Why All Athletes are Artists

I was an athlete, not an artist. My extra-curricular contribution was on the basketball court and baseball field, not in the studio wielding a paintbrush.

This is how I thought for my entire athletic career. Despite flashes of artistic ability, I thought of myself as an athlete and it stayed that way until the day I retired from baseball.

Then, I struggled. And struggled. And struggled.

I couldn’t let go of my self-identification as an athlete.

If I wasn’t an athlete, who was I?

This question led me to a realization.

This realization has been solidified as I’ve accepted the end of my career and moved on. In fact, I believe that it’s been a major key in any forward progress I’ve made in my life after sports.

A GIF of DJ Khaled saying "Major Key Alert"

That realization not only helped me to better understand my work as an athlete but also helps me to do better work today.

What is the realization, you ask?

Let me tell you…

All Athletes are Artists

Artists are people with a genius for finding a new answer, a new connection, or a new way of getting things done.

Seth Godin, Linchpin1

We must expand our definition of an artist.

The artist isn’t only someone who is masterful with a paintbrush or who can tell a compelling story through their words.

No, all it takes to be an artist is to solve interesting problems.

That’s all? Sounds hard.

You’re 100% right.

Solving interesting problems is a unique skill — one that you’ve been solving since you first picked up the bat, dribbled the basketball, or shot a puck on net.

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    The athlete is a highly skilled artist

    When artistry is about problem-solving, the athlete gets included. Every movement is a highly-calculated decision based on external stimuli.

    I might get some disagreements here from “real artists”, but I think all of these (and more) qualify as artistic moments:

    • Throwing a high-pressure 3-2 fastball on the black for a strikeout
    • Hitting a 92 MPH slider from Noah Syndergaard
    • Steph Curry maneuvering his way through traffic and nailing a 3-pointer from 35 feet away
    • Patrick Mahomes dishing out no-look passes in an NFL game

    Athletes are constantly solving interesting problems. They’re dealing with a rapidly changing environment and coming up with creative solutions that are then showcased in front of everyone watching.

    I wish I would have understood this while I was playing. I think this is key to helping athletes detach from their athletic identities and allow them to move on to the next phase of their lives.

    Say it with me:

    All athletes are artists.

    All Former Athletes Are Artists, Too

    For you and me — former athletes — thinking of ourselves as artists (creative problem-solvers) helps us move on from sports.

    Many athletes have a hard time transitioning out of sports because they’ve never thought of themselves as anything other than an athlete. They were the star pitcher, the stud basketball player, or the #1 golfer on the team and couldn’t move past that status in their mind.

    After their athletic career ended, they are stuck living in the past because they’ve only ever thought of themselves as an athlete — someone who plays sports.

    But, if we expand our minds and begin to think of ourselves as artists, we will open up a world of opportunity in our life after sports.

    No more will you face the depression that comes from no longer being an athlete.

    No more will you doubt your ability to contribute in a meaningful way in the world.

    Instead of being stuck trying to move on from your athletic identity, you will look for the next way to solve interesting problems.

    You can contribute again, and understanding yourself as a creative, problem-solving artist is a key to living your best life after sports.

    Now That You’re An Artist…

    Acceptance of yourself as artist is the first step.

    I would expect a lot of athletes to denounce this right away if it weren’t for the new definition of artist: creative problem-solvers.

    For me, this was key to helping me self-identify as a writer.

    When I made this connection that athletes are artists, I could fight back against The Resistance and begin to do the important work of a writer: write.

    You’ll go through plenty of moments where you feel like this. Where the performance is subpar, the words don’t come (or worse, they do and no one reads it), the video edit doesn’t look right, or you’re not connecting with potential customers on sales calls.

    But once you accept that you are an artist, a world of opportunity opens to you. You’ll have to fight The Resistance at every turn, but that’s the nature of improvement. Any time you seek to improve some aspect of your life, The Resistance will try to dissuade you from whatever you’re doing.

    There are two main things that you should do when you realize that you are an artist.

