Though I've always been interested in the Olympics over the years, the London Olympics were the first time in my adult life that I regarded the Games as Must-See TV. These last two weeks took on a March Madness-type feel for me, as I watched at least 10 different sports every chance I got — as much as my workweek allowed — on my NBC iPad app, which thankfully had replays for the times when deadlines loomed.
Witnessing both the glorious, jaw-dropping moments and the empathy-inducing heartbreaks, I reflected on the way athletes work, and how I can apply that to my own work philosophy and operations as a freelancer. Perhaps you can, too.
My top 3 takeaways:
1. Make Like a Gymnast & Concentrate, in Short Bursts
What I found most fascinating, hands down, is the incredible concentration of gymnasts. All sports take intense concentration, but some enjoy the luxury of having the crowd fall silent out of respect for not breaking that concentration (you could hear a pin drop when athletes competed at Wimbledon). Gymnasts, more often than not, perform their routines while other routines are happening around them. It was amazing to see teenagers launching into their dismounts on beam or halfway through tumbling passes on floor unfazed by a sudden roaring crowdburst from a nearby gymnast's vault landing or a wild trick on the uneven bars (or that buzzer I could never make sense of, the one that would go off at inopportune times). It takes incredible mental strength to stay focused in such a work environment, just as we sometimes have to work next to a noisy co-working neighbor or within the din of a crowded cafe.
Luckily, gymnasts only have to use this superpower for a few minutes at a time. It made me think that applying that level of focus into my project work for shorter stints may prove far more effective than bigger chunks of time, when energy starts to fade or my mind wanders, itching to check email or social media, etc. Small bursts of concentrated work, like the Pomodoro Technique suggests, might be my 25-minutes-at-a-time ticket to gold-medal delivery!
2. Professional Isn't a Designation — It's a Behavior
In 1986, the International Olympic Committee ruled to allow professional athletes to compete. This was hotly debated especially at the 1992 Games, when the NBA Dream Team began dominating their opponents (and have continued to do so ever since). The word professional pertains to an "occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain." But another definition reads "a person who is an expert at his or her work." To me, this defines Olympic athletes. To compete at that level, you have to be an expert. Even when I was befuddled by dressage — gymnastics for horses — a friend was quick to point out that while the sport is odd and little-known, it still requires learned skills and rules, a great deal of training and demonstrated expertise, just like any other.
American swimmer Missy Franklin won five medals in London (including four gold) and broke two world records as well as an Olympic record. Missy is a student; she's 17 years old and will start her senior year in high school in a couple weeks (with the ultimate answer to "What did you do on your summer vacation?" in tow). Much has been made of the decision she'll have to make later this year as to whether to go to college or go pro, but to me, she's already a pro. She's an expert at her sport, and even though it's not her current occupation, she swam those laps like it was her job. The word amateur hardly seems appropriate for for someone with five Olympic medals. When watching her give an interview, I could tell right away that the amount of focused training she puts into her passion is so great, it naturally flows into how she conducts herself — like a champion.
We freelancers and solopreneurs can exude the same level of professionalism in all aspects of our work, from prospecting to final product. Even if working from home, for example, we can still shower and get dressed when we wake up in the morning, just like those who commute to work do, instead of working in our pajamas. (Besides, what if we get called into a last-minute video conference?) The professional is prepared; the professional is ready.
We can make sure we have the proper equipment and space to clearly hear and be heard on conference calls. We can keep our hard drives backed up and our files tidy for easy access when a client requests an archived document. Heed advice from the Time Management Ninja and take 10 minutes a day to improve your systems, to keep your project work flowing smoothly. If we infuse professionalism into even the most administrative ways we work, it will show in our deliverables.
3. Flukes Happen; Keep Going
My heart fell for U.S. runner Morgan Uceny, who was tripped from behind in the last lap of the 1,500 meters final, causing her to pound her fists repeatedly on the ground out of sheer agony. The same thing happened to her last year in the World Championships, after which she got up and finished the race, in 10th place. This time, her fall caused injury, so finishing the race wasn't an option.
To have something like that happen in the two biggest races of your career is inexplicable. It's a fluke, and these things, unfortunately, do happen. Can you imagine training to compete all those years at this level and not being able to compete due to a mishap? I'm sure Uceny would've been much more at ease about this race had she come in last place than to lose this way.
We all experience setbacks, perhaps not on an Olympic scale, but setbacks nonetheless. Setbacks that affect our business — just when we think we've landed a new client, the job falls through; seasonal allergies cause a sinus infection so bad we can't even look at our computer screens, let alone work; or a family matter overtakes us, making scheduling meetings with clients and vendors impossible. Setbacks are awful, but we can learn from them as best we can, if nothing else than how to roll with the punches.
What should we do? Like Sinatra sang, "You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again." We keep on keepin' on. It sounds simplistic, but we must remember, the world won't come to an end if we have to push back a site redesign by one week. When flukes happen to you, mind your hard deadlines, of course (especially when they've got promotional tie-ins and planned events), but see if there's any give on your other projects. Communicate early and often, and you may find that an occasional request for push-back isn't the capital-A Ask that you thought it would be. People understand. After all, those people are professionals as well.
Onward, my fellow professionals!