10 Things I Learn't from Endurance Swimmer Lewis Pugh

by Karl Rohde — Get free updates of new posts here. Photo Credit: Karl Rohde

We all need a little inspiration and last week I was broadsided with a monster dose. I was at the Gartner Symposium 2014 in Australia on the Gold Coast, day 4, taking in the day’s opening keynote. This is the last place, being a hard-line corporate, technology conference, that you would expect to be touched by a story. Being inundated and overwhelmed with content that week my anticipation was somewhat jaded. Lewis Pugh, a long distance endurance swimmer takes the stage to relate his account swimming in exotic and daring locations to drive awareness on our impact on the environment. Before the talk I’m thinking….meh….like just another guy talking about sport in a world that’s sport crazy. But NO! I was way, way, way wrong!

I cried.

As Lewis related 3 expedition stories I was engrossed as he illustrated though his aspirations and experiences the crucible of what it means to be human in how we approach our life’s work.

When words resonate on a deeply human level emotions quite naturally come to the fore.

To see what I mean I urge you to check out his TED talks on how he swam the North Pole and on his mind-shifting Everest swim.

His story is a case study on the practicalities of what it means to be remarkable. OK, so let’s jump in and see how Lewis demonstrates this in practice.

  1. True Grit. How else could he complete a 1km Arctic swim in water that's minus 1.7℃? He pays the price. He does what it takes to make his expeditions happen. He works hard, sets big style goals and commits his time, his money and creativity to making the extraordinary happen. How many of us could convince major sponsors to spare £180000 to complete his Arctic expedition. After his talk I asked him how he does all that he does and he said he makes choice and the compromise that’s necessary. It’s easy to clutter our lives with stuff but if you want to achieve the extraordinary you have pay the price. He’s not a victim of barriers and people. The stuff he does is the culmination of breaking one barrier after another. Just read his book and you'll see for yourself.
  2. Graceful Humility. When you see him speak, his command, his tone, his body language, his self-doubt, his fears, his aspirations its plain to see the subtlety and grace in which he conducts his projects. He's a large person in stature but gentle in nature. Carrying out his swim in the Antarctic he relates how he failed to capture the scientific information necessary for the statistical research because in the rush to do the swim someone forgot to put his monitoring watch on. Catastrophically he would have to do the swim in 0°C water again! Who was to blame? Surely his team should have had this covered, after all they needed the statistics. Lewis relates. “I am responsible. The buck stops with me!”
  3. Genuine Teamwork. While he does the actual swimming Lewis constantly draws attention to his team and the intricate nuance with which he regards each person for. When you consider the reliance he placed on others to achieve his swim at Mt. Everest, where oxygen was low and the rules of cold water swimming change you’ll see that what he does what he does with the combined effort of many people and they get oodles of credit. His landmark swimming ventures are a reminder that when teams function well the awe inspiring can happen.
  4. Laser-like Focus. All his efforts are on completing the one thing that will make the most impact and bring about the most value. It’s very clear that his focus is completing extraordinary swimming expeditions with a view to driving environmental awareness. Everything else is an off-shoot of that. Often we can dilute our potency by trying to do too many things and end up doing nothing much at all. The magnitude of Lewis achievements are testament to a made up mind. He relates the counsel from his good friend David Becker, “He told me it was time to believe in myself, to trust the team and to carry this message: there is nothing more powerful than a made up mind.” In his book he further hammers the need to focus where he remarks, “Think of just ONE reason to keep on going - it will make all the difference.”
  5. Passionate Purpose. Like all great leaders he knows his why. Swimming in icy 1℃ to 3℃ water in the Antarctic off Deception Island he describes how he was deeply affected by swimming over a what seemed to be a whale graveyard. “I literally could not believe what I was seeing beneath me. There where whale bones everywhere. They literally covered the sea floor.” This swim was an ending and a beginning for Lewis. The idea of swimming with a purpose, rather than to be first, consumed his thoughts. Lewis soon found his cause: the ocean.
  6. Conscious Awareness. Lewis' story or message is not so much about himself. He experiences life at his edge and shares the lessons and insights they bring forth. His talks and his book are the magic intersection of personal experience and lessons learnt. We all have experiences but do we have a knack of seeing the lessons they bring? His book is full of observed notes on living and working better. This element of life awareness underscores authenticity. The wise words from Aristotle are well noted in his endeavours: "The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”
  7. Narrative. If you want to get a message to an audience, storytelling is the master key. Lewis is above all a story teller. If not for his storytelling I’m not so sure I would be writing this post. People remember stories more so than mere facts and figures. Through the telling of stories Lewis has amplified his cause, the oceans. He now gets 100+ talks a year to do just this.Lewis’ account is a reminder that impact is often preceded by a good tale. What’s your story?
  8. Authenticity. Lewis relates the story of his time in the SAS (Special Air Service) where his commanding officer reminded him of the duty he had to escape should he be caught in the hands of an enemy. Looking at his own career, while working as a lawyer in London, Lewis drew this correlation: If you do not enjoy your work, you have a duty to escape while you can. If you don’t you’ll be a prisoner for the rest of your whole life. His example shows that he lives at his edge doing his work in a deeply meaningful way. His work is way beyond simply a means to an end!
  9. Gratitude. Lewis is forthright with expressing gratitude to all those who helped him and the opportunities that he found himself facing. It’s not just limited to those who helped in a big way. His gratitude is baked-in. Throughout his talk and his book I found myself being introduced to many varied people who were integral to the success of each expedition. I counted 136 people at the back of the book to whom his appreciation was extended. Of note, was the reverence for his parents. As an adult he is still quoting the wise words they passed on to him as a child.
  10. Faith. The extraordinary does not happen by mistake. It’s not random. It’s the progressive breaking of one barrier after another. Acclaimed new thought teacher Florence Scovel Shinn (1871-1940) wrote much on how fear is overcome with faith. Lewis example illustrates this well where he always maintained belief that events would ultimately work out. As his Arctic expedition departure date drew near he did not have the funds to head off, however he maintained his faith that this historic swim could attract the right sponsor to fund the remaining £25k. Three days before they were due to set sail he received a phone call from Speedo. Finally the expedition was locked in. Lewis relates, “Time and time again I've learnt that it's never over….until you quit.”

It's great to meet someone who does the ridiculous time and time again and gets to tell the tale. You can get his fascinating book, 21 Yaks and a Speedo; it’s a great read covering 21 stories each with a lesson to take away that we can apply in our work and life.

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