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It’s a very exciting time for Figuring Out Fulfillment, as we prepare for the start of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.  Maybe some people think the Olympics are too commercial, too over-produced, and about as fashionable as Target.  (Hence, the uniforms made in China.)  But I’m a sap for stories of individual struggle against daunting odds; the pursuit of lifelong dreams; the flawless champion and the scrappy underdog.  Sometimes before heading out for a run or into a grueling meeting, I’ll watch the intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports a few times just to get pumped up.  So I’m excited about next week.

Plus, it’s entirely appropriate to discuss the Olympics here.  Think of all the careers that they have launched: Muhammed Ali, Mary Lou Retton, Tonya Harding, Mitt Romney . . . Of course, for the vast majority of athletes, of course, the Olympic Games are only a limited portion of their lives.  It’s a thrill to participate, but they won’t take home any medals, they won’t get any endorsement contracts, and many of them won’t be able to go on and make a living out of their chosen sport.  Boxers and basketballers might turn pro, but there aren’t a lot of job opportunities for pole vaulters or synchronized swimmers.  But while we advocate finding fulfillment in one’s work, that shouldn’t imply that only work should be the source of fulfillment.  Achieving a measure of success in another pursuit – like sports, or performing arts, or birdwatching – and then moving on, or carrying on in a manner separate from one’s employment, can be a perfectly sensible approach to life.

However, earlier this week, when I heard on National Public Radio the story of how sport and work overlaps for some Olympic athletes in India, I didn’t know what to think at first.  In India, the government supports promising Olympic competitors by giving them part-time government jobs.  As NPR reported, “India’s government-run railway, police and army are the biggest employers of athletes. In general, the jobs are for life and athletes get promotions based on how well they do at competitions.”  The story mentioned Sandeep Sejwal, who competes in the breast stroke.  He works for the railway, and explained that promotion is easy when you do well even at the national level, so, as an Olympic competitor, he’s hoping to be promoted soon to become the boss where he works.

He has never actually been to the office.  He doesn’t have the time; he trains seven hours a day.

It’s stellar that the Indian government has found a way to support its Olympic competitors.  But that can’t be good for office morale.  Can you imagine if you were vying to become director of your company division and lost out to someone because he swam faster than all but nine people in the world?  Unless your company is LifeguardMart or YouPayUsToBeChasedBySharks, Inc., that makes no sense.  I can see taking on some generic part-time job while training, to make ends meet; goodness knows Home Depot will never let us forget how many U.S. Olympic athletes do the same.  But to end up with a permanent full-time job that bears no relationship to what you’ve previously devoted your life to?  That’s like rewarding someone with a lottery ticket.  Oops, you didn’t match the last number.  You’re stuck in a job you hate!  But only for life.

Of course, as I have mentioned before, in some sense career fulfillment is a luxury, to be pursued only after the necessities of life are met, and it may well be that for some of these athletes the guarantee of having those necessities met is priceless.  I wouldn’t judge them; they are from a very different place from mine.  But it is a useful analogy to bear in mind in our society.  How often are employees here “rewarded” by being promoted into a position that takes them away from what they loved doing and were successful at?  Sometimes the move – into management, for example – is a great success.  But if it doesn’t work out, remember that you have options that Olympic athletes do not.  If you are suffering the agony of defeat, you can get back into the arena in which you enjoyed the thrill of victory.