“The most fulfilling adventures happen when you start your journey without knowing where you’re going, because only then are you free to experience the unexpected detours you’re meant to take.”
― A.J. Darkholme, Rise of the Morningstar

“In the moment, you most likely won’t know how valuable such detours will prove to be, but life has a way of revealing the hidden magic in these moments down the road at the appropriate time.” 
― Shannon Ables

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
―Mahatma Gandhi

By P.J. Simmons

A fellow tennis fanatic emailed me last week: “Hey man, haven’t seen any new posts for a while – how’s your Road to 4.5 going? You there yet?”

“Not quite,” I wrote.

Turns out the “Road” has had a few more twists and turns than expected.

When I started this blog in July 2012, I had a fairly clear vision of what my life would look like in 2016. I was sure I’d be a rock solid 4.0 USTA league competitor by now, rapidly closing in on a 4.5 rating. I expected to be in the best shape of my life, training 6 days a week on court and off. I was confident I’d be updating this blog with new posts every few weeks, sharing the ups and downs of my training with fellow tennisaholics around the globe. And all signs were pointing towards leading an effortlessly balanced life, where I was also enjoying ample quality time with family and friends and making a tangible difference in the world through my professional work with the Corporate Eco Forum to advance sustainability.

As Woody Allen famously said: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

2016 looks radically different than I imagined: My on-court progress has been stalled for months. My fitness is good, but nowhere near the elite level I had expected. I managed to pen only four new posts in 2014 and three in 2015. I’m constantly struggling to keep up with the workload of essentially two full-time jobs.

And yet, life has never felt richer or more fulfilling.

Ironically, the main reason I’m only inching towards 4.5 these days is because of tennis, which opened up a new road into uncharted territory I couldn’t resist exploring.

The big detour started in late 2012, when I set out to turn my dream of creating a “Tennis Congress” for fellow serious adult amateurs like myself.

It’s comical in retrospect how relatively easy I thought it would be to realize that dream while still holding down my full-time sustainability work, keeping up with my own training, and leading a balanced life.

“I don’t have kids,” I reasoned to others (and myself), “which frees me up to raise a different kind of baby for the next few years.”

Thank goodness for that naive optimism, for if I had any clue the trials and tribulations that were in store I almost certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to embark on the journey.

The smooth path I expected quickly turned into a roller coaster ride. Despite the idea quickly gaining traction with coaches and serious adult amateurs alike, it soon became clear that achieving my vision for a truly “world-class” experience would require a far greater investment of money and time than I originally imagined. Which presented me with another big fork-in-the-road moment: either significantly scale back my vision and play it safe; or stay true to the vision, with the faith that somehow it would all work out in the long run.

Being a stubborn Taurus, I chose the latter.  But the implications were significant. We had to move in with family for two years to make ends meet financially. My routine work week stretched to 70+ hours and free weekends disappeared. My sleep was interrupted by frequent 3am panic attacks, my overcrowded mind filled with anxiety.

Another casualty was my own on-court training, which I needed to scale back significantly both because of time and financial constraints. I went from playing 4-5 times a week to a single 90-minute weekly practice session with my coach Brian. That once-a-week appointment on court became sacred: it brought me a measure of comfort, escape, and joy that only other fellow players could fully understand. And because my practice was always deliberate and focused, even this relatively small investment of practice time produced dividends: I kept improving steadily, albeit a bit more slowly than before.

Then last December, a major roadblock appeared that would put a complete halt to my on-court training.

After months of increasingly disconcerting wrist pain, an MRI revealed a cartilage tear in my dominant wrist (a “TFCC” tear, which is similar to a meniscus knee tear). Turns out it was due to a fall backwards months prior that never properly healed, but my relentless drive to have a big modern forehand had made things worse.

The prognosis: I’d be sidelined for at least 6 months to recover properly.

The news hit hard at first. I viewed that singular weekly practice time as a lynchpin for preserving my mental health in the face of unrelenting pressure off court. And while I’m usually the eternal optimist about these things — and found some consolation in my general outlook on injuries — the prospect of losing tennis completely at this particularly stressful moment really stung.

But then funny thing happened only a couple weeks later: I actually began feeling a sense of relief.

I had been running at such a furious pace for three years straight, and realized something needed to give. But I had been unwilling to prioritize – so I just kept trying to do everything. My body had made the decision for me.

In the weeks that followed, my forced time off also prompted me to reflect in new ways on the meaning of tennis in my life, on what’s most important in life, and on my priorities.

