Today I’m pleased to share with you an interview I recently conducted with Sarah Piampiano. Sarah busted her corporate idol, and made a dramatic career change – from investment banker to professional triathlete.
1. Tell our readers about yourself
My Name is Sarah Piampiano and I am a Professional Triathlete. I used to be a 2-pack-a-day smoker and an Investment Banker on Wall Street in New York City. In late 2009 one of my friends from college told me he had signed up and was training for an Olympic distance triathlon in an effort to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. Over a few too many drinks I bet him I could beat him in the race. My experience ended up being so overwhelmingly positive, I was immediately hooked on the sport (and yes, I beat him!!). The community, the sense of accomplishment and the fact that I was doing something healthy for myself inspired me. I was excited to take on a new passion – a feeling I hadn’t felt for a long time.
I quit smoking and started training a few hours a week. When I went and competed in my next event I won the overall amateur title. I got the idea in my head that perhaps triathlon was a route I wanted to explore more seriously. I continued to race as an amateur for all of 2010 and 2011, but at the end of 2011 I quit my job and began competing professionally full-time.
2. What was it like for you to be working 90-100+ hours per week as an Investment Banker?
Working that much was hard. Some weeks I was working even upwards of 120 hours. Your life just isn’t your own. You get home from work anywhere from 12 AM to 3 AM (and many nights not at all), sleep for 2 or 3 hours with your blackberry on your chest, in case some important e-mail from China comes through, and then get up and go back to work. I loved my job so it made the long hours manageable, but it was also stressful. Your job becomes your priority, and everything else takes a back seat.
I remember when my grandmother died I flew home for the funeral pulled an all-nighter that night. On the way to the church I was on a conference call with a client because the call “couldn’t be rescheduled”. Nobody really had sympathy or cared that there was something personal going on in my life. And that was hard for me – always putting my job first – ahead of family and friends. There were a lot of benefits and amazing parts to the job as well. I had to the opportunity to work with some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world. I was able to travel to some amazing places and do business in so many developing nations. It was a fascinating experience to feel like you were right in the heart of globalization.
3. What was the a-ha moment that inspired you to sign up for the triathlon that changed your life?
For a long long time I had been trying to find a reason to stop smoking and to start living a healthier lifestyle and nothing had inspired me to do so. That triathlon was what I needed. I didn’t realize at the time how much it was going to change my life, but the knowledge that I had found something that gave me the simple desire and motivation to have more balance outside of work was a very liberating thing.
4. Tell us about the process for you to transition into being a professional triathlete from having a desk job. What were some of the factors that made you take this life change?
As a kid, my dream was to be an Olympic athlete. That was what I wanted to be more than anything. But as I got older and that possibility seemed less likely, I had to give up that dream and turn my attention to other interests and to an alternative career path.
After I won that second triathlon, I sat back and believed that I had what it would take to be great at this sport. And as someone who had wanted to be a professional athlete my entire childhood, to have that thought was one of the most exciting moments in my life. My results didn’t suggest I could be great, but I knew inside of me what was possible.
HSBC, who was my employer at the time, was also incredibly supportive. At the end of 2010 I went to them and explained what I was trying to do. I felt that the hours I was working, and the travel was preventing me from really testing myself to see if racing professionally was an option. They were incredibly receptive and were willing to work with me. We agreed that for one year (2011), I would reduce my hours to 40 hours per week, working 4 days, I would limit my travel only within the US, and when I was out of the office, I would not be working – i.e. I could focus on my training.
It was what I needed. I performed in 2011 and at the end of the year, I left HSBC, packed up my apartment and moved to Santa Monica, CA to begin training and competing full time as professional triathlete.
In terms of the “factors” that made me take this life change – I guess I feel like so many of us get caught up living our lives in the way we think we “should” be living. We get comfortable in our situation and we are scared of change. We fear failure. And so, rather than challenging ourselves to truly live life to the fullest – to take what is offered to us and give it a go – we pass up amazing opportunities.
As a kid all I wanted to be was an athlete. That was my dream. As an adult here I was faced with an opportunity to live out that dream and do something and be something that so few people in this world can do or have the opportunity to do. Yes I had a strong, stable, very well paying job. Yes I had worked my ass off for years to get to the position in my company that I was. Yes, becoming a triathlete meant leading a life (at least in the beginning) with much less stability and certainty from a financial standpoint. Yes the chance of failure was high. But – I guess my view is that I would rather take a chance, LIVE my life, create my own path, and chance success (vs risk failure), vs settling because that is what is expected of me. I don’t operate that way.
