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Fog in our Eyes!

25 January 2019

I love how a simple swimming training session can once again reinforce such vital messaging and remind as to the very basic functioning of our minds! Unpacked a bit, these lessons are so relevant to every day life – and especially in business! I speak about this on stage so often, yet I still learn.

On Monday I took the morning off and embarked on a 24km open water training swim – 12kms one way, turn around and swim the 12km back. Fairly straight forward albeit a rather long swim. Speedo, goggles, cap.

Very important to my mental preparation prior to this level of training, is to set myself visual targets along the route – “first get to that white house, then keep your head down and reach that island”, and so on. Basically breaking the journey up and keeping the mind positive with progress now measured in smaller chunks. All set to go, plan in place. Fifteen minutes into the 6hr swim, a thick fog sets in and I can see nothing other than the small support vessel alongside. It is just cold, deep water below and grey all around outside. Navigation is now 100% reliant on a GPS. Yet I must swim on for another five hours and forty five minutes, without my visual milestones and a prepared mental plan that is suddenly null and void.

So what does the mind do? It starts to give me reasons to pull out. To quit. To change direction. To change my goal. The thought of five more hours plus of this is impossible to compute and it’s a great excuse to climb into that lifeboat alongside. I would have failed my swim outright. But it would not have been my fault, would it?

Applying a touch of mental grit, I carry on swimming. Now 6kms into the 24km swim. The flat, calm waters are suddenly churned up by an unpredicted, swift wind. Swimming in rough waters is exponentially harder than swimming in flat water. Dread for any distance swimmer! But, there is an up side. The wind has blown the fog away, I can see where I am! Now encouraged by the progress made while blind. And guest what? The wind is coming from behind me and the small waves are pushing me nicely forward. I’m riding them! For a moment all is good, I have new energy, determination and confidence. I praise myself for overcoming the urge to pull out earlier and I know I’d be kicking myself if I had.

But then it dawns on me! These waves now pushing me to the half way mark are going to be directly head-on, in my face, holding me back for the full 12km return journey swim! A horrible thought! Impossible. I have now swum 9kms, I’m tired and cold and doubting my ability to reach the end. My mind starts to focus on the negatives again. I’ve been given a new set of excuses to quit. Every stroke towards the turn around point is going to equate to two strokes required when in the opposite direction and it plays on me heavily. The challenge seems too big and the thought that I am still swimming in the opposite direction from the end point, very nearly becomes too much. But I push on, drawing on experience and perhaps a tad of ego.

Finally, 12kms later, I exit the water briefly, stand on a small beach marking the halfway point. I cast an eye back over the waters I have just conquered. Surely that’s far enough? The wind blows steadily into my face, the waves are forming white waters pushing in the opposite direction to where I need to go if I am to make it back. Its too far, too hard and it will be hell. Plain and simple. I’m only half way and if that was the easy half done, no ways can I fight it all the way back at twice the effort required. I want to throw in the towel.

But my support team encourages me to get in and at least take a few strokes back towards the end point. Just a kilometer or two. Certain in my own head that I will exit into the lifeboat shortly, I indulge them and also to save a bit of face, I walk back into the water and put my head down. 3kms of tough swimming go by quicker than I thought they would. I decide to carry on for only one or two more kms and then make my exit. It’s hard, but it is not killing me. I am moving in the right direction. Suddenly I am no longer 12kms away from the end point, I’m only 6kms away. My head does the maths and I realise I have conquered 75% of the distance. And just like that, there is a complete natural mindset shift with the remaining 6kms of water, now wild and woolly as ever, seems well within reach and there is not a chance I will fail. And I didn’t.

How many times in business does, the ‘fog’ set in and one loses sight of a difficult goal, now seemingly just that one step too far away? How many times does the ‘wind blow’, making the path to success seem too difficult to pursue? And how many times have you been tempted to throw in the towel, not leaning on your support structures at the right time?

Simple fact – when the going gets tough, a plan is threatened and the outcome is uncertain, our minds subconsciously act to protect us from the potential ’emotional pain’ that will come from failure. We steer towards protecting ourselves, towards a place of comfort. In my case, it would have been the lifeboat alongside. And we will never beat ourselves up too much for not staying the course, because we are easily convinced that the universe conspired against us to make it too difficult. Its not my fault! But when you understand this mental process, this protection mechanism that we all default to, it becomes easier to identify and to override. It doesn’t guarantee success of course, but I now know, via some of the world’s most difficult swims as well as via the business that I run, that you’ll always surprise yourself. The results from just a little more perseverance in a difficult situation often far exceed expectations, because at that very point of application, perhaps for the first time, your expectations are at an all time low. With the right mental resilience there is always a way through. Just get to the halfway mark and see how quickly that impossible uphill battle converts to a freewheel to the finish line.