Diana Nyad is best known for being the first person to swim non-stop from Cuba to Key West, Florida without a shark cage – 110.86 miles in 52 hours and 54 minutes (no sleep, no rest breaks). And she did it in 2013, when she was 64 years old. That alone qualifies her as an example of excellence.
But if that wasn’t enough, Nyad was already a legendary long-distance swimmer in her 20’s (she was the first woman to swim the 28 miles around Manhattan Island in 1975, setting a new record for women and men, and she swam 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979). During her 30-year hiatus from swimming, she also had a successful career as a sports commentator, author, journalist, and motivational speaker.
That’s a pretty impressive resume of excellence. So let’s dig into her life a little bit and find the gems of wisdom that we can apply to our own lives.
Living At Your Full Potential Every Day
One of the core habits of excellence is giving 100% of yourself to whatever you attempt. Nyad sums this up in one of the mottos she lives by, “Not a fingernail better, no regrets.”
The line comes from a pep talk one of her teammates gave her when she was competing in the Olympic trials. Although she was a competitive swimmer in high school, Nyad recognized that she would never be a first-tier pool swimmer, and she didn’t have a real shot at the Olympics. It would have been easy to throw in the towel before the race even began, to put in a respectable but half-hearted effort. But her friend challenged her to give that race everything she had, to be able to say afterwards she couldn’t have swam it a fingernail faster.
And that’s exactly what she did. She threw her best self into that race, and swam at her 100% potential in that moment.
“I couldn’t have done it a fingernail faster.”
If this was a Hollywood script, she would have won. That would have made a great story.
But I think the real story is better, actually. She came in sixth. Her Olympic dream was over. But she was able to walk away from the trials with pride, knowing she had given everything she had in that moment. She walked away with no regrets. And this attitude came to define her approach to life.
We can do the same. Maybe you’re up against a challenge, and your chances of success are slim to none. Don’t let that stop you from giving it everything you have.
It’s not so much about the outcome as it is about the person you become. Winning, success, achievements, these are all great, but once the victory is over, they fade pretty quickly.
But being a person who consistently shows up and gives it everything they have? That’s something you carry with you forever. It becomes part of your identity.
And it’s not just about the warm fuzzies. The thing is, when you’re in the habit of performing at 100% of your potential, one day you’re going to come up against an opportunity, a break with your name on it – and you’ll succeed simply because you don’t even hesitate to give it everything you’ve got.
For Nyad, her all-in mentality served her well once she discovered her niche in long-distance swimming a few years after those Olympic trials. And decades after that, because she had become the kind of person who gave 100% of herself every time – and not just in the big publicized events but in every single grueling practice session for years – she was able to accomplish the impossible.
But if you’re in the habit of doing just enough to get by, thinking you’ll rise to the occasion when the right opportunity comes along? Chances are it will pass you right by. Or, you won’t be prepared and you’ll blow it.
Perseverance – the Critical Denominator
Excellence isn’t a short-term quest. As I read Nyad’s autobiography “Find a Way”, what struck me most was that it took her 5 attempts and over 36 years to complete her quest successfully. That’s a long time to keep a dream alive.
“I was looking to be a person who never, ever gives up.”
There were countless obstacles along the way: bureaucratic hassles and delays, technical and navigational issues, deadly box jellyfish, treacherous currents, and dangerous weather conditions. There was the inevitable discouragement that came with each failed attempt, following 8-9 months of grueling training.
Perhaps the toughest challenge, though, came after her fourth failed attempt in 2012. Most of her Core Team members abandoned ship – they had become convinced that the Cuba-to-Florida swim was an Impossible Dream, and they needed to move on with their lives. Nyad had to train for most of 2013 without her long-term support team.
Still, she kept her belief in her dream, even though “the whole world had now stamped this quest as impossible.”
One of the key differences between those who succeed in achieving their dream and those who don’t is the point at which they quit. Failure is going to happen on the road to any worthwhile goal, usually many times. And when you study the lives of people who have accomplished big goals, it’s not unusual for them to have gone through a period where no one else believed in their dream.
