Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Alexi Pappas Is Helping To Change Our World

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Remember, pain is a sensation and not a threat. What this means to me as an athlete and as a lifelong dream-chaser is that when we embark on something hard, whether it’s running a race or putting on a play, we know that it will be tough. We know that there will be moments when we want to give up. So when those moments inevitably arrive, don’t panic. You knew it would be hard, remember? Don’t give that “this is hard” feeling more credit than it deserves.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexi Pappas.

Alexi Pappas is an Olympic athlete, author, filmmaker, and actress. Alexi’s memoir-in-essays, “Bravey,” with a foreword by Maya Rudolph, was published in January 2021 and was the #1 new release in both the sports and film categories. Random House asked Alexi to write a young reader’s version of “Bravey,” coming out August 22, 2023, with a foreword by Maya Hawke.

A Greek-American, Alexi is the Greek national recordholder in the 10,000 meters with a personal best of 31:36 set at the Rio Olympics. Alexi graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College and also ran for the University of Oregon as a 5th year, leading the team to two NCAA victories. Alexi most recently directed, co-wrote, and starred in the feature film NOT AN ARTIST alongside RZA, Ciara Bravo, Paul Lieberstein, Matt Walsh, and Haley Joel Osment (currently in post production). Alexi previously co-created and starred in the feature film OLYMPIC DREAMS alongside Nick Kroll, premiering at SXSW 2019. In 2016 Alexi co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in the feature film TRACKTOWN with a cast including Rachel Dratch (“Saturday Night Live”) and Andy Buckley (“The Office”).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Sure thing — I was born in Berkeley, California in 1990. I grew up with my single dad and older brother. When I was four years old, my mother took her own life (after years of struggling with mental illness). This loss essentially set the stage for the rest of my life: my four-year-old self felt like I didn’t matter enough for my mom to stay, so I became determined to prove that I did matter. This drive propelled me all the way to the Olympics. But it can be unsustainable to be fueled by a drive like this, because nothing is ever enough. You can’t solve an internal problem with an external solution.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I remember reading Sarah Ruhl’s play, Eurydice, and it changed how I felt about what a play could be. I loved the way she used language to drive my imagination to new places, and the way she assigned human emotions to anything: even a stone. I once met Sarah Ruhl at one of her shows and it was magical to sense that she is as wonderful in real life as her plays and writing make us feel.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was younger, I used to dread every single race — not because I was afraid of losing, but because I was afraid of the pain that came with racing. Every race, I always pushed myself to my limit, and that hurts! It got to the point that I was so nervous on race days that I’d show up to the starting line mentally exhausted just from anticipation of pain. I would often wish that an alien spacecraft would land on the start line so that my races would be cancelled. When I went to college and started training to compete at the Division 1 level, intense pain became part of my daily routine. Every morning I woke up dreading the inevitable pain to come and by the time practice started, I felt mentally drained. It became clear that if I wanted to survive as a college runner, I needed to develop a technique to manage my fears about pain. Without going into too much detail (there’s more detail in Bravey book!), I resolved to greet pain like an expected guest at a dinner party. I know it is coming and I’m prepared to handle it gracefully.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I hope Bravey book for young readers gives young people some new vocabulary to think about their mental health, and also tools for chasing big dreams. I think the book can significantly impact individuals and that’s how bigger social impact begins.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

