On Education, Part V: Does What You Do Need To Be Who You Are?

Did you miss Parts I – IV of this series? Click here to catch up. 

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

“First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.”
– Tara Westover

“If your whole life was about building up to one race, one performance, or one event, how does that sustain everything that comes afterwards? […] Eventually, for me at least, there was one question that hit me like a ton of bricks: Who was I outside of the swimming pool?”
– Michael Phelps (speaking about the post-Olympics letdown)

I wrote in 2020 about the case for not becoming a professional in our sport. Since then, I have worked in other industries and started graduate school. I’ve edited over 50 memos on economic issues. I have read thousands of pages of law textbooks.

But also, I have watched every five-star live stream in the past two years basically from start to finish. I sold about 30 horses in a little over a year during the pandemic; I coached hundreds of lessons and put thousands of hours in the saddle; I jumped a lot of jumps and circled a lot of circles.

And often, I have doubt. Doubt about giving myself a fair shot in both worlds. Doubt about being good enough. Doubt about feeling judged — on the one hand, by riders whose lives and livelihoods are horses: who eat, drink, and breathe the professional lifestyle and do nothing else; and on the other hand, by attorneys and academics and colleagues who feel as comfortable in a courtroom as I feel on a cross country course.

If I still love the sport this much — if it’s still so tempting to me to watch a live stream instead of doing my readings — then is splitting my time going to be enough? But then, I also think of the times when I would rather read a case instead of going to teach a lesson or ride a horse, because the material is so gripping and fun and consequential. The best athletes are obsessive; they are abnormal. The best scholars are, too.

Am I allowed to be obsessed with both? I’m banking on that. I’m willing it to be true.

The 24-7 nature of horse life makes it nearly impossible to ‘leave your work at work.’ Even I, as a half-student-half-horse professional, have a hard time leaving the horses at the barn and leaving my law studies at school. They both come home with me and I think about them frequently, often relating them or pinging from one idea to another. (In case you were wondering, it is hard for me to turn my brain off sometimes.)

It is difficult, mentally, to do this. How much better of a rider would I be if I focused solely on riding? How much better of a law student would I be if I studied more? These are questions I try not to think about too much, because they make me question the way I’m doing life.

Is who you are what you do? To an extent, it is. What you spend your time doing becomes your identity. And that can be empowering, and exhilarating, and all-consuming. But as Michael Phelps said in one of the quotes with which I started this article, “Who was I outside of the swimming pool?”. If you are a professional rider, who are you outside of the barn, or out of the saddle? If you are a professional in another industry, who are you outside of the office, or off the stage?

In my appointment book, which is a paper calendar that I keep the old-fashioned way, writing things in by hand, I have two main sections. At the top, there are rows for each of my horses, so I can write what they are doing each day and any notes related to them. Below is my class schedule and any assignments I have due. Then I have random phrases peppered throughout, which is I guess what you could call ‘everything else.’ Usually these are written in a variety of colors, and they are reminders of things I need to do, any other appointments that I have, and ideas that spring to mind.

In short, it’s a mess. But it’s who I am, and corralling the mess into some shape or another is my job each week. Doing that each week gives shape to each month, which gives shape to each year. There are lots of balls in the air and every now and then I drop one. And that’s okay.

Don’t decide who you are before you find out what you are capable of. That’s the message of Tara Westover’s quote from the beginning of this mess of words. It requires a bit of patience and a little self-belief, as well.