Sometimes you have to go it alone. You have to tune into that quiet voice deep inside that tells you your dream is possible, and tune out the voices around you telling you to quit. And you have to look at failures as opportunities to learn something valuable that will help you improve so you’ll do even better when you take your next shot.
Never, ever give up.
Stop Looking at the Horizon
One of Nyad’s cardinal rules when she was doing her long distance swims was to never look up toward the horizon to try to catch a glimpse of the destination coming into sight. This makes sense. If you’re swimming between two points of land separated by 100+ miles, constantly looking for the shoreline would get pretty depressing. Instead, she focused entirely on going through the motions, concentrating on the next stroke, or the next series of strokes.
I think there’s a life lesson in this approach. How many times do we set off towards a goal, but get discouraged because we start looking for results long before we can reasonably expect to see them? Like losing weight or getting in shape – we diet or go to the gym for a week, if that long, and we get frustrated when we don’t see dramatic changes in the mirror right away.
I know I’m guilty of this – I’ll be two days into a plan and wondering why I haven’t seen any results yet. It creates unnecessary frustration, which then slows down or stops progress altogether.
Maybe we’d have an easier time keeping up our motivation and staying sane in the process if instead, we carefully thought through the steps to reach our goal, and then simply focused on executing the step that we’re on, and then the next.
We may need to check in from time to time, to make sure we’re still on course and make adjustments to our plan if necessary, but we can stop frustrating ourselves by looking for 5 year results after month 1.
Trust the process.
Diana Nyad Was Uniquely Wired for Her Dream
When Nyad participated in a study where scientists were investigating how the brain reacts under conditions of extreme stress, she scored off the charts for the ability to remain calm under physically stressful conditions – even higher than Navy Seals. On top of that, she also has an extremely high lung and aerobic capacity. Great traits if your dream is to swim extraordinarily long distances under grueling conditions.
But wait, doesn’t this suggest that her extraordinary accomplishments, her excellence, were a result of unique genetics? And if so, what hope is there for the rest of us to achieve excellence?
Well, I’d be willing to wager that not many of us dream of swimming for 55 hours straight. That’s the key. She WAS uniquely built and wired for HER very individual dream. You ARE wired completely differently, and chances are you won’t be swimming from Cuba to Florida any time soon.
But I’m willing to bet that’s not your dream, is it?
I’ll bet you have a completely different dream, don’t you?
And here’s the thing – you are uniquely wired for YOUR specific dream.
The Clifton StrengthsFinder® assessment measures the presence of talents in 34 general areas referred to as “themes”, and provides you with a list of your top 5 areas of strength. What’s interesting is that there is only a 1 in 275,000 chance that someone else has the same top 5 strengths. (1) Even more impressive is that there is only a 1 in 33.4 million chance of someone having the same top 5 strengths in the same order, based on intensity, as yours. And if we were to look at the top 6 strengths, my guess is that you would be the only person in a world of 7.7 billion people with your particular line-up.
In plain English, that means you are uniquely wired for something. Your unique strengths and your personal dream are very likely matched. You have the raw material you need to achieve your dream.
That doesn’t mean it won’t take a lot of hard work. It will. But trust that whatever your dream is, you have some unique superpower that makes it possible for you. Maybe it’s a talent or skill, maybe it’s your unique background or your way of seeing the world. Maybe it’s your passion or your grit. Whatever it is, it’s something that no one else has. You are uniquely qualified.
You may not know what your superpower is when you start your quest. That’s okay. Just start. Go after your dream, and trust that what you need will show up along the way.
As Diana Nyad would say:
“Whatever your Other Shore is, whatever you must do, whatever inspires you, you will find a way to get there.”
What’s your “Other Shore”? How can you apply these ideas to your own quest? Let me know in the comments below J
1. Leibbrandt, M. Why Being One in a Million Really Isn’t That Special. Available at: http://coaching.gallup.com/2013/08/why-being-one-in-million-really-isnt.html.