Shifting Purpose and Purposeful Shifts

For as long as I can remember, I was the Swimmer. In elementary school, I missed birthday parties at the Laser Dome to swim. In high school, I went to every class reeking of chlorine. In college, I found my family among my teammates and spent weekends traveling from dual meet to dual meet.  

Swimming gave me a sense of purpose unparalleled by any other aspect of my life. I began competitively swimming at age 9 and quickly ascended the ranks to win provincial and national championships. I was a member of the Canadian national team and competed at the 2012 Olympic Trials. I trained 20 hours a week and dreamed about competing almost every night. I lived a sort of monastic life in which I swam, ate, studied, and slept, in that order. I was a woman on a mission to achieve every goal I wrote down. But 12 years later, as Ivy Championships drew to a close, I noticed a giant void, not because of the 20 extra hours of free time I now had, but because in the first time in my life I didn’t have any goals to diligently and resolutely strive toward.

To be honest, at first this was a happy realization. The lack of pressure and responsibility coupled with an abundance of free time during which I could actually remain dry was a novel luxury to me. Who was this person with neatly brushed DRY hair, with energy to “hang out”, and with time to sleep more than six hours a night? Is this what retirement feels like?

But quickly I found myself gravitating back towards the pool and the training room, one part because of the physical and mental benefits of exercise, and three parts because it felt familiar and comfortable. One month after I finished my Varsity career, I got back into the pool. For comparison, most of my teammates avoided touching water for several months or even years after the conclusion of their careers. With every stroke, I felt like I was physically moving forward, but towards what I did not know. Although swimming will always be there for me, especially in my old age when land sports will become too tough on my joints, I knew I had to replace that empty space in my brain and my heart with a new passion.

Swimming became my passion in a very unintentional way. My parents signed me up for just about every sport when I was a six-year-old, and it turned out swimming was the only one I could do. I didn’t choose swimming – I would have much rather been a figure skater (I really loved their costumes). But unfortunately, I was not gifted with hand-eye coordination or flexibility, instead all I had was a rather large set of lungs. This sport chose me, and before I knew what I had gotten myself into, I was waking up at five o’clock in the morning and spending half an hour squeezing myself into Speedos meant for someone half my size. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my swimming career, not in the slightest bit. But it felt like, upon reflection, a passion that was not truly my own. I had not intentionally chose the sport because I loved it, but because I happened to be good at it.

As this phase of my life drew to a close, looking forward to what lay in store next felt both exhilarating and agonizingly scary. This time I knew I had to be intentional about searching for a purpose, but I had no idea where to begin. So to go with the flow, corporate recruiting and consulting seemed like a good place to start. In addition, a layer of self-doubt seeped in – what if I will never be as good as something as I was at swimming? What if this is the only thing I truly excelled at?

After graduation, I moved to New York and began work as a brand strategy consultant. The work was interesting and impactful. The people were intelligent and driven. And as a bushy-tailed and bright-eyed analyst, I attacked every project with the vigour of completing a test set workout, hoping to prove myself to not only my new colleagues, but also to myself that I could excel in something else. But as work ebbed and flowed, mundane brain-numbing chores replaced intellectually engaging projects, and I found it hard to stay focused. Furthermore, about half a year into my tenure, several analysts from my class quit and moved on to other pursuits. This was one of the things that actually impacted me the most. I was used to spending years with a team of people single-mindedly dedicated to a common goal, and the transient nature of workplace teams caught me by surprise.

It was around this time I began re-evaluating how I should approach my career. Goal-setting for swimming is linear and can be measured precisely down to the millisecond. Achieving those goals is almost formulaic: train to the best of your abilities, recover correctly, and execute the race strategy. However, career goal-setting is far more ambiguous. Each move can simultaneously seem like a step forward and a step backward. So for now, I am just concentrating on identifying the aspects of my current job that motivate me and learning about what intrigues me on this earth.

I don’t pretend I have it all figured out and I most definitely don’t have a life plan, but through this transition from Varsity athlete to NARP (Non-Athletic Regular Person), I feel more comfortable following my instincts to discover things that I love to do. I think I always defined myself and measured my value in my performance of a given activity, whether this was competitive swimming or strategy consulting. But instead, I should be viewing my activities more holistically, and that everything I accomplish is a building block to illuminate my path forward. Somehow I trust that at the end of the day, if I follow this “choose your own adventure” path, I’ll continue to find purpose in my life.

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About the Author

Amy Sun

Amy Sun is a former Canadian national team member, Division I athlete, Academic All-Ivy recipient, and Dartmouth ’17. She now lives in New York and works in brand strategy consulting. Although she does not currently have regular access to a pool, she keeps herself active by running, dog-walking, and globe-trotting.