Lessons From The Struggles Of The Greatest Olympian Of All Time

An Olympian’s Struggles

Born June 30, 1985, Michael Fred Phelps II is perhaps one of the best swimmers, if not the greatest all-time Olympians that the world has ever seen. To put this in perspective, he holds the records for Olympic gold medals, Olympic gold medals in individual events, and Olympic medals in individual events. Yet, it is well documented that he suffered from acute depression and suicidal tendencies throughout different parts of his career. It was right after the summer of 2008 that Phelps had contemplated retirement. He started missing practice sessions, put on more than twenty-five pounds, and many thought he was not taking his training as seriously. In an interview with Details magazine in August 2012, he admitted, “At that point, I didn’t have anything. It was weird going from the highest of the high, the biggest point of your life — winning eight gold medals — and then saying, ‘All right, where do I go from here?’ I wasn’t motivated. I did nothing, literally nothing, for a long time.”

Michael Phelps had seen it all. Having been born in a family of swimmers, Phelps had joined the prestigious North Baltimore Aquatic Club at the age of seven. At the 2001 U.S. spring nationals, he became, at age 15, the youngest world-record holder in men’s swimming when he posted 1 min 54.92 sec in the 200-meter butterfly. At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Phelps captured six gold and two bronze medals while setting five Olympic or world records. Phelps entered the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing to break Spitz’s seven gold medals at one Olympics. He took the gold in each of his first three events, and each victory took place in world record time. On August 13, he won golds to capture his 10th and 11th career gold medals, a new Olympic record. After achieving such a tremendous amount of success, Phelps hit a glass ceiling and wasn’t sure what he could do next. He started to feel somewhat lost in the journey of his life. This is the typical trough of despair that hits those who succeed once and are now on their way down. It would mean the end of a long, successful journey for some, while others may burn in the troubles of finding meaning in the abyss.

In some sense, this was order breaking into chaos, the devil sneaking up onto the angel and getting the better of it. Phelps found himself in the middle of controversies when photos emerged of the athlete smoking marijuana several months after returning from Beijing. USA Swimming, the governing body of swimming in the United States Of America, suspended Phelps from competitive swimming. Many people suspected that many of his sponsors would take away their sponsorship. While Kellog’s did cancel their sponsorship, most of the others remained by him. Phelps recovered from his mistakes and bounced back to win three silver and four gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics. In a July 2012 interview with the Associated Press, he contemplated, “It’s been a part of my life for so long, so walking away will be weird, but it’s something that I’m ready for. Eventually, it will hit me, and it will strike me that it is all over. Who knows what will happen then? I’ll take it all in steps and deal with it along the way.” After the London Olympics, he did announce his retirement, but keeping him away from the game would be complicated. Perhaps the vacuum of being away from the games led him to more misery. Phelps was pulled over in September 2014 after being clocked doing 84mph in a 45mph zone in Baltimore. He failed two sobriety tests and was charged with DUI, excessive speed, and crossing double lane lines. Phelps pleaded guilty to the charges and was given a one-year suspended sentence and 18 months of supervised probation.

Admittedly, he recalls himself going into an extreme depression to the point of contemplating suicide. He felt that he had lost his self-esteem and had no self-worth. He stopped eating for some time, didn’t sleep, and didn’t even want to leave his room. Just as life was about to lose the battle and death was close to winning in Micael’s story, Ray Lewis, a former Ravens Linebacker, an old friend from Baltimore, intervened. He spent 45 days at The Meadows, a behavioral rehabilitation facility just outside Phoenix, where he was treated for anxiety and depression. Michael bounced back from the depression struggles, and at the 2016 games, he won five more gold medals. Today he is an advocate for mental health and is now on the board of Talkspace, an online therapy company, and is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Lessons From Michael Phelps’ Story

There are several lessons that we can learn from Michael Phelps’ story. It is a story of courage and despair, pain and joys, highs and lows. It is the story of one man’s courage to fight the inner demons of his mind and come out in the light of life. It is the story of a community of friends and family members helping keep the lights on and help a struggling soul survive the ravages of the chaotic satan that resided in his mind. In the next section, I have articulated the top three lessons we can learn from the story.

Lesson #1: Champions suffer too. Everyone does.

