Habits

The habits of champions

Michael Phelps helps me arrive at three monikers to treasure

All that separate him and me is about 50 meters.  The 23 Golds, 3 silvers and 2 Bronze medals and achievements that befit the tag of the greatest Olympian ever’, are beside the point.  His achievements give a new meaning to what ‘Olympian heights’ or ‘champion’ could mean. Reading about or listening to habits of champions always leave me with ideas and energy. This one is no different.

When an Olympian with the stature of Michael Phelps is in front of you talking about his past, present and future, you shut up and listen. He speaks on his hydrophobia as a kid. He speaks of his coach. His mom. His team. How he trained, how he ate and much more.  Disbelief and gasps escape my lips as I soak in his story. Even as I do so, I become clearer of what it takes to scale the heights he has. Like a swimmer whose head bobs out for a brief moment before the body slices through the water with grace,  things crystalise in the mind.

These ideas stay on. Long after the event, put together to celebrate 20 years of the founding of True North, is done. Michael Phelps is perhaps back home minding the Instagram account of his son Boomer(With 726K followers that must be one tough job! 🙂 )

It’s a Sunday.  My mind keeps darting back to his statements. Elements of his life and his story that refuse to fade.  To unearth what’s within me, as has been a practice, I grab a pen and paper and write. It seems easy as they tumble out. I write them with care. Some of them are here (Please click on any of the tiles below to scroll through the quote gallery).


An hour passes by like a starter’s gun in a big race.  All his statements and ideas. A quick blast and its all over! Ideas that seemed to have competed for a share of the mind are all out there to see. They lend themselves to a ‘sit and ponder’ after the words are well digested.  How would I remember this, I ask myself? How would I share it with others? And wonder if I can put it into three themes? Monikers if you will.

Just three.

With a tentativeness of a sore muscle after a big race, I begin. I know what I am saying will not be new to many.  At least it isn’t to me. I realise that the gap between knowing and doing kills at many levels. The mind lulls us to think we have cracked it because we ‘know it’.  Sometimes, refusing to let us dig further. That has been my battle. I wonder if it is yours too. Anyway, here are my three monikers that hold a bunch of ideas in them.

1. Hard work beyond talent. 

It’s been stated several times before: Talent is an entry criterion.  Talent is far more common than success. Success comes from hard work. Putting in the hard yards makes a difference at every level. Every single qualifier, forget a medal winner, at the Olympics, has the talent and the hard work. There is no argument that at all.

But success at Phelps’s scale requires a maniacal devotion to the task at hand. And that makes all the difference! There isn’t much more!

The maniacal devotion requires hard work, when the arc lights, the podium and fame arent in the frame.  Labouring in obscurity and enduring relentless pain. Several years ago, I came across a piece titled “The Common Denominators of Success” by A.N.Gray. It tugged at me differently.  

 “..the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful — lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do”

“…The things that failures don’t like to do are the very things that you and I and other human beings, including successful men, naturally don’t like to do. In other words, we’ve got to realize right from the start that success is something which is achieved by the minority of men, and is therefore unnatural and not to be achieved by following our natural likes and dislikes nor by being guided by our natural preferences and prejudices. ” 

A.N.Gray spoke in the context of insurance sales. But those passages leapt in, even while Phelps was speaking. All of us love champions and aspire to imbibe their thinking into our lives. But we forget to remember that Phelps (and champions like him) dont like several parts of their routines, yet do them with great discipline. It is not about likes and dislikes.  Doing every inch of what it takes is what will bring success is key.  Deserving success is as important as getting success. 

Michaealangelo famously said, “If you knew how much hard work went into it, you wont call it genius”. Thats that. 

2. Focus beyond boredom.

The world that we live in is ripe with distractions. Every sensory organ is invitingly propositioned with a promise for gratification. ‘Deep work’ is much needed.  But Deep work is demanding. And many times plain boring. Imagine showing up in the pool every day for six years straight.  Ever single day of six years in the peak of youth. That sets up an exploration of another level of boredom and drive. 

There is another aspect to the boredom. The relentless toil in complete complete obscurity, away from the arclights, the podiums and people. Chipping away at yourself one second here and another there. Adding strength to a calf muscle or a forearm! Stuff that will go completely unacknowledged but will all contribute to the goal! To do this for days on end, will need relentless motivation. For it can get plain boring. 

Champions bring a level of focus that lies beyond the first shore of boredom. It means, they show up even when they don’t feel like showing up and produce champion stuff. “Embrace boredom” says Cal Newport.  The high perches of success comes after many hours of languishing company of boredom. 

That would apply to everyone of us. People out to excel in the corporate world. Aspiring writer. A fashion designer. Lawyers. Coaches. Every one of us! If we want success at the scale of Phelps, there is no escaping the regimen that brought it. 

So, how about embracing some boredom,  and sticking to what you promised yourself? 

3. Team beyond Individual.

The narrative of the individual champion who changed the way of the world, is lovely story. From Michael Phelps to a Steve Jobs. From Sachin Tendulkar to Elon Musk. But that story of the individual is an incomplete story. 

For every individual champion that we see and celebrate there is a team behind the scene, that has given a hand. Well, more than a mere hand.  That is obvious.  Michael Phelps had his coach an entire troupe. A troupe that included his mom, sister, wife and now, his kids. He spoke of his special relationship with his coach Bob Beamon who deserves a part of every single of the 28 Olympic medals and more! 

Sudeep Banerjee said it very well on twitter.

An Olympic athlete can afford such a team and must do so too. On more personal terms, we have our own Olympic equivalents every day. And the responsibility of building our own support team rests with each one of us too. Of course, whilst speaking of teams I am not speaking of the teams that we end up with at our workplaces.

For instance, have you considered co-opting mentors onto your journey? Whatever the journey. Or maybe a coach? Perhaps members of the family? A classmate? A colleague from another team? Someone who will be able to look at things dispassionately and tell you as they see it. Someone who is interested in you and brings a strength that makes a difference to you. Infact, the part about hard work is rather incomplete without a smart agenda to work hard on. That is something a rich coalition of a co-opted team can bring.   

That sums it up for me.  With talent, hard work and discipline a good distance gets covered. But success at the height at which champions like Phelps have succeeded can’t happen without a team.   Speaking of teams,  here is a take on the same event by my good friend and colleague at Founding Fuel, Charles Assisi.  His take is very inspiring.

In a world that reveres champions and celebrates their success, not enough is said about what it took for them to get there. That applies to each one of us in our respective fields. Unless we are prepared to give it what it takes, our aspirations stay as well intentioned wishes. Before we realise someday that each day chipped away at what we might have become! 

The opportunity is omnipresent. The choices are ours to make.