Last year my left ankle swelled up for no reason. I could still play sports, but something just felt wrong.
When the swelling didn’t go away for months, I saw a podiatrist, Dr. Phuc, who recommended an MRI.
A few days later Dr. Phuc sat me down. I held my breath.
“You have a loose body in your ankle joint cartilage. And your cartilage is worn down.” He pointed at the MRI image with his pen. “I suggest you undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove the loose body and smoothen your cartilage so you have less pain.”
“Can I strengthen it? Take supplements?”
“No,” Dr. Phuc turned towards me as he jotted notes in my file, “cartilage can’t be rebuilt.”
Damn. This was going to cost me thousands of dollars.
“Okay, well after surgery, I can play basketball, right?”
“I recommend that you stop playing basketball. It’s too much pounding on the joint.”
“What about tennis?”
“You can play tennis with your kids, hit the ball around…”
Competitive tennis players call this “giggles tennis,” when you play with others below your level just to break a sweat. I hate “giggles tennis.”
“If you play competitively it will affect your movement when you’re older, cause you don’t have much cartilage left.”
“How soon should I do the surgery?”
“You’ll know when,” Dr. Phuc said. I imagine he had honed this reply from decades of breaking bad news to those in denial.
I had planned to play basketball through my 40s, transition to singles tennis in my 50s, and then doubles tennis in my 60s. I would be the crafty old guy at the tennis club, or perhaps an “under 65” doubles champ.
And now Dr. Phuc, who resembled Ho Chi Minh with his long peppered goatee, was saying I can’t play sports anymore?
I was stunned. It was as if Dr. Phuc had, in just a few minutes, robbed me of my most precious belonging.
This can’t be true.
I motorbiked straight to a nearby Mexican restaurant to comfort myself, and stuffed my face with chips and too many chorizo tacos. A garish Dia de Los Muertos skull watched me as I gulped my overpriced Corona beer, stunned, hands on my face, searching for answers, workarounds, holes in the doctor’s logic. There had to be another way. The best I could do was to get another expert opinion – or five – until I heard the truth: my ankle would be fine.
The Mexican food failed. If anything I felt more depressed, and now, bloated. Even the waiter sorrowfully poured me a free tequila shot.
A month later I visited a specialist at Bangkok’s internationally renowned Burumgrad Hospital. The diagnosis was even worse: the podiatrist recommended four different surgeries, not only repairing my cartilage, but removing two bone spurs and fixing a torn ligament too. Devastatingly, he said tennis was out of the question.
I know there are many people who have it much worse than me, who are disabled or maimed, who need fake legs or arm-powered pulleys with wheels to move. I see them every day in Vietnam.
But this is my deepest identity. I’M AN ATHLETE. From gymnastics to tennis to basketball, sports anchored my week, and helped me escape my busy mind and the real world. Sports won me approval from parents, peers and society. My most meaningful friendships were forged on the courts.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it felt like dying. Like a big part of me was dying.
I’m still searching for a replacement. Salsa brings me joy but it’s just not the same as engaging in intense competition. Qigong calms and centers, but is sooo slow. And I can only do so many pull-ups.
I haven’t swung a tennis racket or sprinted for a layup for over six months. It’s an alien, surreal world. Last time I was here was 35 years ago.
I’m still groping through this in-between space, finding mentors and allies (real or imagined), and grappling with demons (real or imagined). Just keep going, I tell myself.
I wish it was a quick transformation, like Clark Kent emerging from a phone booth as Superman. But it feels more like running on a treadmill to nowhere.
- Starting the ASE Podcast
- Interviewing dozens of people about their perfect day
- Taking Masterclass after Masterclass from writers, comedians, film directors, video game designers, chefs, to see what sparks me…
Then six months into this transition period, as I was preparing this week’s episode, it slapped me in the face.
