July 28, 2021

Simone Biles said “I can’t” and “I need help”, and the world froze in shock.  This woman, top of her field, who dedicated her life to her sport, came in as the face of the United States Olympic Team, if not the Olympics themselves, took a step back to take care of herself.

And people said they were disappointed.  Some were appalled. Some were angry. Those reactions say significantly more about our culture than they do about Ms. Biles and her decision. Others called her “brave” and “uniquely courageous”.  While more positive, those reactions also say a great deal about our culture.  

Pressure comes in all forms.  Family pressures, career pressures, life pressures.  In a work setting, including at a law firm, saying yes and being a “team player” is what often allows people to advance in their careers. After a while, always saying yes becomes second nature, a habit that is hard to break.  And once people begin relying on your habitual “yes, can do, no problem” attitude, it becomes harder and harder to say no.

As attorneys, it is part of our ever evolving and improving culture that we are gradually learning to accept “no” and “I cannot” not as a failure of an individual or the abandonment of the team.  Instead, we are recognizing that stepping back to take care of oneself, even amid the pressure of life and work, is a necessary part of living and living well. 

Recognizing a need to step back is part of being a team player. Teams are based on trust and mutual respect, or at least they should be.  Teams should not be based on a total abasement and subservience to the end goal, at a cost to one’s health, mental and physical.  A team that supports its teammates when they need help will always get farther than one who treats such requests with contempt. For the doubters in the audience, if a tire on the car begins to go flat, you take the time to fix the tire so everyone can get where they are going.  You do not yell at the tire and continue to drive on it until the whole car crashes.

As for Ms. Biles, it is immensely hopeful, for her continued well being and for an ever-evolving culture, that she found strength to say no on such a public stage, after years of being the queen of “yes, I can do that” and seeming doing just that with such ease.  There is also hope in watching her teammates and fans surround and support her in her decision.  At the end, it is an example that I hope resonates in our culture and serves as an inspiration for continuing change.