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Profiles in Excellence: Siri Lindley

I first learned about Siri Lindley when she was interviewed by Tony Robbins on his podcast. To be a featured guest on his show tells you this woman must be exceptional in some way, and she doesn’t disappoint.  

Lindley is a former professional triathlete with an impressive list of accomplishments: 2001 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Champion, winner of the 2001 and 2002 ITU Triathlon World Cup series, and a member of the ITU Hall of Fame and the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. After retiring from the sport in 2002, she turned her talents to coaching, and has since trained several Olympic and Ironman champions. She also wrote her autobiography, “Surfacing – From the Depths of Self-Doubt to Winning Big and Living Fearlessly”, in which she details the ups and downs on her journey to the top of her sport.

What impressed me most, though, wasn’t her lengthy list of accomplishments but how much she struggled when she first took up the sport of triathlon. When we see people who have made it to the top of their field, it’s natural to assume success came easily to them. Sure, they had to put in the time and training, but their ‘gift’ was always readily apparent and paved the way, right?

Wrong.

Even with an athletic background, Lindley was far from being a natural triathlete. She had to push past a lot of self-doubt, disappointment, and defeat in the beginning. And the way she did it can teach us a lot about how to handle it when our dreams and goals don’t come easily, when we’re questioning whether we have what it takes because we’re encountering more failure than success.

Read on for more about what we can learn from her experience that can help us on our own individual quests…

A Messy Start Is Not a Barrier to Future Success

Lindley’s entrance into the world of triathlon was…. messy… to say the least. At some points, it appeared to be an absolute train wreck. To hear her tell the story, when she started training and learning the ropes, not many people would have predicted she was a future champion in the making.

Although Lindley had played lacrosse and field hockey at the collegiate level, those team sports had in no way prepared her for the specific demands of triathlon. She had never run any distance before, and when she began, a 30 minute jog nearly destroyed her. She had zero cycling experience, and when she got her first bike and started riding, she would get passed by kids and overweight men. When she was learning to use clipless pedals on a racing bike, she would topple over regularly at stoplights, much to the amusement of the drivers who were watching. She had no swimming experience, and felt defeated and frustrated at her first group swims when everyone was lapping her.

Her first triathlon was a comedy of errors. Not knowing her swim pace, she was mistakenly put in the fastest lane with the top swimmers who swam right over her, pummeling her as they went. She toppled over trying to get her Spandex bike shorts on after the swim, and she was nearly disqualified when her mom tried to help her back up. The run wasn’t much better, and she finished the race close to last.

But here’s the thing: she had found her passion, something she wanted more than anything else in the world, and she committed to pushing through the mess. At a time when most people would have advised her to set “realistic” expectations or even to give up, she believed in every cell of her body that it wasn’t a matter of “if” she would make it to the top, it was a matter of “when”.

How many times have you felt the desire to try something new, or to pursue a long-held dream, but stopped after taking the first few steps because they didn’t go smoothly? I know I’ve been guilty of this, thinking that if I was “meant” to do something, it would flow effortlessly or there would at least be obvious hints of future glory. When my early attempts sucked, I figured it was the universe’s way of telling me I was on the wrong path.

But what if early failures and obstacles are just the universe’s way of testing us to see how badly we want something? To see if we’re in it for the long haul?

What we can learn from Lindley’s story is that the beginning doesn’t have to be pretty – and it usually isn’t. Our start says nothing about our potential ability and it’s not a predictor of our future success.

The “secret” path to success goes directly through the mess.

Use “The Mess” as Inspiration

When she was starting out, Lindley couldn’t keep up with her more seasoned triathlete friends, and that was discouraging and frustrating. But she didn’t stay stuck in her negative feelings. Instead, she used them to fuel her drive to get better.

After that humiliating first race, she threw herself into training as if she were already a professional triathlete. She would wake up at 4 am to ride or run, swim on her lunch hour, and squeeze in another training session after work. She modeled the behavior of athletes who were where she wanted to be, not where she was. Rather than wallowing whenever self-doubt attacked, she trained harder. She took action to continually improve her skills and strength.

This is where so many of us get off track on the way to our dreams. We get feedback that we’re not very good at something, and we interpret it as a permanent statement about our potential, rather than a temporary assessment of our skill or strength at that specific moment in time. I’ve been guilty of this too, allowing myself to be derailed by comparing myself to coaches and authors who have been in the field for 20 or 30 years.

While it’s critical to surround ourselves with role models who are further along and more advanced (as we’ll discuss below), we need to learn how to use the comparisons constructively, rather than destructively. We need to practice learning from and being inspired by those who are further ahead, and not slide into discouragement because we’re not yet where we want to be. We need to learn to focus on our next step upwards, our next improvement, and trust that the process of continual small improvements will transform us over time.