Some people may look at my decision and think it was crazy, but my view is: I’m single, I don’t have a family to care for, I’m a smart, professional woman with good business sense – I have the ability to return to the corporate world at any time. And maybe, just maybe, my story, can inspire other people to stop settling and start living their lives a little bit more – bringing them more balance and happiness than they thought possible.
5. What is your routine like now? What were the overall life changes you had to make to adjust to being a professional athlete.
When I first transitioned from working in the corporate world full time to training full time, I thought I was going to have all kinds of time on my hands. But I was completely mistaken. I train 7 days a week, with seldom a day off. I am up every morning at 4:30 AM to start training and my day ends at 8 PM when I get into bed. I train anywhere from 4 to 9 hours per day (of physical training), and then you have to factor in time for massage, napping (yes, that is a key part of my recovery process!!), speaking with a sports psychologist, meeting with my nutritionist, seeing a chiropractor, rehab and PT, as well as the time needed in working with existing sponsors, trying to work to gain new sponsors and to building your brand.
Yes, my job is to compete as an athlete, but I very much view this as a business start up, and my business’ success is dependent not just on my performance results, but how well I am able to market myself, build a brand image, represent my sponsors, etc, etc. I spend a lot of time outside of my training working on this. I work hard at what I do.
With that though, I am constantly working to create boundaries for myself and my job. For example, with the rare exception, I put work away on the weekends. Outside of my training, I try to just let myself relax, have fun, enjoy time away from the sport and to shut myself off from work. I also give myself a night off each week from my diet so that I can feel relaxed, spontaneous and not so regimented in that routine.
There were so many life changes that took place. My lifestyle has completely changed. I lived a fairly luxurious life previously. Where I had stable income, now I am financially much more strapped. I live in a modest rental vs owning my home/apartment. I used to party a fair amount, stay out late. Now I am often in bed by 8 or 8:30 pm. I used to eat out every meal and never cook. Now I rarely eat out. Cabs were my mode of transportation. Now I walk or take public transportation.
There are times I miss my “old” life. I didn’t leave a job or a life that I was miserable in. In fact I loved it – so yeh – there are definitely things I miss. But I love where I am at so much right now, that I don’t feel resentful about that at all.
6. How has making those overall life changes as a pro athlete made an impact on your life?
I feel as though I have learned so much about myself as person since I have made this change. It may sound crazy, but I just feel like I have matured and the person I am becoming is actually someone I am much more proud of. The world I was living in – I made tons of money, I was fairly materialistic, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I had this view that I was better than people – sometimes I feel like I didn’t really have a clear grasp of reality. In the world I was in, I felt like I was larger than life. And I’m not. Not even close.
I’ve been humbled in my new life. I’ve learned how live a more frugal and modest life, which has helped me to appreciate my environment and the people in it so much more. I don’t take things for granted. And I have learned kindness and teamwork go much further than contempt and a superiority complex. I’ve learned that simple things like cooking a great meal with friends, or an afternoon in the park are some of life’s greatest pleasures – it is not about flying first class, or buying bottles at a club.
Making this change has just opened my eyes to how amazing the world is and how much it has to offer. It’s been a pretty amazing experience for me. I feel like my health has improved, my relationships have improved and flourished, my happiness has gone up, I know myself better and I am able to be truer to myself. So many benefits!
The one other thing, that has sort of surprised me, is the way in which I need to manage my relationships. When I worked in an office, I was in front of a computer and by a phone all day. I could IM, e-mail, text, call anyone at any time. Now, I am training all day and only in front of a computer at night, or by my phone in between training sessions. I really failed my friends and family in my first year as a professional because I didn’t do a great job of staying in contact. But from that, I’ve learned to communicate with them that when and when I am not available, and I’ve made changes in my schedule in order to regularly make time for them. That was a true learning experience for me!
7. What are the things you do now to achieve life balance? Do you ever miss your “old life”?
As a pro athlete there are a lot of choices that we make to further our development. We may put ourselves on a strict diet, or go to bed every night at 8:00 pm, or rarely eat out or socialize. We train 7 days a week and we are “on” 24 hours a day because how we train, how we rest, how we eat – it all has an impact on how we perform. We put so many of our marbles into our jobs and we ask so much of ourselves – both physically and emotionally – and of the people around us. It is hard sometimes – particularly at the end of the season when fatigue and burn out are creeping in and we are ready for that much needed break.
