What It Takes To Be Good At Anything

11-minute read

On Monday 15 April 2019 at about noon, I decided to take the day off and not work or trade. So I picked up my swimming gear and went to the pool. No one was in the pool at that time maybe because it was a blazing hot Monday lunch time or that the kids were in transition to or from school. I was in the mood for a long swim so I prepped myself for an Ironman distance swim of 3.8km or 76 laps. This is a ritual I do every two or three months. Normally, I’d swim 20 laps because I don’t have much time and 40 laps when I do have an hour, at least twice a week.

I’ve done long distance swims many times in my life but only four times in competitive open water swims for two Ironman Triathlons (3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.20km run) and half that distance in two Triathlons (1.9km swim, 90km bike and 21.10km run) when I was much younger. Trust me when I tell you it is much more challenging in open water than the peaceful pool at my condo. For those not in the know, the 3.8km open water swim is the equivalent of a full marathon (42.20km) and definitely more challenging.

At the end of my swim, I was met by two caucasian couples who were tanning by the side of the pool. They complimented me on my swim. One lady even said that what I just did was “sick”. I thought that was the coolest compliment. They proceeded to ask me how I did it, how fit I have to be, how long have I been swimming like this, how old I am, etc. I didn’t mind their curiosity because I felt they wanted to do the same but were unsure if they would be able to make the grade. After I told them what it would take to swim like that, there were the usual excuses like having no time, “I sink like a rock”, being too old, unfit, untrained, etc.

Strange that we were having this conversation because during my swim, I was thinking about what I had done in my past to get me to this level of efficiency in the water. I traced back every memory I had with regard to my swimming. After all, there’s not much else to do when you’re swimming. The history of my swim told a very interesting story which is exactly is what my whole life is about today.

But before we go there, the timing you see on the stopwatch of 1:39:15 is for 3.8km (76 laps). (I went on to complete 80 laps after that because I have a bit of OCD)  Even when I was half my current age, I could never do 3.8km under 1:45:00. And if you told me that I’d be doing sub 1:40s in my mid 50s back then, I’d laugh in your face and buy you a coffee.

I have to tell you that this didn’t come by by accident nor was it planned. It was a string of events which I had no control over that led me to swim the way I do today. This is also much of the story of my life – a string of events, many of which I had no control over but inevitably had to overcome and become better for it. It’s like everything happened for a reason except that I didn’t know why it did and where it would lead.  I simply did what needed to be done in order to keep moving forward and improving my life.

I have always been huge on endurance sports since I can remember when. I’ve run, swum and cycled more than a thousand competitive kilometres in my lifetime and never failed to finish even one race. But as you can imagine, those achievements didn’t come easy and sacrifices had to be made. At the end of it all there was satisfaction, gratification, vindication and a lot of weight loss without fanfare, hype or recognition … except for maybe a T-shirt and a medal to proof that you completed the race.

It was all about me and the pride of knowing I did something that most people couldn’t or wouldn’t do. It made me feel special and gave me confidence. It told me that I was better than most.

But that’s missing the point completely … and I was going to find that out the hard way.

I ran my last marathon in 2002 to get my mind off my bankruptcy and find some motivation to get back up in life. I was 38 years old and fit as f**k. But this run ended my love-affair for endurance sports because immediately after this, I developed a thyroid problem and gout took my running feet away for good. For the next twelve years, I would be in the worst physical shape of my entire life. Sports and fitness became a slow jog, static exercises and upper body workouts. I hated that my beloved endurance sports were just memories to be consigned to history. I hated exercising so much that the frequency began tapering off. I started making excuses like having no time, getting old and always being in pain.

Then things became worse.

Between the years of 2011 and 2014, I went through a series of operations to fix my gout bunions before they rendered me a cripple for life. But after recovering, I was still a “cripple” because I could never again enjoy marathons or even take a slow jog. Taking away my endurance sports was cutting off the only thing I truly loved and enjoyed about my sporting life and the only thing that gave me any sense of achievement and gratification. Now taking away my slow jog was the final insult to injury even if I hated it. In that state of misery, I gave up and resigned myself to my fate.

THE SECOND WIND

That was until I moved to my current condo. The pool gave me a new lease on my sporting life. I’ve always been an avid water-sports person and swimming is something that comes naturally to me. I wondered why I never thought about hitting the water again when I couldn’t run anymore. Here was a gorgeous 50m lap pool where I could restart my sporting life and there would be no excuses for not giving it a go.