Amid our life struggles, we tend to put our heroes high up on a pedestal. We tend to believe that they are infallible. Perhaps, that is why humans believe that the Gods reside the sky-high above; why we create tall statues of deities and heroes that we worship; and why we worship the Gods with our heads bowed down. However, humans are fallible. The story of Michael Phelps is an excellent example of that. We often commit mistakes, lose our way, fall into the abyss of uncertainty in the realm of darkness, and face the devil. It is the standard underlying current in the realm of science. Edison famously said, “Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.”

I would argue that failures are the precursors to any form of success. It is the fundamental nature of the reality in which we live. Nature works in the same way. The evolutionary story of humanity shows the same pattern. Nature creates small experiments and changes in the biology of organisms. Many of the inventions and experiments we see today result from hundreds of failed attempts. For example, it is not well known that Edison spent almost a decade (1900–1909) working on experiments in Chemistry. He worked on the problem of producing an excellent rigid polymer that could replace imported rubber. After testing seventeen thousand plants, he was convinced it could produce an excellent rigid polymer at sixteen cents a pound. One could say that he had to go through 17,000 failures before finally finding the magic formula. In one of the conversations with a reporter, he is purported as saying, “I have spent six years commercializing the electric lightbulb, eight on the telephone transmitter, and sixteen for the phonograph.” Indeed, success does not come overnight without its army of failures. We remember Einstein for his ground-breaking work on the Special and General Theory Of Relativity, besides explaining the photoelectric effect. However, little is known about his struggles with the unified theory of Physics. Between 1916 and 1955 (till his death), Einstein grappled with the unification of the forces of gravity and electromagnetism under one theoretical framework, which would at the same time incorporate quantum mechanics.

Lesson #2: Loss of purpose in life brings chaos and destroys order.

Another important lesson from the struggles of Michael Phelps is that our lives can quickly disintegrate into chaos if we are not careful enough to bind them with a purpose. The purpose is the anchor to life. A man that loses his purpose in life finds himself amid a chaotic whirlwind of utter dismay, disorder, and disarray. The devil’s emergent signs sneak into Phelps’s life — his marijuana problem and his obsession with drinking and driving. He had won six gold medals at the Athens Olympics and eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. He was at the pinnacle of his career. It is evident in hindsight that the only way was down from there. However, he would have never predicted that he could go into complete darkness rather so quickly. It is true that the faster we raise, the faster is our probability of failure. It was certainly the case with him.

Purpose and meaning play a significant role in our lives. We are tiny creatures living on this planet hurtling through the vastness of space in a random galaxy, one amongst billions of others. Sometimes, the knowledge of a life without a clear goal and purpose can feel very nihilistic. It leads us to existential angst. We start to ponder over the following questions:

  • What is our place in this vast cosmos?
  • What can our life (of only a hundred years) serve in an existence that has been there for billions of years?
  • What is the role of a single individual to serve amongst billions of other beings?

However, it is these questions that we can answer with our life’s purpose. Life has a meaning, and the meaning is embedded in making it better for ourselves, those around us, and those that are yet to be born. A purposeless life leads to a valueless, immoral society and eventually leads to the breakdown of our mental faculties. Is that a life worth living?

Lesson #3: The brightest light follows extreme darkness.

The last and the most important lesson I draw from the life of Michael Phelps is that often the brightest light follows the darkest hours of our life. Nature works in the same manner. The day is darkest right before dawn, and there is a symbolic reason for the phenomenon. The light represents the rise of the collective consciousness awakening from the night's dreams. The darkness represents the end of the previous day — a day of labor, suffering, and joy. Michael Phelps suffered a loss in purpose in 2009 before winning four gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics. He suffered through the shame of a DUI before winning five gold medals in his last Olympics at the 2016 Rio Olympics and cementing his place as one of the greatest athletes.

One can argue that he would not have had the zeal to fight through the last two Olympics had it not been for the hunger to fight and show that he was still the most outstanding athlete. “We find the truth, in the places, we often least wish to explore.” — Carl Jung. The Jungian idea resonates deeply with the situation of Michael Phelps. In the darkness of his mind, he found the courage to fight and bring light to the world in his privacy. It is, in some ways, the same idea that we repeatedly occur in the story of Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Arjuna. It was in the darkest hour — the crucifixion of Christ, the Great Departure of Buddha, and the dialogue of Arjuna with Krishna amid the raging battle — that they found light; they found the power to light the world with the discovery of a more profound truth, and the hidden reality of themselves.

