Retirement part 4: MASTERY
When athletes or founders step away from one endeavour at the top of their game, whatever comes next we face being complete beginners again. Mastery is a feeling we miss.
This is blog 4 of a 6 part series on retirement. You should read blogs 1-3 first :)
The athletes and founders featured are:
Thanks for reading! Subscribe for free to get these posts in your inbox.
From world class…
Thousands of screaming fans fill the stadium. The noise reverberates through your body as you wait to enter the arena. Fans wear your team’s colours, wave your team’s flag. Not a single person is sitting. And somewhere up there are your family, screaming louder than anyone else.
It’s finals day.
A day you’ve trained decades for. A day you’ve sacrificed sleep-ins and time with friends and a reasonable salary for. You are warmed up. Muscles ready. Mind focused. Surrounded by your teammates. Ready to go. The game is about to begin.
‘Introducing the athletes to the field…’ booms the announcer’s voice.
And then they call your name.
There is no feeling like it.
For athletes, it’s moments like these where it sinks in that you are one of the best in the world at what you do. For a founder, I imagine the moments are less public, but just as meaningful - raising a round, hitting a milestone, speaking on a stage to your peers.
Just to choose the career path of founder or athlete puts you in rare company. But the people I spoke to went far further than just walking the path. Luke is an Olympian. Matt played in 2 AFL Grand Finals. Cale played 13 seasons and 219 games for Essendon. Kate and Megan both raised money from Blackbird Ventures - the top VC fund in Australia. Vaughan sold his company for half a billion dollars. Rod helped build CultureAmp to a valuation of over a billion dollars.
Each person was world class at a skillset. And with retirement, they no longer are.
I miss being good at something. And it’s not just the recognition that comes with that (although that’s nice too). It’s the privilege of getting to experience moments like standing on a podium and having the national anthem played in your honour. It’s the joy that comes with mastery - dropping effortlessly into the zone as you perform a skill you’ve done millions of reps to perfect. It’s reaching that level of unconscious competency, where your expertise comes easily. It’s the sense of confidence you get from having proved you are the best.
‘I definitely miss being good at something. Being an experienced player you have the pattern recognition and see the young kids come in and you realise how much you can teach them, and you do have that satisfaction that you are good at something. And better than most of society at something.’ ~ Matt
Mastery is deeply, deeply fulfilling. And with retirement we all go from being world class…
…To being beginners again
Mastery is deeply, deeply fulfilling. But the good news is, so is progress. And when you are a beginner, you improve very quickly.
When I first started playing beach volleyball, I sucked. Sure, I looked athletic. I’d just retired from elite trampolining so I could jump high, run fast, and had 6-pack abs.
But I had never played a ball sport. Hand-eye coordination was not a strength.
I would leap in the air, swing my arm at the ball… and miss completely.
I would get my arms out early to pass the ball, move my feet to get there… and the ball would ricochet in completely the wrong direction.
But, within a year my partner and I were consistently finishing in the top 10 in the country. Diminishing returns to effort start to kick in then, but in your first year of something new the fact that you are terrible is balanced by the rapid rate of progress. There is joy in that.
And perhaps athletes and founders - used to daily feedback and bouncing back from failure - make progress faster than most. And, having spent years at an elite level grinding away for the most incremental improvement (it took me a year to add a single kilo to my snatch lift PB), perhaps we also find more joy in that rapid progress.
But whilst we improve quickly, we are still behind
‘I feel behind. I’m at the start. I’m excited to work at something new, but you quickly realise you are nowhere near the top. My mates have been building that career, and compounding it for 15 years. We’ve been building our body and our skills. Those softer skills like leadership and discipline are transferable, but there are a lot that aren’t.’ ~ Matt
‘Sometimes I feel that what I learnt as a founder will definitely get me through. And sometimes I’m sitting in a room feeling 10 years behind everyone else.’ ~ Megan
‘There's no time to be comfortable ever in life. In running, I was trying to catch up to the person ahead of me. And even when I was the best in Australia, I had to beat the second best. And then you change careers and you’re playing catch up again. I have come in at the very bottom as a consultant. There are so many people around me that are a lot more experienced and a lot better at my job.’ ~ Luke
I too feel behind. I wouldn’t trade the years I spent doing backflips, lifting barbells or hitting beach volleyballs. But those skills don’t exactly help me make better investments in my new role in venture capital. In the competition that is the career ladder, it’s easy to feel you are coming last. I look around at my colleagues and I’m the oldest of the people at my level. Age shouldn’t matter, but there is an obsession with age in sport that becomes stuck in your mind - as a junior teams are selected by age group, as a senior priority is always given to younger athletes who have more years to play for the team, and always your age is clock ticking down on the length of your career.
