Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Passion Economy

How getting lost midair helped me land my career

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Published on August 04, 2021

Illustration by Fanny Luor

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When Simone Biles decided to withdraw from Olympic competition, it sparked fierce debate over whether it was an example of keeping perspective and knowing your limits or a selfish choice that let down her team and country. 

As a former gymnast, the story hit close to home. Though I can’t imagine the pressure of being an Olympian widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, I do know what it’s like to feel the fear of getting lost in midair. The mental phenomenon she experienced—known as “the twisties”—happened to me, too. And while it led to an accident that seemed like the end of one career, it led to the beginning of the one I really wanted.

When overthinking overrides muscle memory

The summer before my junior year in college, I decided to stay on campus to train at our gym and prepare for the upcoming season. 

After a few weeks, I noticed something strange happening. In the middle of a double back flip, a tumbling move I’d done for years, I started twisting unintentionally. It was bizarre—like a faulty reflex or a tic. Suddenly, I'd lost control of the muscle memory I’d spent years building up. 

Like a lot of athletes, gymnasts repeat moves again and again until they become second nature, something you can do without thinking. But when you have the twisties, thinking itself becomes the problem. 

I started to imagine what might happen if I accidentally twisted on other moves, too. The more I worried about it, the more I was bracing for it, and anticipating it. Even when I was doing the same routines I’d practiced for years, I didn’t trust my instincts anymore. I wasn’t sure I could ever rely on my muscle memory again.

A few months later, I was warming up for a meet in Chicago, attempting the same double back flip that had been haunting me all summer. This time, when I launched into the air, I accidentally twisted, became disoriented, and after one and a half rotations, landed on my head. 

My coaches called an ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital for X-rays. There, the doctor told me I’d fractured the spinous process of my C2 vertebrae. 

I was lucky—I hadn’t damaged my spinal cord. I would be able to walk and eventually do gymnastics again. The question for me was: did I still want to?

How stress can affect focus  

Biles’ experience reminded me how stress can infiltrate your mindset and prevent you from doing what used to be routine. If you’ve ever felt tongue tied during a presentation or drawn a blank on someone’s name during a meeting, you might relate. 

For me, the twisties felt similar to the frozen limbo of not being able to summon your memory at will. The difference is, when you space out in the middle of a double somersault, it’s not just frustrating—it's life threatening. 

That’s why Biles’ decision made sense to me, especially since she has nothing more to prove. The further you are in your career, the more you question how much you should sacrifice to keep doing what you’re doing, just because it’s what you’ve always done. 

It reminded me how stress can infiltrate your mindset and prevent you from doing what used to be routine.

When I had to decide whether to keep competing after my neck injury, I remember feeling stuck. Physically, I’d be capable of returning to the gym after rehabilitation. Mentally, I was looking at just one more year of life as a competitive gymnast, then… some other kind of life after graduation. For 10 years, I was so busy building my identity as a gymnast, I hadn’t taken the time to envision what I’d do when my gymnastics career was over.

Then I got a long handwritten note from my assistant coach, a former teammate and hero of mine. In it, he said if I quit now, quitting would be easier in every situation for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to let him down. I didn’t want to let my team down. I didn’t want to be seen as a quitter by my friends and family. 

Looking back, I should’ve listened to my instincts, which were telling me to stop and prioritize my safety, as Biles did. Instead, I returned to competition. 

A week before the end of the season, while dismounting from the parallel bars, I broke my leg. 

As a lot of you know after the past year, sometimes the unexpected can wake you up to the life you could be living. For me, this was the moment I had to step back and ask how much I was willing to sacrifice for work that was taking more from me than it was giving back. 

The pivot as a power move

The past year has been hard not only on the people who lost their jobs, but also on those who kept them. 

Essential workers on the frontlines kept the country alive and fed through unimaginable conditions. For some, the escalating stress brought on existential dread. Loss, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty felt inescapable. For the fortunate who got to work from home, not being trapped in traffic for hours gave them time to wonder why they agreed to step into that trap in the first place. 

As a result, many decided they want more from what they do all day. They want more flexibility and better pay.  And if they’re going to devote their time and energy to work, they want it to be work that means something to them. 

That may be why the Bureau of Labor Statistics is seeing the highest rates in resignation since they began collecting data. And in April, BLS reported that a record four million people left their jobs. Through months of isolation, many workers took time to think deeply about their lives and weigh their options—some of which had never been available until this moment. 

Some tech companies made bold decisions to allow employees to work from home permanently if they wanted. Others adopted hybrid or Virtual First policies. But it wasn’t just a tech phenomenon. In 2020, 82% of company leaders in HR, Legal and Compliance, Finance and Real Estate said they planned to allow remote work at least some of the time, according to a Gartner survey. This summer, as the Delta variant forced companies to rethink their reopening plans, some that were hesitant shifted their policies to allow more work flexibility than previously expected. 

As opportunities for solopreneurs rise, many are deciding not to return to a 9-to-5 routine. Some are heading back to school. Others are trying new career paths or opening their own businesses.

Sometimes the unexpected can wake you up to the life you could be living.

Serendipitously, there are new nets waiting for those willing to take the leap. The creator economy saw a record $1.3 billion in funding in 2021. As Passion Economy proponents like Kevin Kelly, Li Jin and Adam Davidson show us, platforms like Substack, Shopify, and Patreon give people new ways to make money doing what they love

Creators are using these and other new tech mediums to build a global community and connect directly with those who most value their unique skills. And if this surge of new tech is any indication, people will continue to be empowered to make meaningful pivots in their work lives.

Making the flip to a new career

After taking the summer off to let my leg heal, I decided not to return to gymnastics. For me, the pivotal moment was when I stopped mourning the painful ending of that season and began imagining what I might do next. 

For the first time in 10 years, I had a chance to reinvent my life. So I focused on being a student, started writing for the school newspaper, and took a class with the soon-to-be bestselling author Jane Smiley. I discovered a love for language that rivaled my love for gymnastics.  

From that point on, I never looked back. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years, and the last five at Dropbox have been the most gratifying*. Had I not pivoted away from something that wasn’t working for me, I might never have reclaimed the time I needed to step into a life that was even better. 

Biles’ story has a different kind of happy ending. She eventually overcame the twisties and went on to win a bronze medal on the balance beam. Whether she decides to retire or not, I admire her powerful example of exercising your right to reevaluate. Because changing direction isn’t the same as quitting. It’s a twist you can control.

*P.S. We’re hiring!