It is also true that we often find ourselves struggling through life. We often go through extreme periods of darkness, pain, suffering, and melancholy. Sometimes, it is our actions, and at times it is the actions of the others around us. The devil overpowers the angel and pushes us into chaos. We tend to fight and yet fail quite so often. Often we do not realize that the devil is at its weakest when it is at the pinnacle of its power. Why? Because there is nothing wrong that can happen to the self. It is at its lowest point, the rock-bottom to say. The angel fights back and puts the devil to rest — the darkness recedes to give way to the light. Behold the light! It will come.

Existential Anxiety: The Reasons Behind It

Existence, the state of being, causes both suffering and joy. Humans are meant to live through a life filled with ups and downs, sorrows and joys, pain and pleasure. As we live through life, there are periods when we start to question what we wish to achieve. The voice in our head starts to converse and question us on the merit of the life that we are living.

Claim #1: A lack of purpose leads to existential angst.

Many of the existential anxiety we face in our day-to-day lives emanate from a lack of direction. The human-animal lives in a state of high cognition and needs meaning and purpose to live a fulfilled life. Around 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published “A Theory Of Human Motivation.” In his work, he segments human motivation into five different levels. These include physiological needs, safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. According to him, we cannot move to a different level until we acquire the last level's essential elements. We cannot survive if we do not get basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing, clean water, and clean air. Once we achieve the basic needs, we enter a state of homeostasis or stability with the self and feel satisfied. We then crave safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

The lack of direction can inhibit an individual from partaking in love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. If, as an individual, you cannot associate with a bigger purpose or a goal in life, it becomes tough to find belonging. It may belong to your family or a community you are a part of. Take, for example, people who do not believe in any religion. One of the goals that religion serves is that it binds the individual to a more excellent representation of the self — the mythical God-like figure — who is there to listen to you, but more importantly, who you can connect to as a community. That is one of the reasons why we have religious ceremonies done in gatherings. In the absence of a higher purpose, your self-esteem deteriorates since it gets hard to stand up to the ravages of society.

Claim #2: The default mode is Mimesis and not uniqueness.

Rene Girard, a French polymath and philosopher of social science, proposed the mimetic theory of human desire. Girard believed that human development occurs initially through observational mimicry, where the infant develops desire through a process of learning to copy adult behavior, fundamentally linking the acquisition of identity, knowledge, and material wealth to the development of a desire to have something others possess. While he applied the theory of mimesis to explain the epistemological structure of desire and the emergent scapegoating that it leads to, I firmly believe that mimesis also leads humans to lose their way in lives and eventual degeneration of social systems. A child learns to walk, speak and even understand the basics of communication by copying what she observes around her. As she matures, she develops the ability to think for herself from first principles, yet she remains bound by her primal desires to mimic. The behavior impacts her choices in choosing a career, hobbies, communities she wishes to hang out with, her socio-cultural and political ideologies, the type of relationships she keeps, and the extent of the identity that she wishes to develop.

The phenomenon, though quite commonplace, is detrimental to the process of self-realization. The argument is that every individual has a very different affinity to skills. However, our environment may or may not provide the required set of structures and support to ensure that we can develop those skills. In modern society, the experiment of social media is the best example of mimicry. We can look at social media as an idea representation channel where people put out their thoughts, and the viewers vote for the most likable ideas. The viral ideas are the winners, and each medium (be it Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, or TikTok) has its voting pattern. So, while on Facebook, personal profile pictures were a rage (in the past), on Instagram, it is usually representing a glamorous lifestyle with filtered images that work; LinkedIn is a professional network, and so people would end up talking about workplace success or issues that harass them mentally; YouTube is a medium for longer range videos (with some form of relative depth); and TikTok is super optimized for short, funny videos. The viral posts end up modifying our behaviors and sometimes lead to mass-scale changes in society (both positive and negative).

