Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 8th, 2013

A professional’s goals

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Clint Irwin

Earlier this week, Pacific Standard published a wonderful article by Clint Irwin, a goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids, on the difficulties of being a working professional athlete. I haven’t kicked a soccer ball in decades, but I identified with Irwin from the first few lines, in which he quotes one of his blog posts from several years ago:

I find it difficult even calling myself a professional soccer player at this stage because…I’m technically not a professional, I don’t paid for what I’m doing right now…I guess what I’ve settled on is “unemployed professional,” which is a title that would fit many in this downtrodden economy.

I know exactly how he felt. In the years before I sold my first novel, I was similarly unsure about how to describe myself at cocktail parties. Generally, I’d say something like “I’m a novelist, in that I’ve written a novel, but I’m still trying to get it published,” which was probably more than the person asking the question needed to hear. (Being published has its ups and downs, too, but it does simplify the labeling.)

Irwin’s essay isn’t about soccer so much as it’s about the challenges of becoming a professional of any kind, which we can define as someone who earns a living, however tenuous, solely by doing the kind of work that he or she cares about the most. As many of us have discovered, breaking into the field of your dreams in the first place can seem all but impossible, and when you finally get there, the financial rewards are likely to be disproportionately small: Irwin’s first deal with a minor-league soccer club paid him five hundred bucks a month plus living expenses, and he was ecstatic to get it. And you quickly find that compared to the more famous—and coddled—members of your profession, you’re essentially on your own. For an author, this means holding readings that nobody attends, scrambling for interviews and press coverage, and serving as your own publicist, webmaster, and even agent; for a soccer player, it’s living in dorms, being given Chinese takeaway for lunch before a game, and working a desk job in the afternoon.

Clint Irwin

And although it’s great that you’re getting paid to play, you often find that the scramble to survive leaves you stuck at the same level. Developing your talents, whether as an athlete or an artist, takes time and energy that isn’t always there when you’re trying to keep your head above water. Here’s what Irwin did:

For me, it came to a point where I didn’t believe it possible to pursue a top-flight professional career in soccer while holding down three full-time jobs. So I quit my desk job. I kept coaching but cut back my hours. I used the extra funds I earned coaching and working to buy some time at a local sports performance center…I gave up a job offer that would have paid me more than a rookie contract in MLS in order to pursue a dream that had a slim chance of success. Most would’ve taken that job, the money, and the sure thing. I almost did.

In the end, he signed a standard rookie contract with the Rapids, earning $35,125 a year, which felt like hitting the jackpot. That’s the funny thing about becoming a professional: after years of effort, training, and sacrifice, you end up with a lower salary than that of most personal assistants. But the intangible benefits are harder to quantify. Most jobs reimburse you for the time spend doing work that few people would do for free, time that you’d rather be spending on soccer, fiction, or wherever else your heart lies, and the compensation is adjusted accordingly. For a professional, the calculation is different: the money you make allows you to meet your basic needs so you can continue being a professional. For a lucky few, of course, the rewards end up being greater. As Irwin writes: “We get paid to play a sport. That’s the only thing most professional soccer players in North America share with Messi—or anyone in the NFL or NBA.” Which is true. But when you’re out there on the field, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2013 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2013 at 7:30 am

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