But, pro athlete’s are not the only people who struggle with balance. In my prior life as an Investment Banker, I worked 120 hour weeks and had no balance at all – in fact, probably much less than I do now.
I’m often told how lucky I am to be able to ride my bike every day or swim in the sunshine vs in the dark morning hours. People see the sexy side of my job – I lead a ridiculously healthy lifestyle; I am in better shape than most people could even dream about; I get to run, ride and swim outside all day long; I get massages at least once a week; I get to travel to amazing locations to compete; I have an incredible set of sponsors whose products I get to wear, ride, and test. It seems so glamorous. And in many aspects it is. But like any job, it has its downsides too.
On the flip side, I can look at “normal” people and think – they only have to work 5 days a week. They can eat whatever they want, whenever they want. They can take vacations in months other than November and December. They can leave work at 5 pm and shut it off. They can stay out late and drink one too many beers. They can decide to go surfing one morning instead of to swim practice, or to that concert on Sunday night and get home at midnight – the lack of sleep won’t really impact their job the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. They make a steady paycheck.
My point in all of this is that no matter what you do and how you choose to live your life, there will always be amazing parts to it, and there will also be not so amazing parts.
I absolutely love my job. I have never been happier in my life than I am now. I feel lucky every single day that I have been afforded this opportunity, and the people I have met and the places I have been as a result of it are relationships and experiences that I would not change for the world. I. Am. Lucky.
But – part of loving what you do, and continuing to be fulfilled means also taking responsibility and recognizing what is important to you and what your needs are to keep you motivated and loving and living life to the fullest.
I remember when I was working in banking and had just become serious about triathlon. My life was either training or working. That was it. I didn’t have time for much else. And as a result, I began to resent both my job and my then-hobby. I wanted to go out with my friends and have more social time – that is important to me. And I wanted to have time to myself where I could just relax and de-compress. That is also important to me. I was pursuing two things that I loved, but the combination of the two wasn’t particularly fulfilling for me. I suffered through that year. And when I look back, I wish I had taken my training load down a notch, and allowed time for other things in my life.
And even when I first made the move to racing professionally, I went full steam ahead. I restricted myself in every way I possibly could and was so focused on achieving greatness that I never came up for air. By July I was fried. I was emotionally done. And once the World Championships were over I let loose in a big way. I needed to because I hadn’t had any balance in my life for so long. I think a lot of us are victims of that. We aren’t honest with ourselves about things we need in our lives and outlets for release; we limit ourselves and the end results in a blow up of some kind that ends in a negative situation, versus a positive and healthy one. For myself, I needed to learn that lesson though to understand that sometimes succeeding (for me) means not holding on so tight.
Today, when I look at what is important to me – I really enjoy that random glass of wine at night with dinner, or my beloved ice cream for dessert. I love being spontaneous versus always planned and calculated. I love spending time with the people that I love. I love spending time on my own to just be in my own headspace and think – to not talk to anyone. I need these and other outlets in my life to stay healthy, stay happy, and also stay motivated in my job and be the best person I can be for those around me. Yes – there is a time and a place to restrict yourself from certain things or where we have to make difficult decisions. But in general – always asking yourself what is most important to you, and being diligent in remaining true to yourself – the outcome hopefully will be one of great reward.
8. What is your advice for people who are struggling to achieve life balance?
I suppose simply to be honest with yourself and recognize what things are most important to YOU as an individual to make you happy. And then make that happen. Perhaps it is a run every day. Or 1 hour of alone time. Or a weekend of partying once a month. Or a massage once a week. Or time with friends. Or yoga – who knows. Being in bed by 8 pm. Just recognize what makes YOU happy and make time to include that in your life. If you don’t, you’ll end up resenting your job, your family, your significant other, and you won’t be reaching your happiness potential. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself and be selfish in your needs.
Thank you Sarah for being so open. Your story is inspirational. Best of luck! I’ll check in on your progress from time to time on your website http://sarahpiampiano.com/
More than one in three people say that they are chronically overworked. And more than 30% of both men and women would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. Here are some of the most common mistakes overworked people make when trying to achieve a balanced life.
