Today’s header photo comes from our mondo dayhike on Saturday. My quads are still feeling it as I type to you Sunday night. But as Instagram will also attest, I had a thing this weekend for big rocks. Fortunately, this post is not about big rocks. ;-)
Living in an outdoors town, and being in the habit of following athletes like skiers and climbers on social media, the general topic of turning pro is always around. We’re definitely on the old side of things when it comes to paid athletes, so we’re not talking about us. Plus, the idea of me as a pro athlete at any age is one we should all have a hearty chuckle about. Hahahahaha. Okay, glad we all got that out.
But lots of people in our orbit, especially younger folks than us, are striving for that elusive and mythical status. It can start small, with gear sponsorships, then grow to include free trips, and maybe one day get to the level of cash money in exchange for appearing in ads or movies.
But the point isn’t the free stuff or even the money — the point is to be able to devote as much time as possible to the outdoor sport you love.
And while a lucky few actually make enough money to save for the future and even give some away — climber Alex Honnold comes to mind — most people who dream of turning pro spend lots of time working to get better only to fall short of the goal. Sad trombone sound. Worst of all, they spend the exact years training when other people are going to college and getting on fast-track career paths. By the time they figure out that the dream isn’t going to happen, or even if it does happen but in a modest way that doesn’t provide for the future, they don’t have much to fall back on. Wop woppppppppp.
But there’s a different way to turn pro, a way that works a whole heckuva lot better for the masses of us who are not on the fast-track to becoming world-class athletes, and maybe even some who are.
The Typical Route to Turning Pro
The typical path to pro athlete looks like this:
Focus like crazy on getting better at your sport, sacrificing school and career in the meantime –> Maybe get noticed, maybe not –> Maybe make it as a pro for a little while, maybe not –> Eventually get too old to maintain the pace –> Scramble to support yourself long-term with few to no career chops.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. After all, the whole point is just to have as much time as possible to spend doing the thing you love to do. (Sound familiar, FIRE crowd?)
The Alternate Path to Pro
What if the path to pro athlete was more like this:
Pursue your outdoor passions at a moderate level while also doing well in school and later career –> Find ways to balance outdoor passions and career –> Save money like crazy while working –> Retire early and spend all your time outdoors, regardless of whether you ever got noticed or not.
This is not the path a person should be on if the goal is to be best in the world at something. This alternate path requires spending time at the office during your best physical years, the years when top athletes could be winning world championships. But if your goal is just to spend as much time pursuing your passions as possible? Then nothing beats this.
What this path loses in training in the peak physical years, it gains in long-term sustainability. How many ski bums can still be ski bums when they’re 50? How many dirtbag climbers are still dirtbagging it 20 years later?
The Virtues of Being a Self-Sponsored Athlete
Time for a little suspension of disbelief here, because we’re talking about ourselves as though we could plausibly be sponsored athletes, which is clearly not the case, or at least is not the case now that we’re in our late 30s. But let’s just pretend.
Let’s say some company wants to sponsor us. In exchange for some gear and maybe a little money, we have to agree to use only their gear, to post about their gear on our Instagram and Facebook pages, and to do some commercial shoots a few times a year. Those are minor inconveniences, but the bigger challenge is that we’re now under pressure to stay relevant, which means constantly pushing the envelope. If we’re sponsored as skiers, it means skiing bigger and more dangerous lines to get jaw-dropping photos and video. If we’re climbers, it means going after routes no one has successfully climbed before, or doing those routes in more dangerous ways, like free soloing them, or maybe BASE jumping off the top of the route wearing a squirrel suit. Basically, we have to take on massive risks — and the very real danger of dying — to hold on to our place as sponsored athletes. All in exchange for financial uncertainty over the long term.
Now say that we have the option of being self-sponsored athletes, a much more plausible scenario. In exchange for nothing from outside sponsors, we have no obligations of any sort. We can use whatever gear we want, and we can pursue whatever routes we want, even if they’re easy and are more about fun than about danger. We can dabble in many sports instead of trying to stay world-class in one. And we can do it for as long as we feel like. This is the life of the self-sponsored athlete.
Bonus: How much fun would this answer be to give when people ask the inevitable “What do you do” question, instead of hemming and hawing over how to say “I’m retired early”?
What do you do?
I’m a self-sponsored athlete!
Reframing Early Retirement
We love how our buddies over at Eat the Financial Elephant have defined their upcoming early retirement as being about living like “Dirtbag Millionaires” — able to devote most of their time to outdoorsy stuff like dirtbags do, but with financial independence — and we see that as a fantastic way to frame early retirement differently.
We’ve decided that, for us, we’re going to treat our early retirement as our self-sponsored athletes period. Because, once we hit FIRE, we get to live all the good parts of the pro adventure athlete life (mainly spending tons of time pursuing our outdoor passions), without any of the downside risks or financial insecurity. Sure, we probably won’t be the guys you hear about who are pioneering some new route on El Cap or skiing some massive new lines in AK, but we also won’t be busing tables and wondering how we’re going to get health insurance or start funding our IRA.
What’s Your Path to Pro?
What’s your path to pro, and what will you turn pro at? It’s not all about the rad stuff — I also plan to be a pro napper, er, self-sponsored napper, a pro farmers market shopper, a pro reader and a pro blogger. :-) Tell us how you’re turning pro!
Want more? Sign up for the free, non-salesy e-newsletter
Subscribe to get my every-month-or-two email newsletter with tons of behind-the-scenes info that never appears here on the blog.