As someone who grew up very confused about what mental health really meant, my “aha moment” was when I realized that my brain was a body part and could get injured just like any other body part. This happened during the worst of my post-Olympic depression when I felt completely helpless. It was in a very specific appointment with my doctor, where I learned I could approach my mental health like I do my physical health. If I have pain in my body, I take time off from training to recover and I seek out professional help. There’s no shame to it — it’s simply what you do. Why not view mental health the same way? I felt compelled to share this with anyone who is unsure about how to see themselves when they’re going through a mental health struggle.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I meet so many Braveys when I travel, and there was one person in particular who shared she was in an incredibly dark and confusing place, and that Bravey book helped her feel helpable. Like me, she was very unsure about how to see herself during this time — and all the mystery and social stigma surrounding depression made her feel even worse, like she might never get better. But! When she was able to change her perspective on her own mental health and think of her brain as a body part like any other, she was able to approach her depression with an athletes’ mindset.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Sure! I think it really boils down to two things: 1) Leaders of all stripes — whether we’re talking about famous people or the captain of high school sports teams — can lead by example and show that caring for your brain is just as everyday as caring for any other body part. Nobody feels ashamed for going to the chiropractor or to a PT or a physician; why not talk just as openly about going to a therapist? 2) Folks in positions of power (coaches, teachers, parents) can work to make mental healthcare more accessible by proactively showing where and how to seek it out.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A good leader understands where you are and helps you go where you’d like to go at the same time. I had a mentor who, when I was hurting in the middle of a hard long run, would distract me by pointing out a bird flying overhead and ask me: where it is going? where did it come from? what is its family like? etc. — in this way, she recognized I was struggling, and distracted + empowered me to keep going. Leadership is not always direct and instructional, but rather an act of showing, simply by existing, how to approach life, growth, and struggle.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Chasing a dream is not a waste of time, it’s only a waste of time if you do it partway. I know so many young people who have big dreams and take the first few steps down the road, only to give up then write the whole thing off. Worse, some people use their own experience with failure as a proof that dream chasing is a waste of time. What makes me sad about this mindset is if they had just not given up, then it’s very possible that their time invested in chasing their dream might have produced a successful result.

Try not to plan your life more than a year in advance, we often outgrow our expectations of ourselves! Speaking of “successful result” — so often in life, we can’t imagine what success might look like to our future-selves. That’s why I try not to think too far ahead, because I always want to give myself room to evolve. When I was a college runner, I never would have imagined competing in the Olympics. And it’s possible that if I had had such a loft goal from the outset, it might have seemed too daunting. So I took things one milestone at a time and allowed myself to grow into my dreams, and for my dreams to grow into me.

Willpower is a finite resource — guard it well! Willpower is our ability to make decisions and handle adversity, and it’s personal to everyone. We can replenish it and we can deplete it. We make thousands of choices every day, and each of those choices uses up some portion of our willpower. The little decisions — when to wake up, what to eat, what to wear, when to leave the house — are small paper cuts that deplete the will- power that could have gone toward bigger decisions: Should I study for that test or watch TV? Can I finish this workout, or should I give up? We need to be conscious of what decisions we’re allowing to use up our limited supply of willpower. Once I started becoming conscious of my own willpower, and then protective of it, two things began to happen: I became kinder to myself when my willpower was low, and I realized how many little things drained my willpower every day. If you’re curious to learn more about how I manage my willpower, check out the “Willpower” chapter in Bravey!

Give yourself a period of time to chase a goal, and do not question the goal at all during that period of time! I have had so many experiences observing teammates question a bigger goal every single day, rather than give themselves a chance to be in the “dream chasing incubator” doing the work and trusting the process. We definitely need to check in if there’s a red flag, like a physical or mental health injury, or after a meaningful period of time chasing the dream, but we aren’t mean to question it every day or even every week. This is a distraction and a big willpower drain!

Remember, pain is a sensation and not a threat. What this means to me as an athlete and as a lifelong dream-chaser is that when we embark on something hard, whether it’s running a race or putting on a play, we know that it will be tough. We know that there will be moments when we want to give up. So when those moments inevitably arrive, don’t panic. You knew it would be hard, remember? Don’t give that “this is hard” feeling more credit than it deserves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The best lesson I ever learned was something my coach, Ian Dobson, shared with me during one of my last big workouts before the 2016 Olympics. I was meant to do a hard track workout, and I couldn’t run the exact times I was asked to run. I felt discouraged; was this a sign that I wasn’t ready to compete? But then Ian taught me about the Rule of Thirds. It goes like this: Whenever you’re chasing a big dream, you’re supposed to feel good one third of the time, okay one third of the time, and crappy one third of the time. If you feel too good all the time, you’re not pushing yourself enough; and if you feel too fatigued all the time, you might be pushing too hard and you risk injuring yourself or burning out. Learning about this rule was game changing for me because it allowed me to recognize my hard days as part of a larger journey.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to have lunch with Natalie Portman because of her joint interest in female sports and the arts. I have always connected with her advocacy work too, and I love what she is doing to progress women in sports through her work with Angel City FC. I think most compelling of all, she’s a person who seems curious about herself and the world and is always open to learning and change. I admire her engaging in books, in dialogues with other leaders, and also admitting that she is not perfect. For all of us, that means a lot to see and hear and I am grateful. She also just seems interested in food and good conversation and I love both of those things!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

People can find me at @alexipappas on Instagram!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Alexi Pappas Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.