    1. Turn Pro

    In Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro, he discusses the difference between amateurs and professionals.

    The main takeaway from this is simple: Amateurs give excuses for why they can’t do something. Professionals look past those excuses and forge ahead.

    I’d like to say that it’s a subtle change that can be done by flipping one switch in your mind, but that’s not true. Instead, it’s a complete overhaul of the mindset behind your life.

    When you turn pro, everything changes.

    The Professional (Not Professional) Pitcher

    I might get some slack for this, but I consider myself to have been a professional baseball pitcher even though I never threw a professional pitch.

    Even though it might sound crazy, I stick to that.

    I wasn’t a professional pitcher by the standards of those who make decisions for the MLB teams.

    No, I decided to turn pro. It was an internal reality well before the 2017 MLB Draft came and deemed me not worthy.

    My work habits were like those of professionals, and I had the mindset of a professional.

    My days were designed around training. I wasn’t trying to “squeeze in” baseball. Instead, baseball was the non-negotiable thing in my life. I had a 2-5 hour block taken out of each training day and then took care of business outside of the training arena with nutrition, hydration, education, and sleep. At some point, I decided to go all-in.

    This was the day I turned pro.

    Maybe you were the same way. I hope so.

    Resistance and Turning Pro

    In your life after sports, you’ll undoubtedly feel like an amateur.

    I felt very amateurish my first day at the place I currently work. I work in sales and discovered quickly that I didn’t know the first thing about selling meat snack products to grocery stores.

    I had the same experience when I started a vlog, podcast, and this website.

    Who am I to do this work?

    That question still tries to talk to me each morning when I wake up to write.

    This is The Resistance. When you get these doubts, you can rest assured that you are doing meaningful work.

    Once you discover something worth turning pro in, you have a choice to make. That choice is whether you will continue to be the amateur with infinite excuses or you will burn the ships, decide that there is no going back, and turn pro.

    I hope you make the right decision.

    When you turn pro, you’re putting a stake in the ground to fight back against The Resistance. The professional makes a declaration that this is who they are, and they’re going to see it through. They’re going to do the work.

    2. Do The Work

    Turning pro is the first step to the life you want to live. After that comes the daily process of doing the work.

    When Tiger Woods mulled over turning pro after his 3rd straight US Amateur championship, he had a lucrative Nike sponsorship awaiting him. This kid would go from a Stanford-educated golf phenom to a worldwide sensation seemingly overnight.

    His life was going to change the moment he turned pro, but he wasn’t going to be Tiger Woods, the man who transcended golf, just because he looked out at the Greater Milwaukee Open media and said, “I guess…hello world.”

    Even though he was already one of the most talented golfers in the world, Tiger had to do the work if he would step into the fullness of his potential.

    And did he ever do the work.

    Wielding a golf club, Tiger Woods was (and is) one of the finest artists this world has ever seen.

    You — an artist in your own right — have the opportunity to turn pro and then do the work.

    Each day, the professional shows up. The professional does what he says he’s going to do.

    Will you do the same? Or will you remain an amateur?

    It’s Your Turn

    You have been gifted with the opportunity to turn pro. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

    Remember those old NCAA commercials?

    This one?

    You have the opportunity to turn pro in work that matters.

    Will you take it?

    To Help: I’ve created a how-to guide around the topic of going pro. In it, I go deeper, taking you 3 steps further than we went in this article.

    All you need to do is fill in your first name and email below and I’ll send it to your inbox right away.

    2 Tips to Discover Your Calling as a Former Athlete

    The way we think about calling is wrong.

    We assume calling is something that falls into our lap. We wait for the day when we wake up and find that heaven breathed a sense of calling and purpose in our lives.

    This thinking is faulty.

    Think like this, and you’ll remain stuck forever.

    Let’s dig in.

    Jody’s Story

    In The Art of Work, Jeff Goins tells the story of a Washington State park ranger named Jody. Jody’s story starts like many others: he went to college, got a degree in finance, and got a job. He worked at a commercial bank for a few years and got married during that time. Jody spent his time away from the office hiking the trails of Deception Pass State Park in Northwestern Washington. He developed an insatiable passion for the outdoors. It was here, not behind a desk, that Jody discovered the thing that made him come alive.

