Okay, so here’s a little known fact about me. I used to be a competitive swimmer. Not exactly Mr Phelps et al., but I did spend 9 hours a week training in the water, I did smell of chlorine at all times, and I did participate in a few regional championships. My swimming career lasted from when I was 7 to when I was 14(*). That is 7 years which is comparable to the duration of my current career.

(*) I remember a few of my personal bests. 100m freestyle in 1:08.50 and 4200m in one hour flat if anyone wants to compare. I doubt I could do that today.

During my swimming career, I was not one of the stars. Teenage swimming is divided into years and I was born late in 1975. Basically, I was faster than all my team mates who were born in 1976 but as the youngest 75’er I was also the slowest 75’er. So how does that work? Teenage sports is vicious that way. When everybody is trained to their full potential, it all depends on where you are on the growth curve. The pattern described above repeated no matter when you were born. However, swimming was fun (as fun as staring at the bottom while doing repetitive aerobics with controlled breathing can be). We trained hard. Went to competitions 1-2 times a month and even went to competitions and training camps in other countries.

As we grew older however, things got increasingly focused on competition. We no longer got to pick our events, rather we were told which events to swim. I was switched from one position in the team medley to another. Back then my priorities were on having fun with my friends and less on filling in spots or being a pacer for our stars (those born in January and February). Once we, our coach and I, got out of alignment with our respective goals, things became less fun. I stuck to it for a couple of years still but eventually quit altogether.

Since then I have not missed swimming one bit. It took me 8 years between quitting at 14 before I jumped into a pool again.

BTW, like riding a bicycle, one does not forget how to swim

I realized that many professional careers are sold the same way. First it is all about excitement and doing fun or important things. Once the younglings buy in and get sufficiently skilled, they get separated and destined for various roles. The tricky part here is that when everybody is developed to their full potential, the choice of the stars comes down to things beyond their control.

The reader may accuse me of applying some kind of double standard seeing that I keep talking about agency and being in control or one’s destiny. This is true, but only to an extent. Once every aspect that actually is under one’s control is optimized, the only aspects that are left are the uncontrollable ones. Professional careers are precisely about optimizing performance as much as possible, whereas I suspect that other jobs are more forgiving. Hence, they are bound to become less fun, except for the stars that dominate them (and in turn draw in new recruits).

Originally posted 2008-08-16 08:30:25.