OurNextLife.com // A Different (Better?) Way to Turn Pro

A Different (Better!) Way to Turn Pro

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.

OurNextLife.com // A Different (Better?) Way to Turn Pro -- The Self-Sponsored Route to Spending Your Time Outdoors // Early Retirement and Financial Independence

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?

Granite Boulder in the Mountains // OurNextLife.com -- Early Retirement, Mountain Living, Adventure
Another big, sexy rock. I can’t help it. I love them.

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!

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65 thoughts on “A Different (Better!) Way to Turn Pro

  1. Love this! Balance is the key here, for sure. I can relate – I earned my black belt in my late 30s and it took a while for me to realize it’s okay not to spend hours upon hours each week practicing. I have a life and family and, though I love martial arts, I am not willing to devote the time it would take to be at the top of my game.

    Currently I am a self sponsored black belt, traveler, gardener and naturalist.

    1. Wow, black belt — impressive! And in your late 30s — doubly impressive, just because society likes to tell us that it’s too late to do such things if we didn’t start as kids. Not true, as you prove! And what a cool self-sponsored list you have. :-)

  2. Lately, I’ve been looking at anthropology classes at different universities nearby. I’ve been reading about ethnography online. If I didn’t have to work for money, I can think of some other pursuits I’d gladly learn more about. I’d also spend more time with my creative work. I plan on devoting time to a project in July, and just the thought of having that time without job-related work…well, it opens so many doors just thinking about it!

    1. I think about this sometimes, how I’d just be a serial education pursuer if education were free or if money were no object. I’d definitely study geology and get an MFA (I already did anthro!) ;-) if that weren’t a costly proposition. I love that you are getting to devote some time to your creative work this summer! How wonderful that will be!

  3. I think self-sponsored author is what I will be now in my “FI” life :) Along with pro-kayaker and pro-traveler! All things we can do now thanks to years of hard work and opening our minds to the option of breaking free from the “grind”!

  4. I love the idea of self sponsorship! That’s an excellent response to any ER questions, and I plan on using that quite a bit from now on. I’d say I’m going to be a self sponsored musician (wait, aren’t they all…), gardener, fishing (pro), kayaker, and woodworker. Whew, that sounds busy! I will probably dabble a bit into some gaming self sponsorship as well, haha, brilliant!

  5. Great idea! I like the thought of considering retirement as a means to becoming a pro. I think I can master my hobbies, given more time to perfect.

    The Green Swan

    1. Thanks, Kalie! Your point is so important, that “real farmers” face real risks, and so do athletes seeking pro sponsorships. We get to cut out the risk part and just enjoy the upside — what a privilege!

  6. I love the ‘self-sponsored’ descriptor. I retired to become a writer and student of landscape archaeology – both of which I am pursuing actively – and I do make a bit of money (buys a coffee here and there) at writing, so I can call myself professional :-) …but ‘self-sponsored’ is an attractive alternative. It beats the longer phrase I find myself using “amateur in it’s true sense – someone who does something for the love of it”

    1. Feel free to use the descriptor! Though you’re using “amateur” in its true sense, I bet you sometimes get the assumption that amateur = bad. ;-) No need to suffer needlessly through that erroneous judgment!

  7. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a professional student. Enter: teaching. Close enough ;) The idea of thinking of retirement as a way to self-fund or self-sponsor is really fun. If you’re bankrolling it, you really can be whatever you want to be, right?! What’s really fascinating to me is how unlikely this would probably seem to people not in the FIRE community. Retiring early to have enough money to pursue your passions like a professional. What IS that? ;)

    1. I think *everything* about FIRE probably seems unlikely to most people — saving more than half your income alone is unthinkable to most people! Does thinking of it as self-sponsored student time make you want to pursue ER? ;-)

  8. I thought my dreams of going pro were over – looks like I may get a second chance!

    Pro outdoor morning coffee drinker, fisherman, gardener, and craft beer enjoyer

  9. I guess I will be a self-sponsored traveling photographer (to include videography!). Of course, if Airstream wants to kick in and sponsor me for a year or something, I’d be hard-pressed not to accept that opportunity, even with the natural inconveniences that would come along with it.

