In January 2019 I gave a talk at the Lady Wild Film Fest, put on by Jenn & Taylor Killian, founders of And She’s Dope Too. I spoke about the challenges of navigating life transitions and how to make it through unscathed. Thought it would be fun if I shared it here!
My name is Jen Hudak. I am a two-time world champion, 5-time X Games medalist and 4-time national champion in halfpipe skiing. For 13 years, I made a living by flipping and spinning 10 feet above a 22’ vertical wall of ice on a pair of skis.
I made a lot of dreams come true because of my ability to navigate transitions. In a halfpipe, the transition is the curved part between the vertical section of the wall and the flat bottom. Most often, the smoother you make it through these transitions, the better your run.
In December 2013, I was close to realizing another dream, qualifying for the US Olympic team, when I landed low in the transition during a competition run. The impact was too great for my knee to handle and I tore my ACL, meniscus and cartilage.
My future hinged on that Olympic dream and now life as I planned it, was fading away. The ability to have skiing a regular part of my life and to travel the world, the days of waking up, excited to work toward something I was passionate about, the chance to inspire others to pursue their dreams, all vanished in an instant.
Professional skiing was my whole world. It was the only life I knew how to live. But coming back from this injury, my eighth knee surgery, I was no longer willing to take the risks required to pursue my Olympic dreams. It was time to hang it up.
But what now? What next? I was about to make the hardest transition of my life – this time, without skis on my feet. My brain kept trying to convince me that this was a terrible idea: it’s like “Uhhhhh, Jen, you know, you’re leaving the ski resort… YOU CAN DIE!!!!” But I knew that staying in competition wasn’t the answer, so I pressed through the discomfort. Without knowing what would lie ahead, I took a leap of faith.
Over the next four years I would learn more than I could have imagined about navigating transitions in life. Whether we’re changing careers, dealing with injury or an aging body, getting divorced or entering parenthood, the process is similar. It turns out, these transitions are a lot like transitions in a halfpipe. So, here are my 5 essentials for making it through life transitions mostly unscathed.
#1: GO ALL IN
Go all in to the next phase of your life. Let go of what was, create a vision for what could be and COMMIT to it. Simple, yes, but not easy. If we hold onto our identity too strongly, we cut ourselves off from a lot of possibilities. In the moment, these identities simplify decision-making. If we’re a pro athlete, we what we should be doing each day: how to train, what to eat, but when that dissolves, it’s so disorienting.
You might not know what you want in the long-run yet, but you have to at least COMMIT to something for the short-term. I never dropped into a halfpipe without 100% conviction about the run I would do. I didn’t always know if I’d do it well, or if it would produce a winning score, or if I’d ever do that run again, but I would commit & then take action. When I retired, I had no idea what I would do long-term. I just kept committing (at least, most of the time) to the next step I had to take.
#2: CARRY YOUR SPEED
It seems obvious, but if you don’t carry speed, you won’t be able to get out the halfpipe to do a trick. And that’s where all the magic is. If we go too slowly through that transition, spend too much time in that place of ambiguity, we allow time for doubt to sneak in. A halfpipe run offers you 5 or 6 opportunities to do a trick if you can move swiftly enough through transition.
In life it’s the same. There is so much opportunity in the world. There is so much to do, see and try, but if we’re spending all our time in transition, we’ll never get to enjoy it. The longer we allow ourselves to stay stuck in this limbo, the longer we suffer. The longer we avoid facing our challenges and taking action the longer we delay our happiness.
#3: STAY STRONG
The g-forces experienced in transition are intense, especially if we’re carrying speed. But know that it is only temporary. Know that it’s part of the deal and stay strong. If you collapse under the pressure, things only get worse. Know that it’s going to be difficult, know that it’s going to feel all wrong, but if you collapse now you won’t make it to the other side. If there’s something we want in this life that we don’t currently have, we must change to get it. Change requires resistance, it requires pressure, and it requires us to stay strong. And as my mom likes to say, “you can’t step forward if your feet aren’t on the ground.”
#4: BE FLEXIBLE
Remember that vision I told you to commit to in step 1? Yeah, it’s not going to go as you planned. Even when we’re prepared for a challenge, things often go wrong. As a halfpipe skier, I wasn’t always the best athlete, but I was often the best competitor. When things would go awry, I would adapt, but still remained committed to my plan. Don’t quit after your first mistake. A mistake doesn’t mean what you’re trying to do is wrong, you might just be going about it the wrong way. Try not to be so fixated on how your life “should” appear, just keep following the path that allows the energy to flow.
#5: ALWAYS LOOK AHEAD
Life happens in front of you, not behind you. In a halfpipe, we’re always looking ahead, looking toward our take off, spotting our landing, and scanning through the transition. While it can be tempting to look back, don’t do it. There’s nothing there for you. I remember the feeling of dread when I retired at 28 years-young, believing that the best years of my life were behind me and that I would never see success like that again. I had given up on myself without realizing it. Fortunately, a friend of mine put me in my place. He pointed out that if Elon Musk were to have stopped looking ahead after the success of PayPal, we wouldn’t have Space X or Tesla today. So, whether you are in a season of success or failure right now, it is only temporary, keep that gaze fixed ahead.
I don’t say all this to make you think that transitions are easy. They’re not. The four years between retiring and standing on this stage tonight, have been some of the hardest years of my life, but also the most rewarding. Because they’ve reconnected me to a purpose and a vision that is bigger than me.
Funny enough, remember all those things I thought I was leaving behind when I retired from skiing? The ability to have skiing a regular part of my life and to travel the world, the days of waking up, excited to work toward something I was passionate about, the chance to inspire others to pursue their dreams. It’s all here.
While my life on the surface, looks very different than it did 5 years ago, the ESSENCE of my life is still the same. When I finally LET GO of the life I had and STEPPED IN to the life I was creating, it all began to flow. By going all in, carrying your speed, staying strong, being flexible and always looking ahead, you too can create a life you didn’t even know was possible.