Lindley’s efforts paid off. She started placing, and then winning, small local races. Eventually she got a chance to compete in the World Championships in her age group, and was selected as an alternate for the 2000 Olympic team. Although she didn’t get to actually compete in the Olympics, she went on to win her first ITU World Cup race in 2001, followed by wins in 11 additional World Cup races between 2001 and 2002, earning her the rank of top female ITU triathlete in the world both years, before she retired to start her new career as a coach.

Surround Yourself with a Support System

While the quest for personal excellence is, well, personal, we can all benefit from surrounding ourselves with people who believe in us and push us to grow.

When she first began her training, Lindley had no idea where to start, but she didn’t hesitate to ask for help from her more advanced triathlete friends. Her eagerness combined with her commitment made people willing to help. Throughout her journey, she continued to invest herself in friendships with other athletes, and the support from these connections sustained her through the ups and downs of competition, and helped her navigate critical transition points in her career.

She discovered how important this support system was when she made the mistake of training in solitude for the Olympic qualifying trials. During the race, she choked from putting so much pressure on herself to have a “perfect” performance. The experienced helped her to realize that she was most successful when she embraced her support team, but when she closed herself off, she was miserable and crumbled under the pressure.

Lindley was also lucky to have people early in her life, such as her mom, her uncle, and a high school lacrosse coach who saw in her a gifted athlete with the potential to do remarkable things. They helped Lindley believe in her dreams long before she really saw any potential in herself.

In psychology, there’s a term for this – “unconditional positive regard” – and the impact that this kind of external affirmation can have on a person’s life can be profound.

When we’re growing up, there’s a lot of luck involved in encountering one or more of these people with the power to positively impact our life. But as adults, we have more control over who we invite into our circle.

Take a look at the people you interact with regularly– is there at least one person who sees and affirms the best, highest version of you? Someone who can clearly picture you achieving your most ambitious dreams, even on days when you can’t? Someone who inspires you to reach further, to keep trying, to up your game?

If no one in your life currently fits the bill, deliberately seek out someone to fill this role. It could be a mentor, a coach, or even a new friend. “Audition” the people you meet – do they believe in possibilities and are they able to see strengths in everyone? Or are they trapped by a limited mindset, negative thinking, and excuses? Do you feel stronger and more capable when you’re around them, or do they drag you down?

Oh, and one more little tip: because like attracts like, the more you become the kind of person who encourages and lifts up other people, the more of these people you’ll attract into your own life. Start asking yourself: How can I empower someone else? Who else’s dream can I support?

Keep Company with People Performing at the Level You Aspire to Reach

From the beginning, Lindley surrounded herself with triathletes who were more experienced and advanced than she was. She understood that keeping company with athletes higher up the ladder, athletes who were better and stronger and faster, would set the standard to strive for and motivate her to train harder and smarter. She jumped at the opportunity to work with a renowned coach and train with a group of world-class triathletes, even though she was initially over her head and every workout pushed her past the edge of her limits.

On her way to the top, Lindley had plenty of bad days in training, and her progress wasn’t constantly visible. Being surrounded by people who are performing at a higher level can be frustrating, discouraging, and downright uncomfortable.  But she pushed through it, learned to manage her self-doubts and control her inner critic – and reaped the rewards.

While Lindley may have taken this approach based on instinct, there’s actual science to explain why this strategy is effective. Because of the way your brain works, putting yourself in this specific kind of uncomfortable situation is one of the best ways to elevate your own performance.

You see, your brain is actually hardwired to mimic and adopt the behaviors of the people you spend time with. We’ll get into this cool process involving mirror neurons in more depth in a future post, but for now, just know that through constant exposure to people who are more successful or advanced in the area where you want to get better results, you’ll unconsciously start to pick up their habits, behaviors, and knowledge. Over time, that will boost your own performance and enable you to achieve at a higher level.

Conclusion

Lindley’s story reinforces the point that success isn’t a matter of magic or luck, and it doesn’t happen by accident (or overnight).

Extraordinary successes are simply ordinary people who have the courage to follow their passion or dream through the awkward, uncomfortable muck of being a beginner, who persevere through the sometimes long and slow process of continual learning and growth to improve their performance, and who constantly push themselves to take the next step upwards.

We all have the potential to be extraordinary.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What part of Lindley’s story resonates with you the most? Is there something that you may have given up on too soon? Or a time when you pushed through the muck and made it to the other side?

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