What Terry Laughlin Taught me about Swimming and Mastery

A month ago, at the age of 66, Terry Laughlin died of prostate cancer. I’ve never met Terry, but I feel like I know him through his books and videos. Terry is the founder of Total Immersion swimming, the revolutionary approach to swimming that can turn anyone (even me), into a relaxed, successful swimmer.

Terry Laughlin demonstrating freestyle in 2013. Photo by Robert Fagan

Swimming is a funny thing: on a planet covered by water, more than 37 percent of adults cannot swim the length of a 25 yard pool. I was nearly part of those numbers. Though I’m a lifelong athlete, from the age of 6 swim lessons terrified me, and as recently as three years ago, while I could swim 25 yards of freestyle, I’d grab at the end of the pool, panting, looking incredulously around me at the people of all ages, shapes and sizes swimming lap after lap without needing a breather.

In 2015 an arm injury finally got me back into the pool. Over the course of a year, I willed my way to swimming a mile. But there was always a sense of lurking panic, always a survival instinct kept at bay that could kick in at any moment—never mind that air is literally an inch away and all I need to do is turn my head to breathe.

I finally decided that muscling my way through the water wasn’t my goal, and, urged on by a friend who can swim across the Long Island Sound, I bought some of Terry’s books and videos.

The funny thing about these books and videos is that they don’t start with swimming. They start with floating.

Terry’s entire philosophy is based on the notion that all of swimming is taught the wrong way. In Terry’s view, we spend most of our energy in the water trying not to drown, which is why we get so tired and why we move forward so little. If we could learn to float and balance, we could swim effectively, efficiently, and with joy. As Terry famously states, “it’s not the size of the motor [how hard you stroke and kick] that matters, it’s the shape of the vessel.”

That may be, but “vessel shaping,” Terry Laughlin-style, can feel like a pretty silly activity.

Having read much of Terry’s Ultra Efficient Freestyle book, I eventually find myself in my local pool trying out Lessons One and Two from the book. They are titled “Torpedo” and “Superman,” and both involve pushing off the bottom of the pool and just floating with arms at your side (Torpedo) and extended (Superman). Over and over again.

Imagine, if you will, those same swimmers speeding past me, cranking lap after lap, and I’m just trying to float the right way. Funny, right?

But eventually I learn how to float face down and not sink.

And then I learn how to float on my back and not sink.

And then I learn to float on my side and not sink, and to extend one arm and not sink.

And then I learn to float on my side, with one arm extended, and face my head down and kick. And then I’m supposed to effortlessly rotate up to breathe.

But I can’t.

Whenever I try, I start to struggle, and then strain, and then panic. After a few tries, and lots of water up my nose, I stop. A few weeks after that, I skip to the next lesson and tell myself that this step probably wasn’t all that important after all. I work my way to the end of the book. I’m a bit of a better swimmer. But in my heart I know that I skipped the most important parts.

When Terry passed away, I had a sense of loss, and, in honor of him, I went all the way back to the beginning of the book to start again. A year later after I’d given up, I find myself back at lesson two, trying to learn to breathe on my side without panicking.

And it still doesn’t come easily to me. But I’m keeping at it. And this time, with a bit more perspective and appreciation, I’m also using it as a chance to learn about how I learn: to observe how committed I really am; and to notice the gap between the narrative I tell myself about what I’d like to learn (the videos I’m happy to watch, the book I’m happy to read) and how many hours I’m willing to spend in the pool—when I have lots of other priorities and lots of other ways to exercise that come more easily.

Most of all, it’s a chance to watch my own narrative of failure, because mostly I feel like I’m failing. Each time I fail, after my nose fills up with water and I curse a bit, I ask myself: do I really, truly, believe that I will fail at this forever? Is it possible that if I put in time and concerted effort, that I am the one person in the world who simply cannot accomplish this?

Yes, it’s possible. But it’s unlikely. And since  each next “thing” that Terry has me do is such a tiny increment on the last thing, failing this time means I never really mastered the last step, or I’m not willing to master the next one.

The frustrating, amazing thing is, it’s never Terry’s fault, and it’s never a lesson that doesn’t work. It’s really about what I’m willing to do: the time I am willing to put in, how deliberately I am willing to practice, how well I deal with the plateaus.

And while part of this endeavor is about my interest in learning how to swim, beyond that, I am interested in what Terry has to teach me, and teach all of us, about mastery. Because what Terry has done is to take his passion for swimming and create a program for self-taught mastery that literally anyone can complete. Each step is so clear, so well thought through, and broken into such small pieces that each can be digested and practiced if you have the will and the persistence and the capacity for reflection and self-observation.