Mistake Number 1: Not Having a Plan
Few of us get into an overworked lifestyle overnight. Usually it is something that builds up over time. We have to change the habits of overwork, and that all can’t happen overnight. Instead of trying to change everything at once, pick one area to make a change. Stopping work earlier at night to get more sleep is a good place to start.
Mistake Number 2: Not recognizing your true values and priorities
There was a time when I was working 90 hours a week. If you asked me, I would have told you that I was a family first person. In reality though, I couldn’t be family first when I was working so much. I was a work first person. Our values are demonstrated by what we do, not what we think. To work less, we need to recognize that we have made work our highest priority.
Mistake #3: Not taking stock of who you really are
All of us are many people. I have a career identity, and I am a father, son, friend, husband, soccer coach, football fan… When I was working 90 hours a week, my identity revolved around my job and career. Working fewer hours involved cultivating my other identities, which led to different decisions over time.
Mistake #4: Not enlisting help
An identity as a people-first person can help make changes in the short run. But without a community of people to support our changes, we will gradually fall back into our old habits. A good place to start is with a spouse or significant other. How can they support you to make a change? Friends, parents, and siblings are also great places for support.
Mistake #5: Not letting go
For many people, success to a certain point has come from hard work trying to keep all the balls in the air. But there are an infinite number of things that we can’t control. And in reality, we control far fewer things that we think we do. Realizing that busyness is not the same as effectiveness can be painful. “You mean that all this time I’m putting in has no impact?” That is exactly what I’m saying. I had more impact when I was working 60 hours than when I was working 90 hours. And I was more effective working less than 50 hours when I was working 60 hours.
Knowing these common mistakes and how to avoid them will surely change the way you look at your life balance. But it’s not enough.
Not only do you have to know what NOT to do, but you also have to make some positive changes to really cut back your work hours. After all, if having a balanced life were that easy, everyone would have more time for the people they really care about.
Chapter 10: The People-First Life Part 16 (Conclusion)
Busting Your Corporate Idol (Conclusion)
I’m incredibly optimistic that the era of busting corporate idols is upon us. Look to the millennial generation – they grew up watching their parents work all the time, and want something better for themselves.
And more and more, those of us in middle or the end of our careers want a better life too. Even senior executives are starting to publicly admit that it doesn’t have to be this way. Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable that an executive from Goldman Sachs would condemn the company’s values in a public resignation letter. But that is exactly what Greg Smith did a year ago.
In 2007, it would have been unthinkable that Erin Callan, then CFO of Lehman Brothers, would one day write about the regret she feels for putting the company first. Yet that is exactly what she did last week. Callan wrote
“I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of my meals at my desk. I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place [CFO] with at least some better version of a personal life. Not without sacrifice — I don’t think I could have “had it all” — but with somewhat more harmony.”
None of us can have it all, but we all can have people who love us. It’s just a matter of values and priorities.
Wherever you are in your life, whatever you have done in the past, it is never too late to shift your focus, to bust your corporate idol, and to start putting people first.
The people are there, waiting for you with open arms.
Chapter 10: The People-First Life Part 13
Now that you are saying no to your boss, I suggest that you work towards a six day work week. One day with no email and no phone calls. I know, there is a perception that we are all expected to be on call all the time. Sometimes this is reality, but more often it is merely perception.
When I was interviewing people for the book, I sometimes pushed to understand why someone was working every day. Some people said “Don’t blame the company, I’m choosing to do this.” I would smile and nod, but I wanted to scream “Yes, that proves my point! You are choosing to work all the time!” The other common answer went something like this “The more senior you are, the more there is an expectation that you need to be available 24/7.” Again I nodded, but inside I was thinking of the CEOs and senior VPs I interviewed who said that they felt a day away from work was critical to their success.
I’ve defined corporate idolatry as a company-first or work-first value system. And people who are caught up in corporate idolatry create illusions that support he company-first lifestyle. I think both of the arguments above are indicators of corporate idolatry.
Way back in Chapter 2, I pointed out that the first two of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions against idolatry. The Fourth Commandment instructs us to “Keep the Sabbath,” a day without work. Did you know that some Rabbis argue that the most important holiday in Judaism is the Sabbath? Yes, we are commanded to take a holiday every week. It was heresy in the pagan world.
For example, the Greeks and Romans criticized the Jews for the Sabbath, because leisure was something for the upper classes only, not to be shared with common workers. In an ironic twist, the corporate idolators of today think that the more senior are expected to work more than junior employees.
Is there a competitive advantage for a business that has people working seven days a week?