3. The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist, writer and professor, who studied comparative mythology and comparative religion. Campbell’s best-known work is his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), in which he theorizes that mythological narratives frequently share a fundamental structure:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
– Joseph Campbell
The hero’s journey can be summarized into three stages: separation, initiation and return.
- Separation: where the hero receives a call to adventure and departs the ordinary world. With the help of a guide he crosses a threshold, leading to a supernatural world where familiar laws and order do not apply.
- Initiation: where the hero embarks on a road of trials, assisted by allies, and encounters the greatest challenge of the journey. Upon rising to the challenge, the hero receives a reward, or boon.
- Return: where the hero decides to return to the ordinary world, facing more trials on the road back, and then bestows the boon to his fellow man.
My realization? For the past six months I’d been stuck in the initiation stage.
4. The Opportunity
Isn’t this this initiation stage, this “in-between,” what we all face when becoming something new: a dancer, a writer, a founder?
This transformation is at the heart of the hero’s journey.
Our hero’s journey necessitates entering the unknown, enduring trials, and slaying our (metaphorical) dragons.
Act II is messy, turbulent and filled with tension. It’s an ordeal.
The world’s myths teach us that there is no life without death. Some part of us will have to die to be reborn.
Only then can we realize a power we never had, and see ourselves in a new light.
Maybe my death as an athlete is an OPPORTUNITY to assume a new identity: as a host, writer, something else?
Looking back I realized:
- As a kid I was the top gymnast in Southern California, but I spent all my free time dancing to Michael Jackson
- In college I was a co-captain of the tennis team, but I secretly wanted to join the improv troup
- In my 30s, basketball was my favorite hobby, but even then I sought out other outlets like salsa and podcasting
Now that “athlete” is removed, what am I free to be? What small plant has always been there, waiting to grow, in the shade of the “athlete” tree?
Maybe ATHLETE was not my true identity, but simply the one I chose.
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
5. Holding On, Letting Go
I find myself holding onto my past life, longing for sports. During this time of Covid-19 social distancing, I’ve been walking at a nearby park. I’m inevitably drawn to an open space, roughly the size of a tennis court. One afternoon I even found myself crouching to return a serve, instinctively. I miss tennis so much. Even bouncing on my toes (as if waiting for a serve) gives me a sense of comfort. It had been, after all, a 30 year ritual.
Other times I let go of my life as an athlete. I admit that I’ve always had artistic impulses that I never acted upon. This artist was the true me too, but it just never got a chance.
Well now that the athlete in me is dying, the artist in me can emerge.
I give this artist-self freedom to play and screw up, but also deadlines to force output (I never learn anything until I ship it, complete it, or perform it).
And this artist-self has gotten a few votes of confidence. I’m touched every time someone tells me how much a blog post or podcast episode has helped them. I’m starting to realize, that maybe, just maybe, I can do this.
And this is what thousands of myths have taught us: what we’re seeking, ultimately, is a change in perspective. This is our way out of the Abyss, the treasure we seek to bring home.
But it’s a long, emotional process of holding on and letting go.
6. The Dragon
This transformation is likely the biggest obstacle to designing our optimal work-lives.
We’re stuck in past identities that others gave us or that we gave ourselves.
We’re stuck because even though we know we’re something else or we have to become something else, taking action is too scary.
But there is no life without death. Our old identities have to make way for new ones.
The good? The sooner we see ourselves as something new, the faster we become it. Identity is the most powerful lever to change behavior. As an athlete, I could never imagine being overweight, or going a few days without exercise. That’s not what athletes do.
The bad? It feels like death, letting go of what brought us praise, joy, and comfort. Even our negative identities, the ones that don’t serve us, are familiar so we hold onto them.
The ugly? It takes a while to move from old to new. It’s a giant zig zagging circle to nowhere, that bizarre chrysalis period of amorphous goo.
7: Accelerating Your Hero’s Journey
We know how the hero’s journey ends. How can we can use this knowledge to get through this “in-between” stage?
This is how I’m transforming to a host, writer, or whatever else is at the end of the tunnel (the fun part is I don’t know).