    As destiny would have it, Jody was approached by a friend who just happened to mention that Washington State was looking for park rangers and asked if he would be interested. Funny how coincidences like that seem to happen. Within minutes, Jody knew he would become a park ranger. He knew that he had found his calling.

    He spent the next year secretly going through park ranger training while continuing to work at the bank. Once he was fully certified, he changed careers. 

    Jody loved the work. He honestly felt like he was called to do this, and each day was better than the last. He and his wife had their first child soon after that. Things were good.

    Stepping Away From His Calling

    As time passed, Jody faced a tough decision. Life was more complicated than it had been when he started his career and there were more responsibilities at home. He could continue his career as a park ranger and miss out on much of his kids’ lives, or he could transition into a different role and be with his family more often. Jody chose the latter. Returning to school again, he earned an MBA and began working at a small construction company.

    At the writing of the book, Jody’s career led to him becoming a business consultant helping clients with their strategic planning and marketing. 

    The Calling Comes Back Around

    But Jody isn’t just a business consultant.

    Jody saw a need for park rangers everywhere and decided to address it.

    He recognized that there was a large hole in the park ranger program’s business training. He set out to fix that.

    Jody launched a podcast called The Park Leaders Show which according to Goins “features guest interviews with other rangers and experts and is quickly becoming an industry resource” (151). With this podcast, Jody can raise the next generation of park rangers. As the first guest on his podcast prophetically told him, “You may miss being a park ranger, but if you can make this [podcast] work, you will impact more people than you ever could working in a park” (152).

    Jody had to leave the job he loved to spend more time with his family and leave a legacy for his children. Years later, he returned to parks in a way that combined all of his abilities and has the potential for global reach through his podcast. Jody explains his sense of calling like this, “I was called to parks, not to be a park ranger” (152).

    There are many valuable lessons to glean from Jody. We’ll get there. First, I want to share a bit of my story.

    My Story

    When I quit baseball, I began searching for “the next thing.” The way I saw it, I was going to find something that would draw my attention and intrigue me just like baseball had done. The next step in my life would look like what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:13: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” In my mind, I had to forget baseball to move onto the next thing in my life.

    I discovered that this is a false assumption.

    I tried to do many things in the year after baseball. I started a podcast. I tried new methods of lifting. I took up golf. Oh yeah, I started a new job in sales as well.

    None of these things brought me the satisfaction of a true calling. I didn’t feel like any of this was leading me to the most meaningful work for my life. I was disappointed.

    I had to approach calling differently.

    When I began looking at calling a different way, I understood that it is something that evolves. As Goins writes, “Maybe moving on is part of the process. Maybe a calling is always evolving, never allowing you to stand still in one place for too long.”

    In discovering your life’s work–your calling–you are going to need to move on from certain seasons.

    I am starting to see that I was called to baseball, not to be a baseball player. I understand that my impact was never going to be throwing 100 or striking out Miguel Cabrera on live TV. No, my calling goes beyond that.

    It was difficult to understand this when I first quit. I shocked a lot of people by stopping when I did. I didn’t have an excellent explanation for leaving baseball, even though I tried. An unfamiliar peace came over me, and I was sure that leaving the sport I had given so much to was the right thing. But, I had one major thing wrong.

    I went wrong in trying to separate myself from the sport. I tried to draw a line in the sand and say, “That was me then. This is me now.” Immaturely, I wanted to distance myself from the very area that I can have the most significant impact.

    How to Uncover Your Call

    When I talk about uncovering your call, I am mostly speaking about figuring out the next step. When we think of calling as something that evolves, we recognize the need for experience to act as the rudder that guides us to the next thing. Practically speaking, I would never write about life as a former athlete if I hadn’t first struggled to transition into life after baseball.

    Below are three take-home points that will help you step into the next season of your life as you uncover your calling.

