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 blowing up water out of my nose and cursing 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 accomplish. 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.

Egg whites, scrambled eggs, and egg shells

I’m seeing eggs everywhere this week.

Seth Godin’s amazing new book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn – which you can still order and share here – has a great parable about his 8 egg white omelet. It is a story about the slippery slope of compromise and the taste of fresh herbs, and his omelet is fabulous enough to convince a skeptical food critic that there is, in fact, such a thing as a “delicious egg white omelet.”

Then I came across this video about how to make a scrambled egg without breaking the shell.

And Tim Ferris has a video that was seen more than six million times (six million!!) about how to peel an egg without really peeling it. The video is completely unremarkable and downright boring until 0:50 in, when Tim blows on the egg and it jumps out of its shell.

That one-second moment, and its contrast with how dull and under-produced the video is, encapsulates what makes stories and videos spread: a tiny instant of “wow” that gets someone to share it with a friend with a “you gotta see this” message.

If we can create “wow” around peeling an egg, surely we can create it around the important work that we do.

The first step is to stop sanding off the edges; the big leap is figuring out out how to create a moment that shows that the impossible is, indeed, possible.

Tim Ferris_egg

The whole without a map thing is not (just) a metaphor

A couple of weeks ago, I was running a familiar four mile loop and decided I was feeling good enough that I’d extend the run.  Rather than take the final right turn a half mile from the “end” of the run, I kept going.  A half mile later, on an unfamiliar street not knowing exactly where I was or where I was going, I lost all my mojo.  My stride shortened, I felt the spring go out of my step, everything started to tighten up.

Was I actually, all of a sudden, so much more tired?

No, I was just off my map:  the calculus of where I was relative to where I had to go had stopped processing; I literally didn’t know if I was heading north or east; and I couldn’t tell if each step was taking me closer to or further from my destination.

I wasn’t tired, I was just disoriented.  And once I realized that, realized that the simple act of feeling lost had gotten into my head, not my legs or lungs, I exhaled and things felt better (though not completely back to normal).

There’s a lot of great advice out there that we find so appealing but we stop short of actually taking the advice – because it would be silly, wouldn’t it, to actually go all the way.  So we read and believe that success today comes the moment you recognize that there is no map, no path someone has charted out for you to follow.  And we think that’s a nice idea but do we actually, literally, practice what it feels like to be somewhere without a map, do we observe how we react to this situation and learn how to apply that reflection to our lives?

We read about radical email strategies that could save us hours a day (whether Leo Babuta’s email ninja tricks which include limiting all responses to 5 sentences or less, or experiments like ‘no email Friday,’ recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal) and we nod but then we just tweak things around the edges.

Someone suggests that we could shorten our meetings and change our meeting culture by having all meetings standing up or only holding meetings to support a decision that’s already been made and we think it’s a nice idea that wouldn’t really work for us and our company culture.

Maybe, just maybe, these ideas aren’t metaphors.  Maybe they are actual, real ideas.  And maybe nothing would go wrong if we actually tried them, for real, for a little while before rejecting them out of hand.

Go ahead, go for a walk or run this weekend without a map and see how it feels.

The power of combinatory skills

Last Monday night, if you happened to be one of the 2,000+ people at Carnegie Hall, you were lucky enough to hear a powerful, arresting performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played, perhaps for the first and last time in history, with images of victims of Pakistan’s floods illuminating the hall.  The concert was a benefit for Acumen Fund, but more than that, it was a powerful statement of the role we all have in rebuilding in the face of tragedy and destruction, and of how different worlds (classical music and Acumen Fund; an Indian conductor putting on a concert for Pakistan; Carnegie Hall and the Punjab) can come together.

George Mathew conducted that beautiful music and made the concert happen.

It’s the “making the concert happen” part that represents the future.  What makes George unique is the combinatory skills he possesses – he’s not just a trained classical musician capable of leading one of the most outstanding collections of musicians to grace the Carnegie Hall stage (though that’s a great start).  George had the vision, the gumption, the persuasive capacity, and the sheer doggedness to make this vision happen.  No one asked George to do it.  No one gave him permission. No one asked if he was qualified.

In the old days, the way forward for a classical musician (or a writer, or someone playing in a band, or starting a nonprofit or even writing cartoons) was: get as good as you possibly could at your craft and hope to win the ticket to the big time, conferred by some arbiter of taste and access.  If you’re a classical musician, you’d win the Tchaikovsky competition.  If you’re a writer, Random House would pick up your book AND decide to promote it.  In cartooning, you’d make the funny pages and be syndicated nationally.

What’s changed?

Two things:

  1. The industries into which you’re selling have transformed radically, so the power of the gatekeepers has plummeted.  Book publishing is gasping for air, the funny pages are disappearing, classical music (I hate to say) was never all that popular to begin with, and nonprofits still typically underperform, undergrow, underdream.
  2. It’s easier than ever for one committed person to pull people together, build a loyal following, to make their voice heard and sell direct.

But though the old way of doing things is on the way out, we manage to persuade ourselves that the folks who have crossed this chasm are individually exceptional – which is another way of saying “I’m not them, I don’t possess their talents, so their lessons don’t apply to me.”

So we pretend that:

  • Scott Harrison, the founder and CEO of charity:water, has such a unique story (party animal turns do-gooder) that we could never learn the lessons he has to teach.
  • No one could ever be as self-promotional as Tim Ferris, or assemble such an outrageous collection of goodies to make his book sell ($4,000,000 in prize giveaways to sell advance copies of the 4-Hour Body), so there’s little to be learned from the fact that The Four Hour Body rocketed its way to the top of the NY Times best-seller list.
  • Classical musicians are supposed to stick to the music, they don’t create magical experiences like the one George Mathew put together last week.
  • Most cartoonists don’t have MBA’s from Harvard Business School, so they’ll never have the unique collection of talents that Tom Fishburne does over at the Marketoonist.
  • And of course no other authors can really build audience like Seth Godin can…never mind what Chris Guillebeau has done over at the Art of Non-Conformity
  • And, for that matter, fundraisers are just fundraisers – they don’t have anything worth saying about emerging sectors and the role of philanthropy and markets in solving intractable problems….but of course we do.

How many more examples do we need before we understand that this is what the future looks like, and that  it’s here NOW?   How long until we recognize that the heyday of getting picked out of the pile and being catapulted to the cover of Time magazine isn’t coming back – and by the way the chances of that happening were so infinitesimally small that it was a bad deal anyway.  How long until we see that the people defending the old way of doing things are probably those who benefited from it the most, and that while we’re listening to that siren song, someone is out there doing the hard work of building audience, connecting people, sharing their art, and not shying away from the whole craft that the world is demanding of them.

(And, by the way, as Jeff reminded me, you don’t have to DO this all by yourself – teams work too, often better than a solo rockstar.)

Pretending now hasn’t arrived is just burying your head in the sand.  Saying the only thing you know how to do is to work on your craft (narrowly defined), and then bemoaning that you haven’t been discovered…that’s just hiding.

There’s nothing keeping you from embracing today today, from jumping in now, because so many people are still going to want to hide, and if you start building now, I promise you’ll get there.