Here are the big takeaways (I’m writing this down for myself perhaps more than anyone else):

(1) As deeply rewarding as it’s been to achieve hard-earned progress in my own game, those rewards pale in comparison to those I’ve received in the process of trying to help others. Service has been a powerful motivator for me since high school, and my career decision to focus on sustainability was rooted in trying to help safeguard a healthy planet for future generations. The unexpected detour to start The Tennis Congress has opened up new means for me to make a tangible difference in other people’s lives today. It’s been nothing short of magical to watch the positive ripple effects of bringing together athletes, coaches, and industry leaders united by passion for tennis and a belief in the power of our sport to transform lives. And nothing makes my heart race faster than thinking about the possibilities of having even greater impact in the years ahead. Renewed focus on my purpose in life has put my own goals to become a 4.5+ player in perspective: Yes, I will keep striving and I’m confident I’ll eventually get to 4.5– but I’m much more relaxed about the pace. Focusing more on helping others achieve their goals enables me to ease up and enjoy the process of my own training even more.

(2) Good relationships are the most important thing in life – but protecting them requires constant attention and investment. We’ve all heard wise elders tell us to avoid repeating their mistake of failing to invest sufficiently in relationships with family and friends who are dear to us. Yet it’s so easy to lose perspective when work-related demands and other commitments spiral out of control. Weeks or even months have gone by being so “busy” that I’ve failed to realize I’ve begun to take precious relationships for granted and put them at risk. Thanks to the combination of detours and roadblocks over the past couple years, my “Road” now includes a permanent “warning” sign ready to flash yellow when priorities start getting skewed.

(3) My ability to help others will be significantly reduced if I don’t take good care of my self. Last fall my wise friend and colleague Feisal Hassan told me quite plainly: “P.J., you have to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” It wasn’t the first time someone offered advice along these lines, but Feisal’s characteristically direct communication style made an indelible impact. Since then, I’ve created some new habits that have become life-changing:

  • I started meditating every morning before starting my day – just 10 minutes (using guided meditations from an app called “Calm“) but it’s been transformative in helping me keep my eye on the big picture.
  • I made an afternoon ritual of taking my dog Mila to the park for an hour every day (as opposed to the previous practice of working through lunch, relying on dog walkers I couldn’t afford, and confining play time with Mila to short bursts of fun before going back to work); the result is greater happiness for both her and her dad.
  • I’ve made nutrition a top priority, applying advice I’m trained to give to others but for years have been “too busy” to abide by myself (I’ll post with details this summer).
  • I schedule three serious workouts on my calendar each week and schedule work around them; without fail, almost every time I have to drag myself away from my desk to do them and fear that urgent work won’t get done  — then without fail, every time I’m done I realize my work will be far better as a result.
  • Finally, and most importantly, I keep working on my “story” as my friend (and former World #1 in the 55s) Bob Litwin urges me to do (see his recently published book Live the Best Story of Your Life: A World Champion’s Guide to Lasting Change“). My new story begins with “I am in control of my life…” which helps me remember no matter what external pressures I’m experiencing or how out of control I’m feeling, I can choose to re-focus and re-prioritize based on my life purpose and most important relationships. Here’s my current story:

“I am in control of my life. I live each day gratefully and effortlessly. I believe in myself – my ability to rise to any challenge, overcome any obstacle, be who I want to be. I embrace obstacles of all kinds as opportunities to learn and love problem solving. I begin each day with 10 minutes of meditation to improve my ability to be mindful and present in all circumstances. Each day I walk slowly and breathe deeply. I am a master of time management and embrace the 80/20 principle in work and life, which focuses me on what really matters and enables me to get an extraordinary amount of things done while enjoying life extraordinarily. I treat my body as the temple that it is, making a priority to care for it with great care. I treat others the way I would like to be treated. Most importantly, I am a great partner, relative, colleague, and friend to those closest to me, recognizing that meaningful relationships are absolutely the most important foundation of a life well lived.”

So this is all basically a long way of saying… I’m feeling pretty Zen about my own progress happening more slowly than I expected. Do I miss my time on court practicing with coaches and friends? Absolutely. Do I sometimes get down about not being able to play much right now? You bet.

But I’ve been comforted knowing that tennis will always be there waiting for me, like an old friend, when I’m ready to step back on the court. Which, hopefully, will be very soon…

And thanks to the diversions on my tennis journey, my life destination has never been more clear. In short, my “Road to 4.5” itself has proven to be a detour itself along a longer, more significant road:

The “Road to a life well lived.”