How do social media platforms end up shaping individual choices? It is quite an interesting question and something to ponder upon. I work in the field of software development and am an entrepreneur myself. My social media feed tends to be relatively heavy, with posts of people raising capital for their startups and reaching higher levels of success. We are all exposed to the “Elon Musk Phenomenon” — the hustle culture. I define the culture as follows: An individual can be considered a success only if he is building planet-saving companies, earning billions of dollars, being extremely vocal about it on Social Media (i.e., Twitter), and making wildly ambitious (and correct) decisions. The problem with this system is that it breaks the value system and is the exact antithesis of our evolutionary heritage. We are designed to be diverse, unique, and weirdly different individuals. Nature optimizes for differences. Species that do not adapt and value different ideas tend to fall apart. Yet, what I observe is quite the contrary. I see a common theme, a typical pattern in people's lives. It goes something like this:

  • Get good grades at school;
  • Get a good college education;
  • Get a high-paying job (preferably in tech, wall street, or a top law firm);
  • Find a soul-mate and get settled in a marriage;
  • Buy a house in an appreciating market;
  • Have kids;
  • Run your kids through the same algorithm of life;
  • Climb up the socio-economic ladders;
  • Plan for the retirement;
  • Retire;
  • Die.

While I understand and agree with the conservative viewpoint that any stable society requires a stable, predictable structure, my argument is that even within society's constraints, there can be. They're certainly is a lot of room for experimentation. Yet, our monkey mind does not let us experiment. It prevents us from thinking outside the box. Eventually, this leads to extreme existential angst as the devil knows the compromises which you have made.

Claim #3: The burden of social conformity leads to poor choices.

Conformity, the inherent need in individuals to live and survive by the rules of society, leads us towards making poor choices in our lives. We are descendants of apes, and that brings with it several downsides. Mimesis, as we discussed earlier, is one of the emergent problems. Having lived in small tribes where we needed to coexist through the millions of years of human evolution has led us to form the evolutionary state of appeasing our tribe. Individuals who are misfits are usually ostracized by society. How does it manifest in life choices? We tend to take up careers that society constitutes as virtuous. This inculcates a sense of irrational fear in the minds of the individual, leading them to a path of unhappy choices and eventually towards existential anxiety.

A case in point is — let us say a boy is born in a lower-middle-class family in a developing country like India. Let us assume that he wishes to pursue art on the balance of probability. However, the dictates of the society and the powers that be will nudge him (both implicitly and explicitly) towards pursuing more applicative fields such as Engineering, Medicine, Law, or becoming a part of the administrative system (given the job security there). He grows up mimicking those around him to develop the skills required to become a government official, quite resentful in his subconscious because the urge and the itch to find his happiness is somewhere in a different place. In some instances, the urge causes a million deaths. In other cases, he may not have even realized or learned that one can make a career in the arts. Eventually, he gets into the administrative machinery to find that it is not what his heart wants; it is not what gets him up in the morning. He develops anger and hates his daily work. Eventually, as he grows up and takes up further responsibility for his family, he realizes that the only skills he is good at are the skills that give him the most grief. There is an alternative reality that he daydreams and observes in his night’s dreams — the alternative self that could have been and yet was never. He finds despair and feels living life is like staring into the abyss.

If we think about it, what went wrong? One could say it was society. One could also say that it was his affinity to go after the trends and mimic what everyone else was doing. Would he have been better off finding a path for himself? Certainly yes.

Claim #4: Everyone can find a direction in life.

One can argue that the claim “everyone can find their purpose” is unsubstantiated and does not seem to fit well in the practical realities of life. I would agree with the argument against the claim. However, I would also bring attention to the idea that the claim doesn’t say that everyone will be able to find a purpose in life. We can try, some will succeed, and others may not. Does it make sense to try? Definitely. Can we be sure that we will find something meaningful? Only the journey can reveal that.

Having got that out of the day, I wanted to share my belief and a framework that I follow to find my direction in life. I have been highly influenced by the idea of “Ikigai,” which has similar underpinnings as the HedgeHog concept (shown in the figures … and …. below). I explain the concept in detail in the subsequent section. The basic idea behind the concept is to find a direction in something that can satisfy the following constraints:

  • What you love;
  • What the world needs;
  • What you can be paid for;
  • What you are good at;

I will also add one more element necessary to the idea's success — what your environment can support. Finding direction in life that can satisfy all the constraints is indeed by no means an easy task. However, it is a worthy endeavor. I often wonder what life is without a meaningful pursuit. It can become very shallow otherwise.