    And a professional power-napper, too – and dog petter, dog food getter outer, floor mopper and a skilled tradesman at releasing sewer tank liquids from our silver bullet that we now call our home. I’m still in college with all that right now, but once I quit the full-time job, I’m turning pro. Watch out National Sewage League (NSL), I’m comin’ to get ya! :)

    1. LOL — I think you might need to get a t-shirt and business cards made. “Self-Sponsored Athlete, National Sewage League.” Hahahaha.

      We’re like you — if someone WANTS to sponsor us to do stuff we’re already doing, we won’t turn it down. But it’s so freeing to know that we don’t NEED that sponsorship to do what we love. :-)

  10. I had a bit of fun thinking about and playing with this great topic:

    No more PROfanities with no yucky commutes in FIRE
    We will continue to PROtect our assets we have worked long and hard to build
    We will be more PROactive in everything we do. Oh, just time to think more about things will be quite magnificent!
    We will PROfit from spending more time with the children and working to build their PRO stuff. I think that will be most rewarding.

  11. Love this and thanks for the mention!

    We’re going pro at parenting, skiing, climbing, hiking, writing/creating, reading, learning, serving others, cooking, traveling, and any number of other things TBD.

    What does that pay? WHO CARES?!? That’s the beauty.

  12. What an interesting post! You’ve phrased “going pro” in a wholly different light…definitely food for thought :) I would say I am a pro at reading. If someone could pay me to read books, that would be totally awesome, ha! :)

  13. I don’t know any of the sportsing things, and had never heard of ‘dirtbag’ being used as anything other than an insult. Once I stopped laughing (what was that about dirtbags climbing mountains?) and figured out that was a thing, I was able to pull myself together and move on.

    I think there’s sort of an in-between phase for “pros” of all types coming about. I’m thinking about sponsored pros who also have full-time jobs or are full-time students, like Julie Foucher, pro-Crossfitter and med school student. I’ve also seen some yogis make a decent living on Instagram while still having day jobs. It’s not even that their sports have been relegated to a side hustle, more like their lives are half-and-half between sports and whatever their primary source of income is. To me, that seems pretty ideal too, because you get to use your younger body to sports as hard as you want to, while not having to worry as much about the income side of it if you get hurt or decide you want to do something else.

    That said, I have never been and will never be a pro athlete, so I’m not sure if that’s an ideal state for folks who want to go pro – just my outsider’s perspective.

    1. LOL — Yeah, I guess explaining “dirtbag” a little better would be helpful context. Haha. It’s basically the broke version of what we aspire to be — full-time adventurers. :-)

      I think folks doing what you’re talking about have figured out a pretty sweet gig. If you can get that level of sponsorship, awesome. Though I think those things tend to apply to the most talented and often the best looking folks, which is a big limiter. I appreciate that the self-sponsorship route has no prerequisites for abilities or looks. :-)

  14. There are many areas of life where a late start isn’t going to hurt you, but sport is a major exception. I think that if you’ve got even half a chance at “making it” I would pursue it whole-heartedly when you’re young. I’m all for doing things just for fun, but if you’re driven to win which most athletes are, you have to try to compete at your peak when you’re young… very very very few women over about age 28 and men over age 35 can compete with younger athletes.

    1. Totally agree! I am definitely not talking about true competitive athletes. The flipside of the need to focus while young to be world class is the idea if that if you haven’t mastered something by your teens, then you shouldn’t try starting. I meet people all the time who think they can’t learn to ski as adults, which is crazy — I did it! Or people who won’t take dance class as adults because dancing is “for kids.” It makes me sad to see people limiting the things they think they can do just because of age, and not based on their physical abilities.

    1. Thanks! That sounds like a pretty great aspiration. :-) We love all things canine and will definitely be engaging in some pro dog walking with our own dogs and dogs at the shelter where we volunteer.

  15. I would really like to do this with my lifting and bike riding. Not working would free up 50 hours per week… I’m sure even giving each activity 5 hours a week would improve my performance tenfold! Great concept.

