During my twenties I played in beach volleyball tournaments with Olympic contenders all the time. You’d think this would mean that I love watching beach volleyball in the Olympics. But actually, watching makes me sad.
After college, I moved to Los Angeles, determined to play on the professional beach volleyball tour. People thought I had completely lost my mind. I gave up an invitation to study history in Yale’s graduate program. I gave up a job offer in New York City publishing. I gave up living in Chicago, where my whole family was.
Here’s what my day was like: I woke up at 7am and I walked to a bagel store. I ate four bagels because I had no money for food and I had to eat cheap calories that would hold me over until the end of the day.
I rode my bike seven miles to the beach. I played volleyball for six hours. Then I rode back seven miles, showered and went to work in a bookstore for four hours. After work, I went to the gym for two hours. I did a twenty-minute aerobic warmup and then I lifted weights and then I meditated for twenty minutes where I visualized doing the drills I would do the next day on the beach.
I walked home after the gym and I read for two hours. Then I went to bed.
It was the same every single day. For three years. You’d think that other parts of life would get in the way, but here’s an interesting thing about having no money: there is no room for error. I planned every day so I had exactly enough money to eat, sleep and play volleyball. There was nothing else.
I made it to the tour. I was an internationally ranked player. But I thought I was just getting my butt kicked. I told myself my efforts were useless because I’d never be in the top five. I didn’t ever say, “Holy cow, I’m in the top 25.”
I thought I was a complete loser and I would never pull things together and I was mostly hiding from people so they didn’t see how messed up I was. I didn’t earn very much money, I didn’t do things that I thought a normal woman in her 20s would do. I was completely focused on beach volleyball.
Then, later, when I realized that I had actually been doing a good job of managing my life, I realized that most people in their 20s are worried, at one point or another, that they are messing up their lives. Especially people who take alternative paths. Yet, it’s the alternative paths that give people the most control over their lives as they get older.
I had a job in a bookstore because it’s the only job I could get that didn’t interfere with volleyball. But in fact, a job in a bookstore is great for someone with Aspergers. I catalogued all the books in my head. People left me alone to sort and shelve books. I read them as I went through the alphabet. In between the m‘s and n‘s was a special spot at the bottom where I put books I wanted to read that week.
The conversations I had with people were very limited in scope. I made change for a twenty. I made a joke to someone looking for Shakespeare in fiction. I made a recommendation to someone for a book that’s like The Rachel Papers (if you’re wondering: try Portnoy’s Complaint). I thought the job at the bookstore was a major disappointment for me and everyone who ever tried to help me pull myself together for adulthood. But in fact, the bookstore was a great place for me. I loved that job.
And I loved the repetition of training for beach volleyball. I did 200 jump serves every day. People wondered how I learned to set so well in just a year. It’s because I practiced, by myself, with fifteen balls, for hours each day. I had never worked so hard at anything in my life. But I didn’t see it that way—that I was completely focused and determined and hard working. I saw myself as lost.
But really, now I see that the hard work gave me confidence that I could accomplish whatever I want by working very hard to get it. Volleyball also taught me that if I want something difficult, there is no way to get it without being completely committed. I didn’t half-ass anything in my adult life because I saw women do it playing volleyball and I saw it made everything a waste of time.
Now I see that I spent my early twenties doing amazing stuff that was perfect for me. I read whatever I wanted to because there was no one telling me to stick to a syllabus. I made my own reading plans: metafiction, magical realism, minimalism. I was in love with what I was learning at night. I was in love with what I was learning in the day.
I did not have friends. I did not have money. I did not have the things I expected to have. But all that would have been fine if I had only had self-confidence.
I made great choices for myself after college. I read. I played sports. I spent time alone. This is all stuff I had been dying to do that I couldn’t do in school. I learned about what I wanted in my life by letting myself choose anything in life. It turns out that I chose great things for myself.
As an adult, I really appreciate the time I took to find out what is right for me. I don’t have that life anymore. I have kids now. And I have to earn money. And I had to scream at them six times just to get mental space to get this post written.
In the end, I left volleyball to write full time. Volleyball got boring. I am not a play-eight-hours-a-day kind of girl. Those women in the Olympics, they can play and play and play. When I watch those women I admire how determined they are. To them, winning is everything, and they never let up. I was not like that.
But that’s not what upsets me. What upsets me is that I was not fine with who I was. I was a woman who worked really hard at volleyball and went home to read. I was a woman who needed space and time alone and loved routine. I was a woman getting to know myself. I wish I had felt strong and proud while I was doing that.
“What should I be doing now?” is a question I get a lot from people in their 20s. The answer is that you should be respecting yourself as you learn about yourself. You should give yourself the space to do anything and then look closely to see what you enjoy. You do not need to get paid for what you enjoy, but you need to find a way to commit to what you enjoy, and then use that as a foundation to grow your adult life.