And what Terry’s done with swimming could be applied to just about anything. It’s a question of our willingness to take the time to deconstruct something, to deeply understand its component parts, and to commit ourselves to the often repetitive, focused, intentional work of rewiring our nervous system or our limbic system or our musculoskeletal system or our habitual thoughts and feelings, until they, slowly but surely, change.

This is how we can learn anything, without all the false stories about our own limits and the talent we do and don’t have.

If you want to get a taste of Terry’s joy, insight, and wisdom, I’d encourage you to listen to this podcast he recorded with Tim Ferris less than two weeks before he passed away. I found it deeply moving.

In the meantime, I’ll keep going to the pool, less than I’d like to think I would, but more than not at all. I believe that one day I will become an effortless swimmer, and I commit that until then, I will keep walking the path.

Here’s to you, Terry.

If you can’t take the heat

A little while back I decided to make breaded, baked zucchini “chips” at home.  My mother has made them a bunch of times, and when she makes them they rarely make it to the dinner table because everyone (including the kids) nibbles away at them like they’re French Fries.

It’s a very simple recipe: slice zucchini thin (like coins), dip them in eggs, then dip them in seasoned bread crumbs, then lay them out on a baking sheet and bake them at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes.  The clunky bit, I discovered, is the painstaking, one-by-one dipping of the zucchini.  I started doing it one slice at a time, and was going well at first.  Then the bread crumbs started to get messy, and I started getting cement-like globs of egg-and-breadcrumb mixture on my fingers, nearly doubling the size of my thumb and pointer finger.  Frustrated, I started experimenting with different approaches: dipping five zucchini slices in the egg at a time, then dropping them in the bread crumbs, then shaking the whole thing around a bit.  That sort of worked, but it made more of a mess, the breading was inconsistent and I’m not sure it sped things up much.  I kept on fiddling with my approach, but nothing seemed to make much of a difference.  Mostly I was slow, messy, and either got too thick or thin a coating of bread crumbs on each zucchini slice.  It took me nearly a half an hour to get through three zucchini’s worth of chips (filling up two full baking sheets) onto the pan, and I’m sure that someone out there could do what I’d just done in one-fifth the time.

“If you can’t take the heat…” is a phrase that is at least 50% metaphor: professional kitchens are hot, sure, but that’s as much about the intensity of cranking out each dish quickly, all night long, as it is about the actual temperature back there.   Kitchens are a (high-class, sometimes) assembly line, and all new cooks learn that the quality of what they’re able to produce is meaningless if they’re too slow and they mess up the line.  If they can’t produce at a high quality, with a high degree of consistency and a high speed, they won’t last long.

In professional environments there’s little talk of how fast people do things.  Yes, there is vague hand-waving around the notion of an 80/20 rule (that you can accomplish 80% of what you need to with the right 20% of the work), which is an acknowledgment that what you choose to work on is the most important leverage point you have.  But we rarely talk about how long it took to produce ______ (that email, that document, that strategy)?  Or, likely a more productive question, are you getting better at taking the core parts of your job that aren’t going away and doing them as efficiently as possible, to create space for yourself for the non-repetitive, value-added work where you’re really going to make a difference?

It seems somehow belittling of the important work we’re doing to ask how long it took us to do it.

In a kitchen, the chef stands over you and barks out orders, tells you what’s wrong and right.  Your speed and quality of workmanship are both out in the open.  In an office, only you know how long it took you to get that email just right, how much you dawdled before picking up the phone to make a cold call, how many hour-long meetings could have taken 20 minutes if you and your team had approached them differently.

I’m not advocating for rushing all day long – indeed the point is to be fast in some places so you can be slow in others.  But when I watch the demands on many of the top professionals in today’s world, I see that in order to survive and create space to do the real work, they have to get really good and really fast in areas that might seem like they should be hard and slow.  That requires nothing short of mastery – you get neither good nor fast at things if you don’t do them often and if you don’t focus on getting them right (and getting them fast).

The catch is that it’s going to be rare for anyone but you to have enough visibility into your day and your workflow to help you set a new standard for the pace of your work.  It’s also up to you to figure out what needs to be faster, what needs to be slower, and what work you’re simply not doing because your day is too full of everything else.  I’d just encourage you to remember that fast is your friend, when you apply it in the right places.


(Addendum: not only did my chips take forever to make, they also came out a bit dry and salty.  I later revived them by throwing them into a lasagna the next day.  Nothing wrong with salvaging a failed first attempt.)