Last year, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps announced he was done competing. Having set the all-time record for most medals won in a single Olympics, it wasn't a bad place to end.
As I watched him own the games, I thought, “Man, this guy can do whatever he wants…”
And that's just what he's doing.
For starters, he said he'll travel the world. After that, who knows?
There's something to be said about controlling your own destiny, about declaring, “Just because I'm good at this doesn't mean I have to do it forever.”
When I first heard the news of this world-class athlete's early retirement, I thought it was interesting. It takes guts to end with a bang and not let your career consume the rest of your life.
So many professionals let their work dictate what they can and can't do. It's sad, really. But the mark of a true champion is being able to quit when you want, to master the game and move on — and not letting the game master you.
What can we learn from this?
If you want to conquer the world and be a champ like Phelps, here's what you have to do:
- Start. Don't overlook this step in the process of becoming a champion. For most of us, it's the scariest part.
- Turn pro. Phelps admitted to a journalist that for years, he played around, not taking swimming seriously. It wasn't until he got really disciplined about his diet and schedule that he started to see results. As our friend Steven Pressfield says, you have to first turn pro in your head.
- Work harder than anyone else. For years, all Phelps did was eat, sleep, and swim. (Sidenote: there is a small perk to this; the dude could eat whatever he wanted — calories just melted at his glance.) No wonder he's moving on; he wants his life back.
- Have a cheerleader. For Michael, this was his mom. For me, it's my wife. You need someone who is on your side when the world turns against you. Without a fan-for-life in your corner, you're much more likely to quit.
- Don't settle for anything less than your best. I don't know what drove Phelps, but something did. He was determined to do something nobody else ever accomplished. And now that he's done just that, he can do whatever he wants.
- Work with a team. It was inspiring to see Phelps encourage his teammates and even though they were competitors, to spur them on. He knew that the only person he was really competing with was himself.
- Begin with the end in mind. Most of us begin our pursuits with no real finish line in sight. Part of this is good, because it means the work itself is the arrival. But for Phelps, he knew he wouldn't be an Olympian for the rest of his life (although, I'm sure he'll continue to swim until his limbs stop working). He had a particular milestone in mind and knew when it was time to finish.
That's what it takes to be a champ, a true Olympian.
But he's not done swimming…
He'll continue to swim, of course — just for different reasons.
It's admirable what Phelps is doing, moving on without disavowing his passion. Which raises an important point: He's not turning his back on swimming. He's just done competing (for now) and wants to make space for other things he cares about.
In your life's work, there will be times when you have to ask, “Is this all I hoped for? Or did I want more from life?” As for Phelps, he decided there was and made a bold move to pursue it.
Some day, you may have to do the same. Then again, you could just skip all of the above and keep doing what you do because you love it. And we certainly couldn't fault you for that.
What's your definition of being a champ? Do you think it's okay to “quit while you're ahead”? Share in the comments.