What's Tony Thinking

Hats Off to Chris Petersen


The collegiate football world is in shock at Chris Petersen’s departure from his job as head coach at the University of Washington. It’s a “plum job,” right? Turns out those plums can be bitter.

What’s really shocking, if not surprising, is that more people in these types of positions don’t do what Petersen has done. Call it quits because the job is killing them. Recall that Petersen’s predecessor, Steve Sarkisian, exited with a drinking problem.

It takes courage to walk away from such a prestigious and well-compensated job, and to give up the identity and clout that go with it.

In doing so, Petersen told the truth without any inflection of whine in his voice.

“It’s one of those jobs that is extremely heavy on the balance of your life,” he said. Controlling that balance and maximizing the quality of one’s life is (his) definition of success, he added – “and you cannot do that in this job. There is no balance, you know? It’s out of whack. It’s crazy.”

I’d offer three observations about this surprising turn of events and Petersen’s refreshing candor.

First, competition can be good. But any good quality, if pushed too hard and too far, goes bad. In today’s America we are killing ourselves, and destroying what makes human life human, by having taken competition to such extreme lengths. And no where, of course, is that more true than in the world of sports. But it’s everywhere. Competition for corporate earnings. Competition to get ahead in the race to the right college. Competition to have the biggest home or coolest car. Competition to be the best in whatever field of endeavor is ours.

Somewhere along about 1980, when the economy was slipping and Americans got the idea that maybe they weren’t number one (remember the panic about Japanese TQM?), we did what people often do when frightened. We doubled-down on what we knew best. If competition is good, then being even more competitive will be better. I really don’t think so. The upshot of the frenzy is the destruction of local community and civic life, an epidemic of substance abuse, rising suicide rates and shortened life expectancies, and many, many lives shadowed by loneliness and isolation.

Second observation. Petersen is 55. I’ve noticed a pattern — calling it a trend may overstate things. But a pattern: successful people in demanding jobs seem to hit a wall at about that age. I’ve seen it with attorneys and academics, with pastors and CEO’s — and myself. I was 55 when I left the position of Senior Minister at Plymouth Church in Seattle. I loved the work of ministry. But of that position I would have said what Petersen did. “There’s no balance. It’s out of whack. It’s crazy.”

Moreover, many of the high achievers in whatever field they are in have likely been at it for 30 years by the time they are 55.  You probably have gotten really good at it. But there’s been a joy bleed.

Third observation. People like Richard Rohr (Falling Upward) have been writing about the work of the second half of life for a while. David Brooks has weighed in on this with his most recent book, The Second Mountain. 

With those themes in mind read the closing portion of the Seattle Times interview with Petersen:

“In recent years, Petersen admitted, the pressure and strain grew to the point that ‘some of the excitement and positivity and optimism can kind of be pushed away.’ (I’m guessing that’s an understatement.)

“He cited a quote he heard last fall from ‘an Eastern philosopher’ (a Google search revealed it to be Confucious, the Heisman Trophy winner of Eastern philosophers). The words resonated deeply:

“A man has two lives to live, and the second one begins when he realizes he only has one.

“’That thing has been ringing in my ears loud and clear,’ Petersen said.”

It’s fascinating the way that some pithy statement like that can seem to suddenly light up. It jumps off the page or rings out of the din like a laser to the soul. When you react to such a “luminous sentence” (Richard Niebuhr) strongly, pay attention. God is speaking to you.

The tasks of the second-half of life are different than for the first. In the latter, you’re trying to establish your place, your identity and to excel at what you do. You’re looking for your place in the sun. You have something to prove.

But that orientation, and the skills associated with it, become nearly useless in the second half of life. Doubling down on them seems to make sense, but it’s exactly the wrong thing to do. There are parts of you that are un-lived and probably un-loved. These neglected parts demand attention.

So Chris Petersen is paying attention. In doing so, he provides a different but equally excellent example and guide — in some ways, one far more important than he has at any time during his years of being a head coach.



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