ACT your way into a new way of thinking and being
Make the transition easier by making it fun. Play like an actor. The first thing Natalie Portman does to prepare for a role is imagine how her character would move and enter a room. What’s the character’s physicality? How would she talk to herself? Talk to others?
This play acting can radically change your perspective of what’s possible. This is the essence of “fake it till you make it.”
Your imagination will leave clues. If you were a best-selling author, what would your work day look like? What would you receive in the mail? What would be your tools?
Channel powers greater than yourself. Like how the Yoruba people of Western Africa summon the King God, the Wisdom God, the War God, the Mother God, and the Healing God while dancing. Imagine putting on the armor of Chango, and channeling the thunderous King energy, or holding the horsetail of Obatala, and channeling the prodding creator energy.
Channel your ancestors and historical heroes to give you strength. Before entering a challenging situation, Oprah recites Maya Angelou’s line, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.”
Let your heroes guide you. The fastest way to transform is to spend time with people doing what you want to do (we’ll get there soon). But often times, we’re too shy to reach out, or we don’t know anyone. Take your heroes with you then, in your devices, and consume them so much that you can assume them.
Here are some of my heroes:
- Charles Eisenstein & Seth Godin, for their ability to see, give words to what I knew but could not express, and courage to demand better
- Fareed Zakaria, for his weekly Washington Post column, and weekly show on international affairs
- Ricardo Semler & Derek Sivers, for living out their radical philosophies in life and business
Who are your heroes and why do you admire them?
If you put on their uniform, what would you be doing?
Allow yourself a transition period between holding on and letting go
You are going through the hero’s journey, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and Neo in The Matrix, entering unknown universes, facing Darth Fucking Vader and one million Agent Smiths. This is not going to be easy. So set your expectations.
“We like to think that we can leap directly from a desire for change to a single decision that will complete our ‘reinvention’. As a result, we remain naïve about the long, essential testing period where our actions transform fuzzy, undefined possibilities into concrete choices we can evaluate.”
– Herminia Ibarra
Despite what gurus and influencers peddle, don’t expect instant perfection. In fact, seek the opposite.
Julia Cameron, author of 40 books including The Artists Way, advises, “If you didn’t have to do it perfectly, what would you do?”
Her students always want their initial creativity to measure up to the work of masters, to which she replies: “If you watch the early films of George Lucas, you think, oh George, why not try accounting?”
I would also add: don’t expect the same high of your past identities. That’s like trying to find a girlfriend to be exactly like your ex-girlfriend – impossible. Try to keep an open mind of not only what you like, but who you are.
There are infinite you’s so focus on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about. Reflecting on who we are is less important than probing whether we really want what we think we want.
For example, if you’re not willing to spend one hour a day writing, that’s instant feedback. Choose again.
Similarly, if you’re not thrilled to spend one week bringing a business idea to life, entrepreneurship is probably not for you.
Kishotenketsu is a four act story structure that has been used by Japanese and Chinese writers for centuries. What makes this story structure interesting is that it relies on a shift in perspective – not conflict – to generate interest.
Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The first and second acts establish and develop the setting and characters. In the third act, a new, often surprising element is introduced. The fourth act contrasts the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole. Japanese manga and video games like Super Mario have popularized this story structure.
An example would be:
- Ki (introduction): Man is fishing in a river.
- Shō (development): Man sees a boat fast approaching, yells at driver to stop
- Ten (twist): The boat is empty
- Ketsu (conclusion): Man shrugs, keeps fishing
The point? Even in this ancient Eastern story arc, we need to get to the Ten (twist), the change of perspective.
That’s why we see wisdom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s quote, “Not all who wander are lost,” why travel is so life-changing, and why we joke about but understand the truth of “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Phil Knight spent a year traveling the world and stumbled across Onitsuka running shoes in Japan, which inspired him to become a distributor and later start Nike. During a trip to Argentina, Blake Mycoskie fell in love with local handcrafted shoes, which he later turned into TOMS.
