I love tennis. I love David Foster Wallace. And I needed a book on the couch day after a gruelingly long week where I started feeling better and then was flattened this morning by a few spoons of my yogurt and peach breakfast.
DFW was a tennis player and a pretty good one, especially as a junior player. If you’ve read Infinite Jest, you know that in addition to playing tennis, he is uniquely remarkable in how he writes about it.
String Theory was a collection of five prior long essays (or whatever the long essay equivalent of a novella is) about tennis. The first is about his childhood tennis experience titled Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley. Next is a delicious, curious, and sad essay titled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. The meatiest story is the third one titled Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness. I could have read this one twice and still not milked all the juice out of it. I paused after it and got some pretzels to munch on.
Having been to the U.S. Open a half dozen times, I completely identified with Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open. And the I remembered reading the last essay – Federer Both Flesh and Not – when it was published in 2006 as Federer as a Religious Experience in The New York Times PLAY Magazine. It used the Federer / Nadal Wimbledon 2006 final as the backdrop for its focus on Federer.
Once again, the footnotes are often better than the essay/story, as DFW lets his hair down (such as it was) and really lets loose on what is going on – unfiltered – between his ears.
I loved this book. If you are a tennis player or fan, do yourself a favor and get String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (it’s only in hardcopy and worth reading the old school non-digital way.) If you are a DFW fan, you’ve probably already read it (if you haven’t, prioritize!)
Last week was full and intense, so I woke up tired yesterday and decided to take a digital sabbath. I had breakfast with Amy, continued reading Open by Andre Agassi (which I had started one night earlier in the week before going to sleep), napped, read some more, napped, went for a run, watched the end of the Patriots game, finished Open, and watched the end of the Cardinals game.
I enjoy biography and read a lot of them. I generally don’t like autobiographies as they never feel fully authentic to me, but Agassi’s had been recommended by a number of friends, especially one’s who play tennis.
I was mindbogglingly amazing. Fucking awesome. Incredible.
Agassi does what I wish more people would do in autobiography. He starts with his origin story and takes us on a full ride through his life while undergoing his own caamora while sharing it with us.
I am a big Agassi fan. I always loved his tennis style and after reading Open understand it a lot better. His philanthropy, especially around education, is inspiring and the motivation for it is clear after reading Open. His personal style and relationships were always curious, but make a ton of sense after reading Open.
When I crawled into bed last night, I was rested and happy. And, when I woke up this morning, I was ready for a nice Sunday with Amy, a run, watching the Broncos game with Dave, Amy, and Maureen, all in preparation for two weeks on the road.
When I played tennis as a teenager, I remember reading The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by Tim Gallwey. Near the end of my recent sabbatical + birthday vacation, after almost seven weeks of tennis where I played at least five days a week, I decided to read it again.
It held up. Written in 1974, Gallwey uses the concept of Self 1 (the thinking part) and Self 2 (the feeling / doing part). Self 1 is constantly critiquing, analyzing, and telling Self 2 what to do. Self 2 – when it ignores Self 1 – just does. This leads to the idea of the inner and outer game, which is beautifully summarized in the Wikipedia article about Tim Gallwey.
“In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.” (Morgan, Ted, Oz in the Astrodom, New York Times, December 9, 1973, p.96)
For the first two weeks, I decided to try to learn to play tennis left handed. I grew up playing right handed, even though I write and throw a ball left handed. I used beginner mind and was doing pretty good when I hurt my left wrist while running during the third week when I was almost hit by a car leaving a parking lot and used my left hand to hop over the hood of it.
So, for a week I played right handed as my left wrist healed. I enjoyed it so much I just stayed with it.
By the fifth week, I was hitting great. I was moving reasonably well on the court and my fitness level and comfort with playing points had gone up a level. During one of my morning lessons, I lucked out and got Arturo, a masterful teacher who Amy and I referred to during our time at Rancho Valencia as “the philosopher.” At some point during my lesson, Arturo said simply, “Stop thinking and hit the ball.”
I carried that thought around with me for the next two weeks. I literally stopped thinking about the mechanics of any of my strokes. I visualized my movements when I was getting ready for a drill, or after I’d hit a number of balls, but I stopped criticizing myself, actually bent my knees (instead of shouting to myself “bend your knees” when I didn’t and missed a shot), and just played.
I hadn’t read The Inner Game of Tennis yet, but I downloaded it on my Kindle. And then just hit the ball for the last few days of our trip. I felt as good on the court as I ever have, even at the top of my game at age 14.
As I read the book on our couch in Boulder yesterday, I smiled. It reinforced the simple message that Arturo tossed out in the middle of a lesson. It made me think of many conversations I’ve had with Jerry Colonna at Reboot. And then, I poked around the web and saw that this book, and Gallwey in general, is often referred to as the founder of the business coaching movement.
If you play tennis, do yourself a favor and read this book. Your Self 1 will thank you and your Self 2 will be left alone a little more in the future to do its thing.
As I sit here watching Amy play tennis with her coach Mason (I hurt my shoulder serving so I’m taking a few days off), I’m reflecting on my first week back on the grid after a five week sabbatical. A few things come to mind.
1. Amy’s tennis game has improved dramatically over the past six weeks. She’s always had nice strokes, but she definitely has been playing beginner tennis. As I watch her play, everything has elevated at least a level for her including her confidence on the court. It’s beautiful and I expect her tennis girlfriends will have a big challenge on their hands when she returns. And, I’m ready to start (and look forward to) playing mixed doubles with her.
