Pro tennis made me super happy (until it didn’t): Finding joy by looking inside, turning work into play and embracing your path—easy.

By Mitch Rustad

It may not typically trend on Twitter (I still refuse to call it “X”) like Taylor Swift, Caturday or anything election related, but to me, the hottest topic on people’s minds in these troubled times—subconsciously or otherwise—is the pursuit of happiness. Whether they’re raging on social media about how to fix the world, posting endless selfies for clicks or thirsting for more of something, everyone’s inner dialogue seems to be shouting, “I want to be happier!” 

But what exactly is happiness? Is there a journey, a yellow brick road of sorts we all must take before we can earn that idyllic state? Or is ‘happy’ our intrinsic state if we just got out of our own way and allowed what came naturally? 

As a writer and life coach with plenty of experience navigating in the corporate world, I’ve come to conclude it’s the latter (more on my journey later). 

“People are hardwired for connection. If we don’t have that, it’s hard to be happy,” says Sheri Winston, a Wholistic Sexuality™ teacher and founder and executive director of the Intimate Arts Center in Kingston, NY. “For me it’s always been about doing work that’s in service to other people, helping them learn and grow and get more pleasure in their lives.”

I love learning from other people’s insight and hard-earned wisdom. The reality is that there’s no single recipe for happiness. We’re all too different for that. I believe we also share foundational, universal experiences that promote happiness. Here’s some of what I’ve learned on my own journey:

Turn Play into Work: Everyone has surely heard the cliché, “do what you love.” But wow, ain’t it the truth? As a kid, I saw so many adults (my parents very much included) who seemed trapped in jobs they hated—in survival mode—it was just the norm for everyone. Work was work and play was play. I realized later a life intention had been formed inside of me way before I became an adult: I wanted work and play to be one and the same.

I feel blessed to have grown up in the 1970s, which coincided with the tennis boom in America. Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors were America’s sweethearts, and everyone was grabbing a racquet, including me. I couldn’t get enough. I was obsessed, and after endless hours of practice, I got good—really good. I became one of the highest ranked high school players in Minnesota. I didn’t know it yet, but my career path had already been decided.

Right out of college, I decided to make tennis my ‘work’: first as a tennis pro at country clubs and resorts in Arizona, then as a tennis writer and public relations professional based in Florida, traveling the world on the ATP Tour (men’s pro tennis). As a kid, I had dreamed of going to Wimbledon, rubbing elbows with famous people, being around that excitement. And I did it. For many years, it was great. But eventually, I’d realized that even dream jobs don’t guarantee happiness forever, that you can outgrow them, or they outgrow you. The constant travel and living out of a suitcase eventually wore me down. The ATP Tour was restructuring more staff to Europe, and I was ready to move on. Though painful, change is inevitable. Letting go and moving on isn’t failure; it’s life. 

Know What You Want: With one dream behind me, I did something really crazy. I moved to New York City at the prompting of a friend. I had no job lined up, but plenty of dreams and adventures in mind. Looking back, it seemed like an insane thing to do. But I believe the reason it all worked out—the dreams and adventures manifested, I made lifelong friends, enjoyed all my jobs, even landed a byline in The New York Times—was that despite the uncertainty, I felt clear about how I wanted (in truth, needed) to live. I demanded authenticity and freedom. Because of that, Manhattan became a necessary life force. 

Do Your (Self Help) Work: Knowing what you want won’t prevent traumas and tragedies, life crises and troubles. Life can be brutal. There’s long been a stigma attached to seeking mental health help (through great books, therapists, coaches, meditations, etc.). But the truth is that it can absolutely help to manage these inevitabilities. In my late 20s, I read a book called Your Erroneous Zones by Wayne Dyer, which truly rocked my world. I’d never heard such radical ideas, theories and audacity for living happily. Dyer’s message was that everything you need is already within. Freedom and independence are the ticket—be the boss of your own mind. It was like a light going off. That was it! 

But for many, it often takes a tragedy or health crisis for us to take self-care seriously. When I faced an unexpected health crisis, the work I’d already done really helped me through it; serendipitously, I met an extraordinary New York-based energy healer named Aleta St. James. I interviewed her for a story, and we hit it off. St. James became famous in 2004 when she gave birth to twins at age 57, and her life force is formidable, to say the least. Energy healing sessions with her were life-changing. I learned that old negative beliefs and experiences can literally get ‘stuck’ in the cells of your body, and we ‘loop’ those negatives over and over. I learned that we’re all energy, constantly regenerating, which means we can heal and transform almost anything. I started doing even deeper work on myself—simple meditations, using affirmations, breathwork, visualization, etc.—and helped St. James create amazing content on her website, podcasts and workshops. I found it fascinating—and fun. Like tennis, work had become play, truly enjoyable.

It’s Never Too Late: One of St. James’ life mantras is: “I believe in winding up, not down.” Age really is just a number. It’s never too late to start something new. Just a few years ago, I pitched a good friend and writing colleague on the idea of writing some TV pilot scripts together, just for fun. It was one of the most fun, fulfilling creative experiences I’ve had. We’ve already completed four pilot scripts and are plotting our next idea now. I also studied life coaching, got my certification and love the fact that tapping into my own struggles and breakthroughs has been tremendously helpful in my private practice. I have total confidence in this work because I have lived it myself. In my coaching session, major breakthroughs almost always occur, in surprising, satisfying ways. My coaching mantra sums it up for me: “It’s time to get out of your own way.”

Pro Tip: Write everything down. What do you want? Write it down. What do you not want? Write it down. Clarity is super powerful. Focus. This practice was incredibly helpful for me and, as a writer, it felt natural and fun. I can be drifting to sleep, but if I get an idea, I sit up, pop open my laptop, which is always nearby, and write it down. It really works.

Embrace Fearlessness: I believe happiness also results from confronting fears and defeating them. Life is short, we all know that. Whatever it is you want to do, do it now. Do not wait. In the last few years, I’ve lost four close friends, all close to my own age, which has been a sobering reminder that we don’t get guarantees of a future. We have now and can’t control what comes tomorrow. 

While writing this story I realize how full circle life can be. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything, but I wonder if I learned almost everything I ever really needed to know about happiness by chasing a fuzzy yellow ball around a tennis court, confronting the prospect of winning and losing. Maybe it all comes down to this:

Focus on the now. Take total responsibility for yourself, be self-reliant, the solutions are within you. It’s never over ’til it’s over, so never give up. Ebbs and flows are normal, so stay calm and if you face a setback, keep going. Be a good sport and stop complaining—it just wastes precious energy. It’s a game, so have fun. Relish the challenge and even if you’re match point down, stay calm. There’s still time to win, just get one more ball over the net and see what happens. 

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