It had been such a long time since my last competitive swim that I struggled at first. Plus my physical condition was no longer what it used to be so it was a real challenge to relearn everything – head position, half goggle tilt, rotate, breathe, recover-reach-catch-pull, kick, glide, etc. It was like learning everything from scratch, getting rid of old habits and adopting new practices.

Fortunately, I knew a student who attended my Investment Workshop in 2009 who was a Facebook friend and swim coach, Tang Siew Kwan. When Tang saw my Facebook posting on my struggles in the water, he offered to swim with me and tidy up my technique. After one session, my technique improved and Tang gave me a few online video links to watch and learn to further improve my technique.

Thereafter, it was all training and training to perfect the technique. Muscles ached, tendons were stretched and the lungs were pushed to its limits. The body was conditioning itself to build up stamina while the mind was focused on tolerance. These were conditions I was used to when I trained for endurance competitions. So I knew from experience what to expect and how much more I could push my body without breaking it down.

I had rediscovered my love for endurance sport through swimming. But I wanted more. I wanted to go faster and further.

I was introduced to Shinji Takeuchi in November 2015 by Tang. The man is a legend and a Master of Total Immersion swimming, made popular by the late great, Terry Laughlin. You can watch their video at the bottom of this post.

I spent a session with Senpai Tekaeuchi who corrected, defined and fine-tuned my technique even more and left me with a host of challenges which required even more hours of practice and patience.

The art of competitive swimming is a science that has to be learnt and practiced. It requires a lot of dedication and discipline but above all, a passion to want to excel and do better every time. Although I don’t compete anymore, my determination to outperform myself today is no different from when I was less than half my age now. And that’s where I get my motivation from.

IN RETROSPECT …

That is generally the story of my life when it comes to new challenges and propositions. I don’t take on anything if I am not going to finish it. I never accept a proposition without first knowing everything about it. I refuse to accept a challenge until I am sufficiently prepared, trained and experienced for it. This applies to sport, business, trading, family and life. In short, I don’t believe in doing things half-f**ked. The processes I take are nothing short of obsessive and they include (and are not limited to);

That’s a lot of “to do” things if I want to do anything well. Surely it can’t be smooth sailing all the way, right? Surely there are failures and disappointments along the way, right? How do I handle situations that are beyond my control? What do I do to overcome the hurdles?

These setbacks can be summarised by any endurance athlete. We call them “walls” or “barriers”. The Navy Seals have the 40% rule, which means you usually hit mental resistance at about 40% of your capacity and that’s when most people quit.

Marathon runners hit a physical barrier at around the 12km mark when the legs are screaming “no more!” and the lungs are threatening to seize and the heart wants to rest permanently. It might sound easier said than done but the simple solution is to focus on putting one foot in front of the other … focus on breathing … over and over again … and before you know it, you’ll be clocking up the kilometres again with ease. That’s until you reach the 25km to 27km mark when you get hit by a psychological wall. The brain tells you that it’s not worth it, you’re killing yourself for nothing, the bus is right there – take it! Once again, focus on putting one foot in front of the next.

It is exactly the same thing in life, business and everything else we face challenges in. Stay focused on the objective, keep pressing on to improve/progress, keep the discipline and be grateful for any result you get because everything happens for a reason.

Nothing is impossible given
the right motivation
and the right attitude.

And that is why …

I DON’T SET GOALS

Setting a goal is to satisfy an expectation. I learnt the hard way that those expectations are a double-edged sword because missing or failing to achieve those targets and goals have only served to deliver disappointments. When those goals were not met or if it took longer than planned, those disappointments were severe psychological challenges to overcome in order to get motivated to go at it again. Often, I felt like it was pointless, fruitless and a waste of time. And when I did meet my targets or if I achieved my goal, I became complacent and unmotivated to aim higher. Targets and goals become more challenging and seemingly more impossible when a higher level is finally attained.

Today, rather than set up expectations, goals and targets, I strive to outdo myself at every level regardless of what I have already achieved. This way, I don’t set myself up for disappointments by failing to meet expectations.

When all is said and done,
there is always one more thing you can do.

Sport, business and life are nothing more than endurance tests and we all have to run at least one of those races. It’s not how or where we finish the race that matters nor what we achieved in the process. It is the race itself that is the journey to be endured, enjoyed and embraced. How you run your race is how you will live your life or run your business.

I run all my races with the same attitude – do it well or do it better – there is no room for failure. After all …

Failure is only complete if and when you quit.

Have a wonderful week end everybody!

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