Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at the Dare 2 Lead Conference at Murray High School in Salt Lake City. Dare 2 Lead is a state-wide leadership conference serving Utah's High School students aimed toward empowering students to become a force for good in their schools and in the world. Each High School nominated 2 students to attend the conference. Below is my speech minus the part where I introduce myself. If you'd like to know more about me, visit the "about" page above.
Everything we set out to do in life comes from either seeking happiness: a sense of accomplishment, achievement or joy; or because we want to avoid what we fear: disappoint, pain, and struggle. Ironically, setting out to do what makes us happy, setting goals and dreaming big often brings with it the potential risk of bringing on what we fear (heartbreak and sadness), but we can’t let that stop us. I suppose that my mission in following my dream is to share with others that if it’s easy, it’s probably not worth it. There is so much to be gained in the struggle. So here is my advice to you.
#1: Follow Your Heart
Society doesn’t really want us to do the things we love; it wants us to do and seek the things it tells us we should love. Society wants us to be driven by material things—wealth, fame, fancy cars, college degrees—but ultimately what will benefit the world the most is following your heart. There is a quote from Howard Thurman that says, “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” When I am following my heart, I am at my happiest and when I’m at my happiest, doors seem to open all around me. I smile more, I say hello to strangers beside me on the airplane, I’m willing to share, and suddenly I’ve got a job offer or at the very least a new friend.
Following your heart also allows you to be internally motivated, not externally motivated to achieve. What you are pursuing is sought for the love and joy that you have for it, not for what you are trying to attain at the end of the road. When you are internally motivated to achieve, you will keep yourself going, you will be able to push through circumstances that are less than ideal, you will be able to look past short term setbacks and stay focused on your end goal.
When I first set out to ski, it was all about the fun and love that I had for the sport. As I began getting my first taste of success and the benefits that success brought, I began to be motivated by external factors. I needed to ski to keep sponsors happy, I had to beat my opponents, and I had to prove that I was the best (not just the best that I could be). This sport that I was once passionate about became a job and as a consequence, my results began to suffer. Interestingly, that was around the time that I had to deal with the hardest news of my life, that my father had a rare and progressive form of Leukemia, a year later, I tore my ACL, meniscus, cartilage, and posterolateral corner of my right knee, and just after that, a friend and fellow competitor crashed in the halfpipe and passed away from injuries sustained. To continue skiing was only worth it if I still loved it. In the last 3 years of my competitive career I have had some of the best days on the hill despite not having landed on a podium since 2011, a feat that at one time was almost guaranteed.
#2: It Is Rare To Find Success Without Failure
"Failure" has a really a bad rap, but failure has been my biggest ally. First of all, it takes many "failures" to be successful in the end- it is a natural and necessary part of the process in any pursuit, to fail along the way. When I first started skiing competitively things didn’t go so well… my first mogul competition I fell 4 times in one run! I remember feeling so embarrassed that I wanted to crawl into a hole. There are so many parallels to my journey as a young girl just entering this sport to my journey now as an accomplished pro. Setting aside the ego, ignoring feelings of embarrassment and shame, feelings of not fitting in or being understood, feelings of doubt—these are all issues that I continue to manage, just with a greater awareness now, it is a conscious decision everyday to press on despite setbacks.
My first 2 years competing at X-Games I finished 2nd to last, but every year I showed up with more vigor, more fire and more motivation. I didn’t allow my doubts and fears to stand in the way of accomplishing my goal. I knew that one failure didn’t mean that I would continue to fail forever; it was just an indicator of where there was room for my skiing to improve. I didn’t let my failure define me. Failure brings with it great opportunity for growth and learning if we are willing to endure the lessons it offers. My 6th year competing at X-Games, I finally won Gold, despite having a cold, being 10 months out of a major knee surgery and being beat in qualifiers by a young up and comer. I knew it wasn’t over until all 3 finals runs had been skied. Don’t let that glimpse of failure, that threat to your pride and ego, take you away from what you are trying to accomplish, and even more than that, don’t let it push you away from what is in your heart. Your failures, nor your successes, define you.
# 3: Happiness Is A Decision
Things may not turn out the way that we expect, but that doesn’t need to control our happiness. As much as I want to encourage each and every one of you to dream big, to not place limitations on your potential, our value does not lie solely in what we are able to accomplish. In fact, the results and outcome of our goals are often out of our control due to external factors. We can only do our best on any given day with the tools that we currently have. What matters is how we handle ourselves when things don’t go our way.
