your career, however long it might be, and say, “I could have been great if only…”
Don’t leave anything on the table in terms of your writing career. Maximize it. Find or create the opportunities that move you forward every day. Do the work every day. Just as an athlete trains every day, you have to do the writing every day. Write more, try harder, do more. Root for yourself. Approach your career as though you only have a year left, as if your last world championships is approaching. You’ll achieve so much more if you put in this kind of focused effort day after day, week after week.
And when the end does come, however it happens, you can say, “I left it all on the field, no regrets, and I’m a candidate for the hall of fame.”
(Image by Alexas_Fotos)