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the idea uses the word “direction” in the more professional sense where it would mean a career choice. However, we can (and should) expand on the definition to include the broader idea of a “value system” because not everyone may be plugged into the economic machinery that runs the world. The values that we ascribe and live by eventually guide our path. It is the difference between a murderer and a noble warrior. It is the difference between chaos and order. It is the difference between the devil and the angel. The value system is a collection of conscious and subconscious beliefs that inhabit the prefrontal cortex region of our brain. “The line that separates the good from the bad runs deep through our hearts.” The choice we make in our daily lives to go by the angel or the devil is predicated on our value system.

What constitutes a sound value system? I do not believe there is a precise definition of a sound value system, and perhaps there should not be. However, we can agree on a collection of presuppositions or hypotheses that may underlie any framework on top of which we can build a sound moral system. I will list down some of the hypotheses that constitute the moral compass in which I live:

  • Act so that you do not regret it if your parents knew about it.
  • Leave the world a better place than you found it to be.
  • Focus on the work rather than the results.
  • The direction of life matters more than the pace at which you live it.
  • A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Create beauty around you.
  • Live every moment as joy, a gift from the creator and those around you.

Claim #5: Purpose leads to meaning, and meaning leads to stable outcomes.

We can experiment with living a life with and without meaning. My observations (in experiments) with my life have taught me that living a life of purpose leads to long-lasting and stable outcomes. To start with, I will share a personal anecdote.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, I suffered through some of the darkest moments. Having decided to move countries (from the USA to India), we found ourselves (I and my wife, Sanghmitra) during the pandemic, without a clear plan for our careers and stuck in a relatively new environment. Making decisions can be challenging, but taking responsibility for those decisions and feeling the brunt of those can be more challenging. When I saw my spouse and eventually my parents suffer because of our miscalculations, it put me into depression. I would also want to add that my personality traits tend to be ambitious and introverted. Given that I saw the struggle for the first time in my life, I started to blame myself for making the decision. I stopped exercising, adopted a very unhealthy lifestyle, and became closed at home. I started to see extreme bouts of anger and frustration overtake me as I struggled through the period of helplessness. It was a mental struggle. I knew I could battle the issues and fight them out throughout the journey as I had done so in the past, but the devils had gotten to me. I didn’t see a purpose in what I was trying to achieve in life and had even contemplated suicide several times.

When the clouds of darkness encircle your mind, it gets hard to see the sunshine through it. However, the sun always shines. The sun is always there no matter what happens in your life. We tend to make the sun disappear and only observe the shadow cast by the shadow of the clouds. I started to realize that and made concerted efforts to change my view of the objective reality. I realized that the objective reality had never changed, and it was merely my perception of the reality that had changed. I had not lost my skills or power to think big, work hard, and live mindfully. Throughout 2022, I adopted a much healthier lifestyle, worked with my career coach (who is now my mentor as well), and got back on the treadmill to pursue two of my life’s dreams (i.e., build a product that a billion people in the world will use, and write an NYT best-selling book) and decided not to give up till I achieve my dreams. I could see the tides starting to shift. I lost weight, corrected my diet, got back to regular meditation, started to write my book, and built the product that I had been ideating for several years now. Does it mean that the demons had died? No. They still come and haunt me when I am tired or sad. There are days when they defeat me. However, they rarely happen now. Do I see a marked improvement in my life? Certainly less. My belief, productivity, and happiness levels have returned to their original levels.

One may wonder what changes within us when we lead a life with purpose? From a physiological perspective, our body starts to secrete excess cortisol when we are in extreme depression. This leads to several disorders such as weight gain, insomnia, headaches, and memory and cognition issues, to name a few. The body starts to respond in a fight or flight mode and shuts down the activity of non-essential bodily functions. From a psychological perspective, we start to devote less time to what makes us happy and tend to exaggerate the impact of the negative energy that surrounds us in our lives. Under stress, we start to make irrational deductions that lead us to suboptimal outcomes and poor choices. These poor choices can quickly compound and set us on instability.



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