‘Ed Cowan, one of my friends and mentors, says you are climbing a mountain and you are at the top or close to the top. When you retire and choose a new pursuit you don’t get to hang-glide to the top of the next mountain. You have to go to the bottom and start climbing again.’ ~ Matt
And not only do you start again at the bottom of the mountain, you look up and way in the distance you see all your peers halfway to the top already.
Can I do it again?
I’ve been ranked number one in Australia and top ten in the world in three different sports. I know how to repeat success. And yet, there are many days where I wonder if my abilities are limited to sport. If I can reach the same levels in a career. Even for people who have reached the highest of achievements doubt still exists.
‘I don't know if I'm good at anything else. Maybe this was just a fluke… I thought about starting a new thing. And then I thought ‘Am I crazy? I don’t need to start a new thing.’ It’s not about the money, it's about that part of us trying to prove something to the world or maybe just to yourself. Was I just lucky? Was I just in the right place at the right time? Can I do it again?’ ~ Vaughan
‘There's a part of me that always questions myself: ‘Hey Rod, you decided to step out of the role for all these reasons… was one of them you just couldn’t hack it anymore? You couldn't keep getting yourself up to that next level?’ Part of my identity is always looking at the next thing and striving for that and then suddenly I was deciding I didn't want to do that next thing so the identity was like, ‘hang on, if I don't want to do that, maybe I'm not that person I thought that I was. I’d question - ‘Am I capitulating? Can I no longer do this? As opposed to ‘I no longer want to do it’.’ ~ Rod
But, there is still time to go after something else.
‘I do think if we're lucky we will have really long careers. We are in the first 25% of our careers. I do think we hold ourselves to a standard of optimising every minute when in actual fact we should maybe think about it as optimising over the course of a whole career. And there are phases of that career that lean more heavily in one direction and develop skills in that area, and maybe there's a whole dimension of yourself that doesn't really thrive in that period. It would be kind of crazy to assume your fulfilment or your skill development is uniform over your whole career.’ ~ Kate
Transferable skills and lessons
‘To build on the mountain climbing analogy I’m starting the next climb with some skills, some tools, and a good climbing party - they might not be there every step of the way but I know I can call on them for advice as I ascend the mountain.’ ~ Matt
There are plenty of things you learn as an athlete or founder that will never be useful again. Plucking a ball out of the air as someone tries their best to tackle you doesn’t transfer well to sitting at a laptop. Or knowing the ins-and-outs of an industry that you’ve built your startup in isn’t helpful when you shift to a new category.
But both founders and athletes identified a long list of transferrable skills and qualities that they’ll take with them into retirement, and onto their next career.
‘You’ll underrate what you learn from sport. You’re already in the top 0.1% of people and you don’t even know it. Being driven - the feedback loop of set a goal, work hard, achieve it. Things like craving feedback and being able to give it well. Even things as basic as showing up to a meeting on time.’ ~ Cale
‘I think the biggest thing is work ethic. That skill that you have in sport of discipline. With running, you’re doing three sessions a day - run, gym, run. It’s not having a late night, not having Maccas at lunch. That is a skill which is not spoken about, but is so valuable. You can't do your sport half assed or you're not going to be good. It’s the same at work. There are no shortcuts, in sport or in a professional firm.’ ~ Luke
‘How to build stuff, how to get shit done, and get it out there in the world. You can’t underestimate that, even though it feels messy and awkward and rushed when you do it as a founder.’ ~ Megan
‘Confidence. I did it, and I could do it again if I wanted to. I have the confidence of having done something and knowing what those first key steps are.’ ~ Megan
Final thoughts on mastery
As we step into retirement athletes and founders go from being world class, to being beginners again. And we all share this sense that not only are we beginners, but we are behind everyone else and need to catch up.
I’m not sure how to escape that feeling.
But what I do know is that while progress is satisfying, mastery brings deep fulfilment. And I’m one of the few people who has had the privilege of showcasing mastery on the world stage, in front of thousands of people, against other elite competitors.
Mastery is its own reward. I know I’ll be climbing another mountain and chasing that feeling again.