    1. Assess Your Abilities

    For months after quitting baseball, I doubted my abilities. I refused to see areas that I had talent in and was stuck, not knowing what to do or where to go next.

    Thank God for my fiance.

    One day, we were driving home from a day of wedding registry when I asked her, “What am I good at?”.

    She quickly rattled off a few things as if she had been waiting for me to ask. Above all other skills, she named writing. She said that I had a talent in it and believed I should explore it further.

    That was in May.

    I finally started writing regularly in September.

    Guys, listen to your fiance.

    I am fortunate to have Jess because she called out the skill that I was too blind to see. When I was ignorant to my abilities, she spoke into what was already there. She looked at my past work and said, “Hey, do more of that!”

    Thank you, Jess.

    But Jess wasn’t the only one telling me that I should write. My academic career shouted this to me.

    There are countless clues that I possess writing ability. I think about the time a poem of mine got published in fourth grade. I remember the 42-page Multi-Genre Research Paper on Barry Bonds that remains the crowning jewel of my academic career. I think about the paper I wrote trying to understand laminar flow as a sophomore in high school that still gets the occasional mention on Twitter. All of these projects caused something to come alive inside of me.

    Take a look at your portfolio–your past work. Think back to school projects that you loved. Think back to part-time jobs that you enjoyed. Think about volunteer experiences that made you feel fully alive. You need to look back on your past to identify things that engaged you. Doing this will give you clarity on where to go next.

    2. Combine Your Sport with a New Interest

    Please don’t make the same mistake as me. I thought I had to entirely leave baseball behind to “move on” from baseball. That’s a horrible way of understanding things and will limit your options as your calling develops.

    I had to overcome the false belief that the only thing I had to offer baseball was a 95 MPH fastball. There is so much more to my life than the fact that I threw some baseballs hard. Each baseball player is more than their physical abilities. Countless other factors influence who you are as a person that needs the same (or more) attention than your physical abilities did during your playing career.

    One way to discover work that is meaningful to you is to combine something familiar with a new interest. My friend Chance is an excellent example of this.

    Chance quit baseball about two years ago after an unfortunate injury. He and I reconnected about one year ago and talked about what we were doing after our playing careers. One idea that came from our conversation was that he should start a podcast in the baseball space.

    He then went on to build the Art of Pitching podcast.

    In a recent conversation I had with him, Chance gave some great insight into his process and how he used his podcast to help him discover the next step in his journey as a marketing and branding strategist.

    I went through the “passion-finding process” when I stopped playing and found it incredibly frustrating. The way that I ultimately found my new passion (business/brand development, in e-commerce specifically) was by starting my podcast (thanks to you). The problem for me was the fear of trying something completely new, not enjoying it, and ultimately wasting my time. To remedy this, I tried something new (podcasting) within the confines of an old passion (baseball). In the end, I found that the aspect of the project I enjoyed most was branding, marketing, and building something from the ground up. This directly led me to my new life as a marketing and branding strategist for e-commerce startups. Effectively, I used my old passion as a bridge to explore new ones. I believe this framework could be applied to a myriad of contexts.

    Chance unknowingly took the steps necessary to identify additional layers of his calling. He combined something familiar (baseball) with something new (podcasting) and eventually found work that he was passionate about. I asked Chance what he thought his life would be like had he not done this.

    I think I would have figured it out another way to be honest. But if I didn’t, who knows. I guess I’d be more apt to settle for an average entry-level job for example instead of what I’ve (found) my way into, which would’ve been very frustrating.

    Chance has since decided to end his podcast. The lesson here is that we can build something that serves to unlock the next steps in our calling. The Art of Pitching is still available to listeners and serves as a reminder that we discover the next thing in our lives by trying stuff and by exploring what we already know in a new way.

    In Mastery, Robert Greene writes, “The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.”

    Will you do this? Will you recognize that you have a valuable skill in baseball and combine it with other skills to create something that the world needs?

    This is the way forward.

    This is the way you move on.

    This is how you discover your calling.