For much of my life, I hated swimming.
I’d fallen into it because my parents were both good swimmers. I began taking lessons at an early age at their behest.
Eventually, the sport became too grueling, and compared to other sports, it was also rather dull. Other kids passed basketballs and hit baseballs while I was staring at the bottom of the pool with great frustration.
This extracurricular heartburn was something I eventually overcame.
I later relayed the motivational trick to my swimming students. And in the process, I learned a means of helping anyone get through difficult tasks in life.
Here are my 3 best tips:
1. The coach’s dilemma when it comes to hard things
Here’s what I was dealing with.
Imagine you have a crop of talented swimmers. They’re great athletes and could probably even excel in other sports.
You need them to do this very, very hard thing that can seem irrational: Two-a-day workouts — several days a week, using an enormous expenditure of energy.
It’s a crazy thing to ask of anyone.
Two-a-days are almost entirely unique to swimming, too. Few athletes on the outside will relate.
I can vividly remember standing on the edge of the pool deck at 5 a.m., wondering why I was doing this when everyone else was sleeping.
Here’s the coach’s dilemma: “How do you present this very hard thing to teenagers and get them to buy in?”
It’s rather simple. If you look at any young teenager and think about what’s important — it usually comes back to their peer group. They want to hang out with their friends and gain social acceptance.
If you present this very hard thing as a peer activity, it makes it so much easier to do.
They’ll get through a hard workout and, rather than feel sorry for themselves, realize, “Hey, look at that! We did 30 x 100m free today and it was brutal. But I did it with my friends and it was awesome.” They’ll feel closer to their friends.
The peer and team relationships become the glue that keeps their progress intact.
2. Know your core motivators, aka your underlying goals
With any hard activity, you need some type of burning core for your motivation—a thing that makes it much easier to tolerate. It can change over time, too.
As I went on to college to swim, I realized that the peer factor still mattered — but not nearly as much. My teenage insecurities were gone and now I needed goals.
When my alarm went off at 4:50 a.m., or when my body was broken down and I was cranky, I thought about those goals.
There were race times I wanted to achieve. And I also remembered the goal amplifiers I used. For example, there was a swimmer, Jared, who’d beat me in a race and got 21.56 seconds (my best time was 21.9 seconds).
I’d set a goal of doing 21.4 as a way of getting revenge. Losing in swimming is an emasculating experience, where you can only see the guy’s feet in front of you. If you’re highly competitive like me, it burns you up inside.
I was eventually able to achieve that goal (thankfully).
The bigger point is that swimming, like many hard things, is not an endeavor that can exist free of some type of goal or intrinsic motivation. The idea of lolly-gagging your way through workouts, just to see what happens, is crazy.
It reminds me of this quote:
Turn outward and think through the harder aspects of your life: What projects make you sigh when you think of doing them?
What activities do you dread every second of? Do you avoid doing them just to buy yourself a bit more free time? Do you feed into that dread and make it more miserable?
For those things, you need to articulate and understand: “What is it that drives me? What is the thing that can keep me going and motivated?”
3. In order to do hard things, change your approach
My friend, Amy, is a newly minted manager. She’s going through the pains of dealing with an underperforming employee who is making so, so many mistakes.
Amy has taken on the huge burden of trying to micromanage this worker — who can’t put one foot in front of the other without breaking something.
She has taken on so much frustration and anxiety trying to prop this person up and coach them—which on some level is great.
But, candidly, Amy was being too nice. And it was damaging her quality of life.
She realized that in order to ever be an effective manager, who can focus on her own work too, she needed to have difficult conversations.
There was no reason for her to be carrying the burden of this worker doing a bad job. The worker needed to be notified of the underperformance while being encouraged and supported in their effort to do better.
Her big insight was that, in order to get through this difficult phase, she needed to hold this person accountable, rather than carry their load. She made the decision to transfer the responsibility and anxiety to the appropriate source.
And she did.
Things have gotten so much better. She is learning how to better manage and communicate with employees. This worker has done better work because he knows he’s in the hot seat.
There’s always a cheat code to navigate the most difficult challenges in front of you. The tricky part is that each challenge has its own cheat code.
Facing hard things often requires trial and error. Sometimes you have to fail your way forward to realize what’s not working and adapt accordingly.
Lean into a growth mindset in difficult situations
That blindfolded walk through the frustration and fatigue can be demoralizing. Stay focused on the path forward, and paths of least resistance.
Adopt a growth mindset and treat difficult tasks as learning opportunities. Leverage your past experiences and pay attention to what strategies work best for you.
Identify the underlying goal or mechanism that can help you succeed. Sometimes it’s our peers. Sometimes it’s our process. Maybe it’s a lifestyle change that needs to happen. Or perhaps it’s a change in approach — which may involve reducing your own burden.
There are no rules, so long as it works.
Even when we fall short, doing hard things will help us grow and evolve and become better—if we let them.