“The challenge is you’ve got to play your own game. There is something in you that’s real, and it’s who you are. And if we don’t honor that, you can never be all that you could be.”
-Tracy Wilson, elite figure skating coach and Olympic bronze medalist
Figure skater Jason Brown, who’s coached by Tracy Wilson, didn’t win a medal at the recently concluded Winter Olympics. Why was he one of the most successful and happiest athletes there, then? Because he found and honored the “something” in him that’s real and makes him the most authentic version of himself. And he brought that self as fully as he could to the Olympics, to dazzling results that didn’t involve a medal (but did include a top 6 finish in his event).
Jason is a hugely successful figure skater by virtually any measure. He’s a former U.S. champion and has won more than two dozen medals on the international figure skating circuit. He’s been ranked in the top 10 of figure skaters worldwide for eight consecutive years.
Yet he’s never won an individual medal at the Olympics or World Championships. That’s because the very highest scores in figure skating are increasingly awarded to skaters who can complete the most technically difficult quadruple jumps in their programs (even if they fall while performing them). Jason Brown is literally the only singles male skater who’s remained at an elite level all these years through the quality of his artistry and skating skills without the higher-scoring jumps everyone else performs.
Expression is Jason Brown’s “something.” It brings him to life, differentiates him from others, and has extended his career far longer than almost any of his peers. It’s also made him beloved and renowned worldwide (a YouTube video of his “Riverdance” skating program has been viewed more than 2 million times).
Don’t do it for yourself—do it as yourself
Jason brought his most artistic and expressive self to the Olympics. His personal best score in the short program portion of the event landed him in the top six—and a position in the elite final group of skaters for the long program. He scored another personal best in that free skate. He was the only skater in that group to perform what’s called a “clean” program with no falls, mistakes, or discernible flaws. He held on to sixth place in what is very likely his last Olympics performance. His joy was palpable.
When athletes reach a certain stage in their careers, they often talk about how they’re now doing this for themselves. To me, Jason Brown did something a little different. He did it as himself. He didn’t show up just knowing who he was–he moved from that place.
And it almost didn’t happen. Four years before this Olympics, Jason reached a crossroads. He considered training to the more technical side of skating, which was more rewarded by judges. Why didn’t he do that?
Leading up to the Olympics, Jason did try to master quadruple jumping. He landed exactly one in competition during that time. So with the support of his coaches, he focused largely on maximizing his strengths. For Jason, that’s a dynamic combination involving both doing and being. On the doing front, he developed intricate, difficult steps sequences, spins, and transitions that only he could do and earned almost as many collective points as a single quadruple jump.
On the being front, he developed the artistic side of his skating where he felt most authentic and expressive. This also involved using music that both captured what was special about him and created a voice for who he is. Jason’s short program was skated to the Nina Simone version of the African gospel song “Sinnerman” (a plaintive spiritual about judgment and attempted redemption). Shaped by asynchronous jazz styling, tempo shifts, and rhythmic improv, few skaters could work with it. His long program to “Schindler’s List” reflects his Jewish heritage and his maturation as a skater who can evoke deep emotion.
Play your own long game
It probably goes without saying that Jason is a Creator story type with a hefty dose of the Lover’s passion and commitment to the energetic pulse of his own heart. Is he also a highly competitive person who would have loved to win an individual Olympic medal? I imagine so. Yet in the long view of Jason’s story, it’s pretty easy to see that he’s created indelible career success–and the kind of moments that research on life satisfaction tells us matters most for sustained happiness.
Individuals, organizations, and teams can do this too, by applying the principles of playing your own game through the lens of who you are. That’s really what a true Hero’s Journey is all about—it’s what lands you on a path that’s uniquely meant for you (and where you’re most likely to thrive over time). Consider the following approaches for doing that:
- Channel authenticity. You can’t know what your own game is without taking a look at who you are and how you want to authentically be in whatever endeavor you undertake.
- Maximize your strengths. The opposite of playing your own game is trying to beat the competition at theirs. That almost never works, and it can even backfire if you abandon what’s most differentiating, most special, and most valuable about you.
- Leverage the dynamics in your real story. Characters people love most in the stories we all know to use a dynamic combination of strengths and values to find their happy endings. They have skill and talent, and it’s activated most successfully when used in a way that aligns with their own value system.
As for me, I’m also a Creator type who can barely stand up on figure skates! I deeply value artistry and expression—but I have to align those values with my actual skills and talents to live my own authentic story (which involves words, imagery, and helping other people express who they are in the world).
What’s your dynamic combination of strength and values? It’s key to the equivalent of an Olympic moment in your own business world or life.
Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help professionals, teams, and organizations feel and see and show others who they are. She’s the co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (take the free version here: https://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/).