    1. Haha — 50 hours a week of lifting sounds like a lot! I’m picturing a VERY jacked guy on a very small bike, cartoon-style. ;-) But yeah, I like your way of thinking about it, and adding 5 more hours per week per activity seems like a good breakdown — and you’re so right that it would improve your performance!

  16. The way things are shaping up, I’ll be lucky to retire at all. (At least, until my book sells millions of copies. Right? Right?) But I already work at home and both my husband and I are chronically ill. So I’m not sure how much would change anyway. Ideally, we’d travel some and I could be a little less tight-fisted with how much we spend. Though not too, um, loose-fisted? because the money has to last. So yeah… not sure how much would actually change.

    1. I certainly hope for your sake that guys are able to pursue some travel and enjoy more time for yourselves! You’ve been dealt a hand that makes that harder to achieve, for sure, but I have hope for you that retirement will be possible. :-)

  17. I guess I like the “self-sponsored” terminology bit more than “pro”. To me “pro” means a certain level of expertise. One that I doubt I will have in any of the areas I am looking to “play” in, post working. But I do believe that this year I am a “self-sponsored joy seeker”. I am actively looking to find the joy in each and every day!

    1. I completely get feeling more comfortable with “self-sponsored” than “pro,” though I brought in the outdoor sports side of it to show that most pro outdoor athletes are really pursuing pro status just so they can spend more time at play, not to get rich or famous like NFL or NBA stars. I LOVE “self-sponsored joy seeker.” That sounds like pretty much the best “job” ever. :-)

  18. I have all kinds of future pro plans! I’m definitely going to be a pro napper, and maybe a semi-pro gardener, definitely a pro dogsitter and dogwalker. Also a pro dog rescuer.

    You know, though, I think running is the exception to the rule. They account for age but I have seen some people take up running in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and truly excel at it. Who knows, maybe one of those people could be you! ;D

    1. Sounds like there will be quite a few of us taking on the pro napping job. ;-) And LOVE that you love dogs so much! As for running… when I finished my one marathon, my orthopedist said, “Congrats. But that was dumb. You’re not built for running. Don’t do that again.” ;-) I love it when people take on new activities at older ages and thrive at them, but I don’t think running will be that for me. But who knows…

  19. I love this framing! I am happy to pursue my passions and be just ok at them. This switch from my former perfectionism yielded tremendous gains in happiness & I try more things now.

    Once I enter the FIRE, I’ll be a pro-sleeper and a pro-language-learner. I’ll be a pro member of my community and will be even more involved in local nonprofits and governance.

    1. Oh, we definitely have that in common — the struggle to stop being such a perfectionist is real. ;-) Let me know if you’ve come across any magical secrets! And that sounds like a pretty great list of pro vocations that enrich your own life and the community. :-)

  20. Ok, I thought about it for a couple of days. I really do want to be an athlete and I think I found my training partner yesterday. I actually think (hope?) there will be more sponsorships for 30- and 40-something athletes given the prevalence of trail races, obstacle courses, etc. Now, it’s a matter of prioritizing today so that I can balance all of my goals rather than race toward FIRE alone. :)

    1. This is so awesome, Claudia! I love that you have actual athletic aspirations that are worthy of sponsorship in their own right, not just my hokey idea of “self sponsorship.” ;-) I hope sponsors wise up and start funding people in their 30s and 40s — and I can’t wait to read about your accomplishments! And I’m so curious — are we talking like spartan race type stuff, or American Ninja Warrior? ;-)

  21. Pro blogger all the way! I see all these bloggers that are making decent incomes with their blogs and I’m like – I can do that one day too! I just need to get my head on straight and post a little more regularly. ;)

    One thing that I wanna do too is write a kid’s book. I can’t draw for the life of me, but I’m pretty sure I can write a pretty basic and generic book about going to the bathroom or something. Add in a Koala bear with a diaper and I’m all set! I think I gave away for free the idea to the next children’s classic. :)

    1. You’re talking about actual money! I want to be the kind of pro blogger who doesn’t need money. Hahaha. And you should totally write that kids book! I won’t steal your idea, promise. ;-)

      1. Not needing money and blogging would be great too! But if I could be mini J. Money I’d be all about that! :)

        I actually work for a company that makes children’s products. I could partner up with one of the artist! Win win!

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