Swimming Off Course: A Success Lesson

Do you ever feel that you have a goal or target, that you’re clear on what you need to do, and that you’re working super hard to get there?

Ever feel simultaneously like you are working your butt off to reach your goal and that everything seems harder than it should be?

Have you pushed through fatigue, only to find that despite your effort, and the capacity to succeed, that your goal seems to never get closer?

I’ve sure been there!

Those are the times when I was expending so much energy—mental, physical, emotional; when I was giving my all, and yet it never seemed like I was getting anywhere. It felt like rather than moving forward toward my goal that I was going in circles or even backward. When this would happens to me, my will and desire to succeed continued to burn which drove me onward. I’d put in more effort. I’d dig in. I’d push and drive harder. And it would suck!

I’m sure you can relate. I mean, this is how we the ambitious and goal oriented, the disciplined and tenacious make stuff happen. Right? It’s how we’ve become what we are. And it seems like it works, even if it is really hard and exhausting. What’s crazy is that we seem to have come to a point of accepting that this is actually how we’re supposed to create success.

As much as determination, relentless hard work, and persistent drive all serve us well in creating success, that same committed grind, exertion, and striving can wear us out and pull us off course. That makes things WAY harder than necessary. Hello overwhelm! Hello burnout! 

So if working harder isn’t working like it ought to, what’s there to do about it?

One of the most important tactics that we can employ when we’re in the throes of effort that lacks REAL momentum is to lift our heads, refocus on, and reconnect with where we’re heading. This proverbial keeping our eyes on the prize, or looking where we want to go is something that many people understand intellectually, but don’t actually do.

Many of us will stop at the point of setting a goal or establishing a target up front, at the start of an effort. Then, we get to work, not stopping until we get there–if we get there. This approach misses two things. First, the importance of maintaining your commitment by refreshing your view of your end goal, keeping it in your sights. Second, the value of setting intermediate goals, or milestones, to keep you on track.

I like to illustrate this point with a little reminiscence from my years racing triathlon. I learned this lesson concretely over several seasons of swimming off course, having to swim harder to make up for it, and wearing myself out in the process.

You see, even though I was a strong and confident swimmer having done so competitively through my childhood and teens, my swim times weren’t where they could have been. I wasn’t as successful as I knew I could have been in the water, and I was coming out of the water pretty spent given my level of fitness.

It was during 1.2 mile swim at half-iron distance race in Galveston, TX, when I was sprinting myself back to the main pack after taking a solo tour of Offats Bayou that I realized what was happening. I wasn’t sighting! Something I knew I needed to do, but wasn’t actually doing. And I was paying for it!

Granted, in most cases the swim finish in a triathlon, the ultimate end point for that leg, was not in my direct line of sight. That’s not dissimilar from goals that we set professionally, really. We can’t always see exactly what we’re heading for. We have to head toward the vision we have for the end state, without really seeing it.

In the water, I wasn’t thinking about how I would maintain awareness of and orientation toward my target even though I couldn’t really see it. Learning that I could use the buoys along the way as “check points” that would keep me on track was a big help. They became my intermediate achievements until my real target took shape ahead of me. Great! Sounds like a good, almost no brainer approach?

Here’s what’s interesting. Even once I’d learned that approach and started applying it, in many races I’d get in the water, put my head down and swim…and swim…and swim. I’d swim until I’d find myself off course again! There I’d be, swimming deliberately and diligently toward a destination that wasn’t the milestone I’d set, or the end goal. I was working really hard, and had the desire and commitment to get where I wanted to go according to my plan…but I wasn’t checking in to be sure that I actually WAS ON PLAN.

And there went a lot of effort, valuable energy, and precious time. The big lesson? Sighting only works if you do it. And do it often.

If you’re feeling like you’re “swimming” hard but not getting closer to your goals, it’s probably time to lift your head, look around, and refocus on your target. If you can’t quite see your ultimate target, what intermediate ones are there that you can work toward for some immediate success? If you have milestones identified already, when was the last time you checked in to confirm that you’re on course to meet those?

Just having a target and a plan will only get you so far. Your skill and confidence will work to a point. Checking in and confirming how you’re tracking to plan (maybe even deliberately changing your planned milestones, if needed) is essential to your success.