This weekend I read Open, the autobiography by Andre Agassi. It is a vulnerable, intense retelling of his story. From a childhood with an abusive father who tormented him into long days of tennis practice, to becoming the #1 ranked player in the world, it is filled with a candid look at his inner demons that he wrestled with in his personal and professional life — all while under the scrutiny of the global media and fan base (both those who loved him and those who hated him).
As I was reading, one particular section grabbed ahold of me for its open admission of how little joy he found in being ranked the world’s #1 tennis player (emphasis added):
IN THE MORNING we catch the Concorde to Paris, then a private plane to Palermo. I’m barely settled into my hotel room when the phone rings. Perry. In my hand, he says, I hold the latest rankings. Hit me with it. You—are number one. I’ve knocked Pete off the mountaintop. After eighty-two weeks at number one, Pete’s looking up at me. I’m the twelfth tennis player to be number one in the two decades since they started keeping computer rankings. The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be. It’s a lie. This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing.
I SPEND MANY HOURS ROAMING the streets of Palermo, drinking strong black coffee, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I did it—I’m the number one tennis player on earth, and yet I feel empty. If being number one feels empty, unsatisfying, what’s the point? Why not just retire?
I picture myself announcing that I’m done. I choose the words I’ll speak at the news conference. Several images then come to mind. Brad, Perry, my father, each disappointed, aghast. Also, I tell myself that retiring won’t solve my essential problem, it won’t help me figure out what I want to do with my life. I’ll be a twenty-five-year-old retiree, which sounds a lot like a ninth-grade dropout.
No, what I need is a new goal. The problem, all this time, is that I’ve had the wrong goals. I never really wanted to be number one, that was just something others wanted for me. So I’m number one. So a computer loves me. So what? What I think I’ve always wanted, since I was a boy, and what I want now, is far more difficult, far more substantial. I want to win the French Open. Then I’ll have all four slams to my credit. The complete set. I’ll be only the fifth man to accomplish such a feat in the open era—and the first American.
And a few chapters later he adds, for good measure:
Part of my discomfort with tennis has always been a nagging sense that it’s meaningless.
I think this is a helpful illustration for our friends who are attempting, through their performance at work, to escape a feeling of meaninglessness. If we can learn from Agassi’s story, then perhaps we can more quickly pivot to a more solid foundation for our lives. As Agassi says in a recent interview:
Irish News: How do you look after your wellbeing?
AA: I have my quiet time that I cut out from my schedule, and I have my Christian faith which is very important to me for being centred.
A few questions for discussion:
- What other stories of finding emptiness at the very top of a career have you found? I would be interested to know of other, similar stories to Andre Agassi’s.
- How have you personally experienced this lack of fulfillment in professional accomplishments? (Remember that this is a public discussion forum).
- What are some practical ways that this story might help you open up a spiritual conversation with a friend? (For instance, give them a copy of Open and invite them to discuss it with you).