Of all of things that I have achieved in my career, one of my proudest moments was this past winter. In December, at our first Olympic Qualifying event, I landed a trick and tore my ACL, meniscus and cartilage in my left knee. I wasn’t the only athlete to be taken out this way this winter—it is a risk in our job and one that the majority of us accepts and considers worth taking for the potential reward. There were so many reasons for me to be devastated this winter, to be bitter and jealous of my younger teammates who would ultimately qualify for the Olympics and represent our nation in the event that I advocated for so many years to be a part of the Games. But I took a step back and said, “I don’t want to be sad, I choose to be happy.” As much as there were valid reasons to be sad in missing out on what I was certain would have been a part of my future (becoming and Olympian), there were so many more reasons to feel happy. First of all, I confirmed that I wasn’t insane to think that halfpipe would someday be a part of the Olympics and it made for an excellent show. Second of all, I was pretty darn close to becoming an Olympian, which is more than a lot of people will ever be able to say and I am proud to have come so far. And finally, dozens of my friends became Olympians this year and I got to cheer them on and celebrate in their accomplishments.
There was nothing more that I could have done in my quest. I couldn’t control the fact that I got injured and some day, you might have a negative experience that stops you just short of your dream. What matters, and where our true value lies is not so much in what we do, but in how we do things. Win humbly, lose graciously, don’t forget where you came from, be grateful for what you have and what you have accomplished and always respect those around you, especially your competitors- they are more like you than you know. Choose happiness.
#4: The Only Moment That Matters Is The One You Are Currently In
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted stressing about things out of my control. We cause ourselves undue stress and worry over things that have happened in the past and future events that haven’t even happened yet! In reality, the only moment that we can experience is the moment we are currently living in. We can’t change the past, we just have to accept it and do our best to learn from it, not be paralyzed by it. Coming back from injuries is one of the hardest aspects of my job because I have to set aside the fear that I have from past events and convince myself that things can be different in the future. The way that I do that is by staying largely focused on the present moment, reminding myself that I possess the skills to do what I am setting out to do. There is a great quote that says, “if you have a problem and there is a solution, then there is no need to worry. If you have a problem and there is no solution, then there is no need to worry.” We can only deal with a situation when we are in it presently. When there is nothing you can do about a problem or challenge, we are best served by accepting it and making the most of what the present moment has to offer. That’s not to say you should run through life without making plans or setting goals, but do so with flexibility, so that you are able to enjoy the moment you are in. Don't dream so big that you forget what is right in front you.
#5: Letting Go Is Different Than Giving Up
The path that I had outlined for myself, the story that I had scripted for my future, changed dramatically this winter when I injured my knee. But because I was willing to let go of what was supposed to be, I was able to take in the experiences for what they were, and they ended up being very fulfilling. Throughout my career when I would have bad contest days, or a trick was frustrating me, or I wasn’t feeling respected by my sponsors, my dad would always tell me to “let it go.” I would always respond with “I don’t want to let it go! I’m not a quitter! I need to prove that I can do it!” It seemed that there was always more to give. But when is enough, enough? “Letting go” is in fact the hardest and scariest thing to do because it feels so similar to “giving up,” but letting go, is different than giving up. For so long we feel that we are driving our dreams, but sometimes that dream begins to drive us. We are no longer in the driver’s seat, because our dream has taken control of the wheel. Realizing this has been liberating and simultaneously terrifying. I am now at a juncture in my career, a transition year, like many of you find yourselves today, where I am asking “what next?”
All I have known for the last decade of my life is what it means to be a professional skier. My identity and purpose has been wrapped up in skiing much as your identity has been tied to being a student, an athlete, an artist, musician, etc. All of these pieces will remain a part of us, but if we aren’t willing to let go of our former identities because we feel we are “quitting” or “giving up” on what we were “supposed” to do or be, we are denying ourselves ultimate happiness. Remember the first tip that I gave you all—“follow your heart”—sometimes what is in your heart changes but we are so entrenched in our current path that we don’t notice until our unhappiness nags hard enough that we take a deep look inside.
“The death of a dream can in fact serve as the vehicle that endows it with new form, with reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalized color. In short, the power of a certain kind of dream is such that death need not indicate finality at all but rather signify a metaphysical and metaphorical leap forward.” Aberjhani
So, take a look inside, where is your heart guiding you now?