Purpose//

Shikha Uberoi Bajpai’s Journey from Tennis Pro to Acing Purpose in Life

Here's how this professional sportsperson turned her isolation into strength and found a reason to help others

Shikha Uberoi Bajpai in action in her playing days.
Shikha Uberoi Bajpai in action in her playing days.

“Energetic… disciplined…passionate… exuberant!” It was my birthday and we were playing the game, “describe me in one world or less” in my father’s Manhattan apartment. My family members were taking turns expressing their one word descriptions of me. Each member took their time, pausing to think about a word, sound, or gesture that would best fit me according to them.

The game speaks volumes of the person being described and also how those around the person perceive him or her. After everybody finished, I was left feeling self-confident and grateful to have such esteem in the eyes of my family. It was one of the best birthdays I’ve experienced which my husband organised with the particular diligence and sincerity I so admire in him.

That day’s overwhelming feeling of joy is still resonating through me.

The backstory is, my sister and I had a Whatsapp rally the night before my birthday. In preparation for the next day’s festivities, I put her on the spot and jokingly said, “Quick, describe me in one word or less!”

Without hesitation or delay, she aced back the single word “laptop”. As hilarious as it was, it was a searing truth that caught me off guard and forced me to reflect.

As much as it gives me a sense of pride to be considered hardworking, I know too well that dedicated hard work, without a controlled sense of balance, can lead to obsession. Obsession if not checked can drive self-inflicted burnout. However, burnout is not always self-inflicted. Various factors and circumstances outside of one’s control are significant contributors to sensations of or actual burnout.

If the words ascribed to me on my birthday are any indication, my life is built on the foundation of passion. How I feel, think, what I do, and how I am are layered upon that fire. The dangerously beautiful fact about fire is that on the one hand it can light up life, yet it can also burn and burn itself out.

They say it is the mark of a life lived to know both the joy of a blazing bonfire and the bitter emptiness of cold smoke from a flame that once was. Less discussed and more remarkable is the gruelling self-effort of stoking a tiny, flickering, red ember back into the glow of life; the triumph of reigniting.

It took me years after I retired to understand and admit to myself that I fell out of love with my first career as a professional athlete. I was no longer in love with tennis. After dedicating a quarter of a century and my identity to it, tennis stopped meaning anything to me and the desperate isolation of my confusion fueled a pain that was directed inwards.

The confusion turned into disorientation and I found myself going through the motions of life. Competing with no motivation, let alone not being authentic, was like pouring liquid nitrogen onto my soul. Each day that passed simply served to further dwindle down what little flame remained.

I became less of myself and embodied pain. I was a hollow shell moping about glamorous tennis stadiums in beautiful countries unable to understand what was happening. The cognitive dissonance was chewing me alive from the inside out. That’s the sinister thing about liquid nitrogen, its colourless and clear, you don’t even realise it’s burning you out until you are burned out and left shivering trying to make sense of what happened.

Passionless, lost and self-destructing, I was a disappointment to the human experience. I was unable to communicate without the tools or life experience needed to express where I was and what was going on.

However, I did know one thing, way deep inside, I knew I had something else to express and something more to give. There was more to my ‘personhood’ which had been left dormant for years. I wanted to know what it was and how it would manifest.

It was this curiosity that helped me realise that I was lost inwards and I had to look outwards for answers. To make sense of what was going on inside, I began to engage and participate in the world around me.

As only too few know, tennis is an isolating sport and imparts a myopic and often selfish view of the world. I found myself pushing out of my partially, self-inflicted cage and during the most self-consumed part of my life, I began to pay attention to everyone else, their needs, problems, hopes, and desires.

The world I knew like the back of my hand and which I circumferenced annually suddenly became so huge, unknown, and the opportunities to be more of myself grew the more I gave and cared for others.

Upon understanding other people’s pain, I was awakened and energised to find solutions to alleviate it. I could empathise with their feelings of joy, happiness or failure. I saw when my passion was directed towards the progress of others it took on another layer, it became compassion.

Through these interactions and experiences, I was able to put my life in perspective and access the resources available to me to try and create change. This desire to help one person, then another and another grew while I did, and it grew into my desire to create worldwide impact. I followed the flow of this desire and it led me to a tucked away love for television and film.

I had developed new insight and with the vision I now had, the combination of social change and TV, was love at first thought. The flames of passion were burning once again and thus my company Impact Media 360 was born.

Looking back, I was in one of the most difficult situations of my life where I was entrenched in my own sorrow and constantly in my head fixated on how to help myself. While it was the most selfish time of my life, the path to recovery was contrary to common sense.

The solution entailed caring for and deeply immersing in others’ needs. It was indeed counterintuitive to be absorbed in the needs of others during the most self-obsessed period of my life.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would wallow away in my pity parties and abuse the “victim card” to rationalise not applying myself and lolling in bed. That would only go so far until someone whose opinion mattered to me would shout, “Oi, get over yourself!”

Realising “I ain’t all that” and getting over myself was not only humbling, but it was critical to my reignition.

Burning out and reigniting show you what you’re made of and force you to uncover the true foundations of your limitless self. Through this process and tremendous life experience, I learned that my passion burns on the pyre of humility and with the fuel of empathy. These are the ingredients I need to express myself to my full potential.

As this year flows into next year’s birthday gathering, perhaps you’ll have found the foundations of your true self. Now that would be a birthday wish come true.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- Marcus Aurelius

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