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Making Sense of Who We Are

Nine years.

Nine freaking years.

That’s how long this cloud has been a part of my life, hanging over my head, the potential for a storm to erupt always in the back of my mind. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here you go: In 2012, I blew the whistle on anti-doping violations I saw in a running group sponsored by the world’s most well-known sporting brand. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’d wish the experience on no one. This past month, nearly a decade later, the last appeal has finished (it was struck down) and justice was served. I can finally close this chapter of my life.

Here, I want to offer some reflections; in hopes that it will provide me some closure, but also allow others a glimpse into a world few experience, and perhaps even glean a few lessons for us all.

I’ve deliberately resisted talking about my experience as a whistleblower at the Nike Oregon Project in this newsletter and in my books. Why? I don’t want to be known as a whistleblower. I don’t want that to be my identity. For portions of the last decade, it felt like being a whistleblower crept into my sense of self, or, at the very least, that it was forced there by the outside world. Being a whistleblower was a burden.

In every job interview I took, from running to professional sports teams and major organizations, the question inevitably came up. And I can’t fault them, they were doing their due diligence. Yet, a question I was asked by one organization gave away the true problem with blowing the whistle, “What would you do if you saw someone committing an unethical act here?” The implication came out that it was seen as a negative, as a concern that I’d drift away from the organization, or be some sort of narc that could be a liability. No one really likes or wants a whistleblower. (Except Brad!!)

But more than the outward expectation, it was the internal struggle of having uncertainty for nearly a decade. Uncertainty on which way the case would go, what would occur, what it meant for me, when I’d be called to testify. This impacted my relationships and my family. I’m someone who likes to attack things with unabashed rationalism: I like to think my way through problems and figure out solutions, often on my own. Yet, here, that was a disastrous approach.

You can’t compartmentalize or problem-solve for nearly a decade on something that has a timeline outside of your control. Regardless of what you’re going through, having a support network is vital. Having people to lean on, talk to, rant to, cry to, is essential. And going through something somewhat controversial shows you, in very clear terms, who are the people who truly care about you.

I’ll be the first to admit that living under this burden of uncertainty changed me.

It made me gun shy, afraid of making changes or venturing away from the known in other aspects of my life because I had this unfinished thing hanging over my head. This matches with the latest psychology. We like to see ourselves as having one coherent sense of self, but the reality is we all have many identities: Father, son, husband, friend, writer, runner, coach, and so on. We act differently in the role of son than we do as coach or friend. The human mind hates uncertainty, looking for closure and stability any way it can. When we are unstable in one area of our life, we latch on to the places where we can feel secure, where we feel we are making a positive impact. That was my experience. In the world where I was dealing with uncertainty (sport) I found myself latching onto areas outside of that which gave me stability and meaning (writing, coaching outside of sport). This turmoil changed who I was.

It changed my relationship with sport, in some ways good, in other ways not so good. I came to value performance less. Seeing the unbridled pursuit of winning as a contributing cause for so much of what is wrong in sport and society. It made me sour on the large organizations that hold influence and control in sport.

It also changed my career trajectory. Starting off as an exercise science nerd who pursued coaching runners with zeal to a writer and coach that reaches beyond running to athletes of all pursuits, and even executives, entrepreneurs, and organizations that have nothing to do with athletics. If you’ve been paying attention to our work at The Growth Equation, you’ll be keenly aware that we take a wholistic view of performance and well-being, believing that you don’t have to sacrifice all for being good, or even great, at whatever it is you pursue.

It’s this change that I think about most. I became a writer by necessity and accident. I published my first book partially as a way to give me some financial flexibility as I faced uncertainty in my professional world as I became a whistleblower. I turned into a writer, thanks to work with Brad, as a pivot and escape. Writing became a place where I could explore without the limitations or fears that occupied the world of sport. It allowed me to pursue a world outside of athletics, where I didn’t have to constantly think of the identity and burden that I carried in the sporting world. In many ways, this new venture has allowed me to put space between my sense of self and the public actions I took. It’s allowed me to wrestle back some control over my story.

And that’s the lesson I think is most important. When you do nearly anything that puts you in the public light, you lose a bit of control over your story. You hand it over to journalists, pundits, and the general public. You become a 2D character, instead of the complex, nuanced, and often contradictory 3D character that we all are.

Or at least that’s what it feels like. But what you have to realize is this: your public story is different from the real one. One is ephemeral and fake, a distortion no different than the fake, edited gloss that appears on Instagram. It might seem important, but it really isn’t. What really matters isn’t the story that others are writing about you, but the one that you, yourself, are crafting.

I used to tie much of my identity and self-worth partially to things and accomplishments. I ran such and such time for the mile. I coached such and such individual to such and such championship. I published a book that sold this many copies. I have this many followers. I am a coach, runner, writer. It is easy to fall into that trap. To define ourselves in rigid categories that are based on some external notion of success.

But none of that really matters. Or at least none of that really matters all that much.

Life is about the relationships you develop and being able to make sense of and find meaning in the journey. To understand that the narrative is not as simple and straightforward as we might want it to be. But that in the messiness—in navigating the ups and downs, the wrong turns, the reality that everyone is capable of shifting and violating their ethics or values—is where the meaning lies. Bad stuff happens. Unexpected things occur. But you have some control over how you handle them, how you integrate them into your life story. You have some control over whether you learn and grow, or ignore and rationalize. We aren’t locked into one path, as it so often seems when we choose our career trajectories as twenty-somethings. We aren’t a singular two-dimensional person. We are complex, nuanced, and flawed: three dimensional and ever-evolving people.

We aren’t passive narrators of our journey. We are the writers and the editors.

Steve


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2 Comments

  1. Laura M Kernan on October 7, 2021 at 3:36 am

    Your story reminds me of when I reported my very popular grad school advisor for sexual harassment. Sure, it was me he harassed, but I mostly reported him because I didn’t want him to do it to someone else, especially one of my younger classmates (I was in my 40’s). I felt very exposed. It changed the trajectory of my career, even though the school found him in violation of school policies, I ended up leaving. In some ways I am probably happier not being some big Phd and working 60+ hours/week, I have time for other things in life that I enjoy, but I also feel I didn’t get the chance to do something I was really good at. In the end though, I was true to myself and I would regret it if I had done differently.

    • Maryam on October 7, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      it is very brave of you to share your experience/perspective.I have no words honestly.Deeply moved

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