You wouldn't guess that McDonald's would be a likely site for an epiphany, but this week, you would be wrong.
I was in San Diego for two days, taking a class on text mining, and stopped on the way home in San Clemente to get a cup of coffee at the exit that just happens to be half-way between San Diego and Los Angeles. I had stopped at that same McDonald's hundreds of times in my twenties, as I drove back and forth between San Diego, where I lived and had a job as an industrial engineer, and Los Angeles, where I trained at Tenri Dojo and Orange County Kodokan all weekend.
Thirty years ago, those drives were the most important thing in my life, because I got most of my total mat time in on those three days. We had practice Friday night, twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday. Winning the world judo championships topped everything, except for my baby, Maria, who usually was ready for a bottle, just as I pulled into the McDonald's and ordered a coffee for me and a carton of milk to pour into the bottle for her.
Since school is out and I'm not teaching at Gompers, I hadn't thought about judo in weeks. It's funny, because back in my competition days, it is what I thought about ALL of the time. Even if I was sitting in a meeting or writing a program, still, "I have to win, I have to win" was running through my mind in the background.
As I pulled out of the McDonald's, I was wondering, did it really matter. Was it really worth it? I poured so much of my life into judo, and unlike many competitors, whose life continues to be dominated by their sport, I came back from the world championships and immediately veered in a different direction. I had four children, earned two more degrees, started a few companies, wrote some scientific articles, made some games.
Even if weeks go by now without me thinking of judo at all, no, it wasn't a waste of time. The self-confidence, health and discipline I got from judo have been major factors in my success in other areas. People I met in judo have been a network for everything from mentors on starting a business to advice on parenting to consulting opportunities. I was able to teach my daughters judo and one went all the way to two Olympics and then transitioned to world champion in mixed martial arts.
The next question, which I've pondered for decades, is whether it would have mattered if I lost. What if I'd come in second at the worlds? Lynn Roethke was a silver medalist in the Olympics and, after crying for a few days, she went on to have a successful life. Ronda got a silver in the worlds and bronze in the Olympics.
If I'd lost at the end, would I have been even more driven to succeed, to make up for it (hard to imagine what THAT would look like, isn't it?). Or would I have gone back to UC Riverside and jumped off the bell tower? I really don't know.
What I do know, is that you can't judge a situation when you're in the middle of it.
I was talking to Josh Hadley this week, when I was being interviewed for the Hart Attack podcast. Josh's wife suffered a severe injury that left her disabled and he is now at risk of losing his home. You can contribute to his gofundme here. I told him that I had times that felt like the end of the world - when I lost a tournament or didn't get a job I thought would be perfect for me, it seemed like a tragedy. Then my husband died and it really was a tragedy. Other things happened that I thought I would never get over.
But I did. What I've come to conclude is that Nanny was right when she always said, "God knows what he's doing even when you don't."
At the end of the day, there's another day. If you work hard, never give up and try your best to be a good person, those days eventually get better and better. Not right away, and sometimes it takes a really long time, much longer than you hoped for, but it all works out for the better in the end, even if the end is much, much different than you had expected in the beginning.
------------ Speaking of judo ...
I wrote this book. You should buy it. People besides me think it's good.
And I have a real job, too. I make games that teach math where you can kill things and get smarter at the same time, kind of like judo if they let you kill your opponents and eat them - and your opponents were buffaloes.