We have to meander and bump into the unfamiliar to get to that surprising and seemingly unrelated perspective that changes our whole story.
This takes time.
Find a new space
In high school I joined the “smart kids” group at lunch, abandoning my friends from junior high. Yes, they gave me shit. And in some ways, I felt like a traitor. This is the conflict of every teen movie. Since we’re not in high school anymore, here’s the insight: sometimes we have to ditch familiar circles for other circles that hold us in new space.
This could be a new place where you can start over. It could be with other artists and practitioners, or with a mentor or friend who believes this identity has always been your destiny. Lean on them!
Do you think all NBA players thought they were destined for superstardom from Day 1? Or was a mom or a coach, who kept believing, demanding and sacrificing to put food on the table, the “real MVP?” American Idol is so powerful because the show holds the space for dish washers to see themselves as rock stars. Ironically, it’s others – not yourself – that often help you see the inner power you didn’t know you possessed.
This is counterintuitive, but speaks to the importance of environment in crafting a new identity. Few of us are like Kanye West, thinking we are God’s gift to the world, as the world mocks us. So we must rig the game to get to that inflection point – where others see us in our new identity – faster.
“We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.”
– Abraham Maslow
So how can you rig the game? Here are some examples:
- My American friend Stephen is fluent in Chinese and Vietnamese. His secret to learning a language faster? Working on pronunciation so you shorten the time to get positive reinforcement from locals i.e. “Your Vietnamese is so gooood!” In many ways learning a language is like becoming a new person. Others seeing you as native – one of them – reinforces your desire to study and get even better.
- Make it bigger than you. Heroes often enter the abyss not for themselves but for their family, friends, and country. After being knocked out, Rocky sees Adrienne, his wife, giving him strength to get up off the mat. Channel that same power. Boo Junfeng labored on his last film (about a Singaporean executioner) for 6 years because “the ideas were too important.” Ho Thai Binh started his social enterprises because “people are dying and life is too short.” Any parent drawing on superhuman reserves to raise kids can understand this feeling.
- How can we get over our need for safety? Yes, it feels safe to keep doing what you’re doing, but ask yourself is this what you want most? If not, know that the in-between stage necessitates stumbling. So make failure fun and expected, like video games. Aerosmith would hold weekly “Dare to Suck” meetings where band members would bring their craziest ideas (that were probably terrible) to jam sessions. Most of them did suck, but one out of ten became massive hits like “Dude Looks like a Lady.”
- Do things “because you cannot not do them.” Sometimes an unknown force pulls you through the pain necessary to master a skill. Salsa was that activity for me. I didn’t care if girls turned me down as a beginner, I just had to dance! My Chinese friend Reno would spend 6 hours a day editing dialogue from the TV show Boston Legal and listen to recordings before bed because he loved the show. This was how he mastered English while attending university in China. What is so delightful that you don’t even think about its stressful, difficult aspects?
Changing identity is the most difficult, yet powerful way to evolve. It feels like death. From the hero’s journey, we know it IS death. But at the end of the tunnel new life awaits.
We can borrow comfort from the hero’s journey. We are expected to get lost, struggle, and encounter our deepest fears. It’s a messy and tension-filled Act 2. Every hero has to face trials until she emerges with a new perspective of herself and the world. There will be magical mentors to guide us and allies who rescue us at the last moment. Why not lean on them too? A transition period of holding on and letting go is completely natural. Be patient and forgiving with yourself. More importantly be open to new ways of connecting and engaging people, and unfamiliar ways of getting things done.
We can also rig the game so this in-between space isn’t as frightening. Find your mentors and heroes (real or imagined) and a tribe that holds space for your new way of being. Make your journey bigger than you – who needs you to transform right now? Do things you cannot not do. And if you’re going to fail anyways, why not make it fun?
I can’t wait to see what I become. What about you?