Career lessons from a professional speed skater

Career lessons from a professional speed skater

By Mayke Nagtegaal4 minute Read

I haven’t taken a paved road when it comes to my career. In fact, my career hasn’t been a road at all. For me, it’s been more of a rink. I’ve suited up as a semi-pro speed skater. I’ve been an attorney specializing in international tax law. Now, I’m the COO of a high-growth tech startup.

Rather than follow a straight, narrow path, I’ve swerved with the curves of each track I’ve found myself on. That means that I’ve slipped, stumbled, and skidded as often as I’ve soared. I’ve had slow starts turn into first-place finishes and felt the unparalleled adrenaline rush that comes with an all-out sprint. But I’ve also found myself cruising along the fastest lap of my life, only to have the tiniest misstep send me crashing. Through each twist and turn, I’ve learned there’s a razor-thin edge between risk and reward. Often, they’re two sides of the same blade.

The benefits of a nontraditional career path

A winding career path is not as uncommon as it once was. Now, more than ever, people are more willing to change jobs, companies, and even change careers multiple times throughout their lives. According to staffing firm Robert Half, 64 percent of workers are open to switching their roles. That’s up 22 percent from a similar survey four years ago.

But taking career risks—especially for women—still seems easier said than done. One study from the University of Southern California shows men tend to take more risks under stress, while female risk-taking under pressure decreases. Another report, from the Kellogg School of Management and the University of Chicago, found that women, on average, are more risk-averse than men in financial decision-making, which in turn, is associated with differences in career choices. In a poll of MBA students, the study found about 36% of females chose a risky career in finance (like investment banking or trading), compared to 57% of their male counterparts.

My experiences have taught me to stop setting limits for myself. I’ve embraced the idea that not taking risks is actually the riskiest move of all, especially when it comes to our careers.

Where you start isn’t how you’ll finish

For speed skaters, winning and losing isn’t defined in seconds—but in hundredths of seconds. You can’t play it safe or fear the fall. You have to learn to make moves to outpace your opponent. As a result, you get good at picking yourself up again seconds after you hit the skids. These things are true for anyone evaluating a career opportunity. Many of us stop ourselves from taking (or even trying) for opportunities because we’re afraid of failing.

This is an understandable fear. But it’s worth remembering that in business, just like skating—where you stand in the starting lineup isn’t a prediction of what will happen at the finish. When I first started skating, my skills weren’t perfect. I knew I had to finesse my form to improve. But that didn’t keep me off the ice or out of the competition. The same was true when I decided to join MessageBird, first as its CFO and later its COO. I knew I didn’t check every box of the job description. However, I knew I had the legal, financial, and operational skills I needed to make a positive impact. So I went for it.

How to pace yourself without playing it safe

In speed skating, you pick your moments. Not every situation is an all-out sprint, but at the same time, you can’t move forward by hanging back. Risk-taking doesn’t always mean recklessness. It’s easy to be complacent on the ice and in business, but it also comes at a cost. If you don’t find new muscles to flex, you’ll never get stronger, and you won’t break out from the pack. Risk-taking is necessary for creation and innovation. Without pushing our comfort zone, we can’t arrive at our next groundbreaking idea or achievement.

Buck convention

Whenever you find yourself in front of a new career opportunity, the first question to ask isn’t, “Which job is more secure?” Instead, ask yourself, “What will I learn? How much will I grow?” When in doubt, always choose the growth opportunity, because that experience is one you’ll carry with you throughout your career.

At the beginning of my career, I was hired at one of the largest tax and consulting companies in the world. The conventional path would have been to stick it out five or six years to prove myself. But, three years into my job, a few of the partners decided to leave the firm and start their own company—bringing me on as their first employee. It was a big leap, but I decided to look at it as a rare opportunity instead of a significant risk. So I went for it, and I haven’t looked back.

Adopt an athletic mindset

Whether you’re navigating the turns of a speed skating rink or swerving with the twists and or your career, embracing an athletic mindset will help you make the most of whatever comes your way. Every decision you make—even if it doesn’t turn out as planned—becomes an opportunity to learn and grow. That is, if you choose to make it one.


Mayke Nagtegaal is the COO of MessageBird, an Amsterdam-based cloud communications platform company.

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