2. I stayed off Facebook and Twitter this week, other than to respond on Twitter to some @bfeld mentions. I was too busy with other stuff to really get in the flow of it and I didn’t really find myself caring, as I’d rather spend my Twitter / Facebook time walking Brooks, staring out the window, watching classic tennis matches from the 1980s on Youtube, or reading.
3. When I did bump into social and news stuff, especially politics, there was an amazing amount of vitriol in the world. I know that politics and the now year long election cycle that stretches endlessly in front of us adds significantly to this, but there also feels like a lot of global schadenfreude in the system, especially in the news. It’d be ironic if the lack of Twitter in my diet last week drove this, but somehow I doubt it.
4. I really missed my partners at Foundry Group and was delighted to re-engage with them. I expected to feel this way when I left for sabbatical but it’s always powerfully reassuring to experience it.
5. Very few dramatic things happened while I was gone. While there was a bunch of transaction stuff in our portfolio that my partners handled, there were no fundamental shifts in the matrix, the AI didn’t yet become sentient, and the moon didn’t split into seven pieces. I read a few books last month that reminded me that humans consistently overestimate our importance in the universe – this was once again reinforced by re-entry.
In a conversation with a CEO of a company I’m an investor in, he said “Wow – you seem incredible chill after being gone for a while.” It feels great to be chill.
If you play tennis almost every day for five weeks you get a lot better.
In addition to turning 50, I had an incredible mental, emotional, and physical reset. Two years ago, Seth, Jason, Ryan, and I decided that we would each take a month off the grid each year. We’d do this asynchronously so only one person would be on sabbatical at a time. We’ve now had two cycles of this.
It serves two powerful purposes. For the person who goes off the grid for a month, it gives them a complete reset. I just spent every day with Amy since November 1. We had long stretches of time together doing vacation things rather than daily life things. We had lots of friends come visit this year. We played a ton of tennis. I read a bunch of books. We went to bed early and slept late. We watched every episode of Archer and Star Wars 1 – 5 (Return of the Jedi will get watched this week.) I feel 10 zillion times better than I did on October 31.
The second, more subtle purpose, is that by going off the grid, I handed over all of my work to Seth, Jason, and Ryan. One of our core values is that we all work on everything together. There’s nothing quite like stepping away for a month and letting your partners cover everything for you, or having one of them step away for a month and you cover his stuff. If this happened once every decade, that would be one thing, but by having this happen every year I believe we are creating another, even deeper level of trust and connectedness between us.
When I wrote my post #GiveFirst on 10/25, I planned to check out from blogging through the end of the year and just work on my next book (#GiveFirst). But, as my sabbatical came to an end, I was missing the rhythm of almost daily blogging. So, I decided to start blogging again when I feel like it, rather than wait until January 1, 2016 to start again.
Yesterday was my first day officially back. It was a busy day, but I managed to get outside and play 90 minutes of tennis. As I re-enter my normal world, I’m glad to be back, but I had an amazing time away.
Three weeks ago, Mardy Fish wrote an amazing article on The Players’ Tribute site titled The Weight. I stopped halfway through the article and took a deep breath.
“This is a story about how a mental health problem took my job away from me. And about how, three years later, I am doing that job again — and doing it well. I am playing in the U.S. Open again.
This is a story about how, with the right education, and conversation, and treatment, and mindset, the things that mental illness takes away from us — we can take them back.
Tens of millions of Americans every year deal with issues related to mental health. And the journey of dealing with them, and learning to live with them, is a long one. It can be a forever one. Or, worse, it can be a life-threatening one.
And I want to help with it.”
If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, had an anxiety attack, or know someone close who has struggled with anxiety, go read The Weight. I wait (see what I did there …)
If you aren’t a tennis fan, Mardy Fish is one of the great contemporary American tennis players. He fought his way into the top 10 during the epic era of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray. A massive anxiety attack in the 2012 US Open against Gilles Simon shattered him. He beat Simon, but then couldn’t go on the court two days later against Roger Federer and withdrew from the tournament. The article and quotes are interesting – they say nothing about anxiety and are vague about the issues, referring back to a previous heart-related issue that had been discussed.
“We are not 100 percent sure what the issue is and if it is related to his previous issues,” Fish’s agent, John Tobias, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Mardy is fine and will return home to L.A. tomorrow. This was strictly precautionary and I anticipate that Mardy will play in Asia this fall.”
Three years later Marty Fish has done an incredibly brave thing. He owned his anxiety, rather than let it own him.
“And just like that, it hit me — I remember it so vividly, and so powerfully. Oh god, I thought. I’m … not going to do it. I’m not going to go out there, anxious, in front of 22,000 people. I’m not going to play Roger. I’m not going to play. I didn’t play. First, I didn’t play Roger. And then, I didn’t play at all.”
He turned a weakness into a strength.
“But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed.
In fact I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.
And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.
Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.
And before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play. You don’t have to play. Don’t play …
That, too, is strength.”
His fearlessness about being open about his struggle is so powerful. We are all humans. We are all big bags of chemicals. The chemicals mix in lots of different ways.
“I still deal with my anxiety on a daily basis. I still take medication daily. It’s still in my mind daily. There are days that go by where I’ll think to myself, at night, when I’m going to bed: Hey, I didn’t think about it once today. And that means I had a really good day.”
How we deal with the mixture is what ultimately matters. I loved watching Mardy Fish play tennis. It was fun to root for him. It was pretty awesome to see him drop 30 pounds and totally transform his game. And now it’s even more awesome to know that he’s playing the game of life every day, doing his best, and helping the rest of us understand that having and dealing with mental health issues isn’t a weakness, but instead it’s just part of life.