Simone Biles, and the pandemic, have taught us the value of pausing, and the virtue in getting out of the rat race

Tennis fans will recognise these words from Andre Agassi’s powerful autobiography, Open: ‘I tell myself that tonight will be an exam for which I’ve been studying 29 years. Whatever happens tonight, I’ve already been through it at least once before.

If it’s a physical test, if it’s mental, it’s nothing new. Please let this be over. I don’t want it to be over. I start to cry. I lean against the wall of the shower and let go.’ Despite his raw emotional state, Agassi soldiered on at the 2006 US Open, going on to play a classic match against Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. Fifteen years down, Agassi’s compatriot Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics after a bout of ‘twisties’, which have been described as a sort of mental block that causes a gymnast to lose their sense of space and dimension as they are up in the air. ‘For anyone saying I quit. I didn’t quit. My mind and body are simply not in sync…’ said Biles in an Instagram post. ‘Nor do I have to explain why I put my health first. Physical health is mental health.’

Unlike artists — think Francesco Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, or Edvard Munch whose expression of anxiety in his painting Scream is so resonant in the modern world that it’s become an emoji — athletes never had the permission to discuss their mental state except ever in positive terms. In the high-octane world of professional sport, mental toughness is requisite. By opening up about their battles with mental health, and in prioritising it over a championship or a medal, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have initiated a long-needed conversation in professional sport. If a Rafael Nadal can decide to miss the Wimbledon ‘after listening’ to his body, equally, a Simone Biles can sit out the Olympics after listening to her body and mind.

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If anything, the pandemic has taught all of us the value of pause. Those who think the world will go back to its frenetic, high testosteronedriven idea of work and achievement are out of step with Gen Z. As any recruiter will vouch, the urban young are reluctant to embrace a 24/7 switched-on work culture. In China, they have even gone a step further with the Tang Ping movement, which literally means lying flat (and doing little). The movement that’s been described as ‘spiritual’ is an antidote to China’s culture of overwork and constant hustle. In a piece on Tang Ping, AFP’s Beiyi Seow quoted a young Chinese as saying, ‘You’re beaten up by society and just want a more relaxed life…’lying flat’ is not waiting to die. I still work, but just don’t overstretch.’

In China, where posts endorsing Tang Ping are being taken down, an editorial in the Chinese government’s publication, Global Times, reflects the panic: ‘China is at one of the most important stages of its long road to national rejuvenation. Young people are the hope of this country, and neither their personal situation nor the situation of this country will allow them to ‘collectively lie flat’.’ Stentorian editorials in propaganda papers notwithstanding, the young are showing up the rat race in all its ugliness. What kind of a world will be refashioned with the emergence of this new mindset? Organisations that imaginatively put the individual’s mental and physical well-being at the heart of their culture will attract the best talent over those that offer bigger money for punishing working hours.

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The transparency that Zoom enables has already reduced some of the toxicity that physical workspaces can create, and hierarchies are likely to be flattened, creating more equitable work spaces. More importantly, for those truly talented, opting out of the rat race and prioritising their well-being will lead to longer career graphs and multiple reinventions. Simone Biles may be down now, but she will soon be somersaulting, defying gravity and carping critics.



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