Michael Phelps is swimming in Rio, appearing stronger than ever, athletically and mentally. But he has traveled along quite a journey. As privileged and fortunate as high-profile, successful athletes can be, they also have their own burdens to bear psychologically and spiritually, especially when their success and power come upon them young and quickly. Their vessels (or egos) often cannot handle all that responsibility, pressure and adoration. Addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex are not uncommon.
Any human who achieves what Michael Phelps has, coupled with a great and public falling and then rising, becomes a valuable inspiration for us all.
Here are 5 important life lessons:
EVERYONE NEEDS A PURPOSE
In a NYTimes interview, longtime coach Bob Bowman shared about Michael, "He had no idea what to do with the rest of his life. It made me feel terrible. I remember one day I said: ‘Michael, you have all the money that anybody your age could ever want or need; you have a profound influence in the world; you have free time—and you’re the most miserable person I know. What’s up with that?’”
Many in high pressure, high profile, and high influence positions, e.g., athletes or military professionals, struggle with the transition into "civilian" or "normal" life. They report feeling empty, confused and lost without a purpose. Those who fare best are ones who find ways to channel their gifts, skills, and desires into a passion and purpose, particularly for the greater good. Many find that a spiritual path creates meaning. This is a lesson for all of us.
WE ALL FALL TO RISE HIGHER
Our challenges, even self-imposed, serve as the wake-up calls we need to reach our true and fullest potential, especially when we choose to treat them as such. Landing himself in jail after his second DUI in 2014, along with the public falling from grace, seems to have tipped Michael's "I-can-do-this-on-my-own" scale. He finally let go and entered treatment for alcoholism. Even swimming as a child was a rise after a fall for Michael. After disdaining the Ritalin for his diagnosed ADHD, Phelps chose to go off medication and channel his often unmanageable energy into his natural version of speed.
WE ARE MORE THAN OUR IDENTITY
When we form a role that becomes an identity, it's a matter of time that the security we seek from that role, and the pressure to uphold it, must shatter. We are more than our identity, particularly when we over-identify with one specific area of life. Michael Phelps appears to have learned and shows us that we must expand beyond the confines of a role we play. We must develop other parts of our self. Identities are shells around our true self and voice. We actually don't want to base our self-worth or security on an identity. Rather, we do better deciding who we want to become and live our lives according to these values from our inner truth.
EMBRACE EMOTIONAL VULNERABILITY
The demons in our closet don't go away on their own. We need to address our pain, losses, and grudges. Whatever we sweep under the rug will continually rear its head and wreak havoc until we lift up the rug, beat it and expose our vulnerable underside. In rehab, Michael reports that he allowed himself to be vulnerable, addressed his pain over his parents' divorce and took steps to heal and close the resentful space between him and his father.
TO ERR IS HUMAN
Michael Phelps shows us that you don't need to be perfect to become your best. Life is a process. We are here to learn and transform. We are all unripe green bananas and we must practice mercy and compassion, toward ourselves and others, as we all take our "mistakes" and use them as leverage for growth. Life is a constant process of growing "up."
IT'S NEVER TOO LATE