The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Secret to Becoming a Trailblazer

Authenticity, individuality, and the power of nonconformity.

We all want to feel worthy of love and belonging. Are you someone who feels a strong connection to a church or other group of like-minded people? Do you modify your personal appearance or buy apparel and accessories that send a signal to others that you are part of their "tribe"? It's a thin line between being a chameleon and maintaining one's free spirit and individuality. It's also difficult to juggle a need for individuality with the importance of being part of a collective.

I grew up in the 1970s watching the Marlo Thomas television show "Free to Be You and Me." The message of the program was to encourage young people (girls especially) to be more outgoing and believe that they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be by not conforming to gender stereotypes. Please take a few minutes to watch the clip "Sisters and Brothers" if you are unfamiliar with the message of Free to Be You and Me.

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Taking a herd mentality can stifle extroversion.

study released on July 17, 2013 from the University of Southampton found that young adults who are more outgoing or more emotionally stable are happier in later life than their more introverted or less emotionally stable peers. The researchers found that personality dispositions by the time of early adulthood have an enduring influence on well-being decades later.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Dr. Catharine Gale from the Medical Research Council’s Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton and colleagues examined the effects of neuroticism and extraversion at 16 and 26 years on mental well-being, physical health, and life satisfaction and again at age 60 to 64. 

Dr. Catharine Gale stated, “Few studies have examined the long-term influence of personality traits in youth on happiness and life satisfaction later in life. We found that extroversion in youth had direct, positive effects on wellbeing and life satisfaction in later life. Neuroticism, in contrast, had a negative impact, largely because it tends to make people more susceptible to feelings of anxiety and depression and to physical health problems.”

Common sense would predict these findings... but what can we do as parents, coaches and teachers to help young adults be more outgoing and emotionally stable? Obviously, we need to take a multi-pronged approach, but I am a firm believer that regular physical activity, social connectivity, and achieving large and small goals everyday reshapes the teenage brain and reinforces an extroverted disposition.

Can extroversion be learned?

In the University of Southampton study, extroversion was assessed by questions about participants sociability, energy, and activity orientation. Neuroticism was assessed by questions about their emotional stability, mood, and distractibility. But how does one become more extroverted if it doesn't come naturally? Can someone consciously strive to make him or herself more of an extrovert? I believe the answer is a resounding "yes!"

I am a very shy person by nature. Over the years I have worked hard to come out of my shell—sports helped me to do this. Athletics has the power to make you more extroverted and less neurotic. The daily process of setting a workout goal, struggling through it and prevailing builds confidence and resilience. Through sports you reinforce a ‘Carpe Diem!’ mindset that bleeds over into all aspects of your life. As a young gay teenager I felt very neurotic, introverted, and emotionally shut down. Running and working out turned this around for me, and can cause a metamorphases from the inside out for anybody.

I took the Billie Jean King quote, “Be bold. If you're going to make an error, make a doozy. And don’t be afraid to hit the ball” to heart as a young athlete. I knew that as someone who always felt like an outsider that I would get bored easily and had an inherent need to push into uncharted territories. I believe that anyone can decide to be bold and push against his or her limits with daily practice and a proper support network. Sports is a terrific way to fortify a trailblazer mindset at any age.

Dr. Gale adds: “Understanding what determines how happy people feel in later life is of particular interest because there is good evidence that happier people tend to live longer. In this study we found that levels of neuroticism and extraversion measured over 40 years earlier were strongly predictive of well-being and life satisfaction in older men and women. Personality in youth appears to have an enduring influence on happiness decades later.”

Nonconformity and the blessing of being gay.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.” This has been my mantra ever since I realized I was gay as a teenager. This was also my mantra as an ultraendurance athlete. I never wanted to play it safe or take comfort in being part of a herd. In fact, I don’t think that I would have accomplished what I did as an athlete if I was straight. It’s in our uniqueness that we ultimately find our deepest strength.

Being gay has forced me to embrace the power of nonconformity. I knew that I was different from a young age and had two choices: either pretend to be someone that I wasn’t or live wholeheartedly from a place of authenticity. I chose the later and it allowed me to succeed in many competitions on and off the court.

Groucho Marx said famously, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t wish to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” As a gay person who came out in the 80s and struggled to find myself at a time when there was no support network or ‘gay tribe’ to belong to I got very accustomed to feeling like an outsider. I found power in overcoming the fear of being gay. It took courage to come out, but I realized that living wholeheartedly and with authenticity was the key to happiness and success. This is true for everyone. 

To this day I have absolutely zero interest in ‘belonging’ to a homogenized group or to be part of any ‘club.’ I know that embracing the things that made me different ultimately was the rocket fuel that pushed me to win races and break a Guinness World Record.

Conclusion: Free to Be You and Me

I am of the “Free to Be You and Me” school of thought. I have always thrived on feeling like an outsider and believe that embracing the feeling of not belonging stimulates original thinking and facilitates leadership skills. That said, it is also important that we stick together and look out for one another. It's important that we remind our children of the importance of celebrating their individuality and the power of nonconformity while remembering the collective. Athletics is a terrific way to learn these lessons and become a trailblazer.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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