I will never forget the first time I saw Sean Killion. It was the fall of 2002 and my buddy and I were on the pool deck waiting to hear this gentle giant, one of the greatest American swimmers of the past 20 years, talk about the nuances of the freestyle, and our coach approached this unknown person and they started talking very intently. The person in question was wearing an Oakland Raiders visor, flip flops, a North Face sweater vest, and looked like he was carrying about 50 pounds of dead weight on already his hulking frame. In short he looked like a former professional football player that had mistaken the entrance of the pool somehow to the weight room. But sure enough, this character was one of the greatest American swimmers of the past twenty years--none other than Sean Killion.
As it turns out, Sean held the American record in the 400 freestyle for almost 17 years. Additionally, he beat Vladimir Salnikov--the Michael Jordan of distance freestylers--in the 1986 Goodwill Games. More importanly, Sean was able to takethe skills he learned in the pool and transition them into a brilliant career and marriage. There are few things that he talked about that I have been pondering on, and want to get them out into the internet. Here goes:
1. Worry About Yourself
Sean said that when he was growing up in New Jersey, he had a tendency to complain about things that were outside of his control. Mrs. Killion, being a wise and integrated human being, told her son, "Sean, worry about yourself." He said that was the best advice about life that he ever got. Maybe this is why Mr. Killion was able to accomplish so much: he listened to his mother, and he mastered a very difficult lesson at a very young age.
The way I see it, a human being only has so much energy. Holding this constant, this energy needs to be put to the highest and best purpose each day. Any energy spent worrying about things that are outside of one's control, or are things that others should be doing but aren't, is energy that could be redirected towards the task at hand. I am not saying don't be compassionate, or don't be concerned about family members. What I am saying is focus your energy towards the things of great importance and let the unimportant stuff go.
An example: At every workplace I have EVER been to, there are always a group of people or groups of people who love to talk about the ongoing of the office, who did what to whom and how, etc. I have never seen the thought leaders of the company engage in such behavior, they usually have their head down at a computer trying to figure out how to solve the real issues of the company. Case in point: If you want to be amongst the best at anything, keep your head down and worry about yourself. [Unpacked: Essentially stay focused, never give up, and if you fail get right back up and keep trying again until you succeed. Don't let anyone or anything distract you from your goals. Set your own standard.]
2. Get Out of Your Own Way
At one point during Killion's talk, someone asked him, "How did you beat Salnikov?" At the time I had no idea who Vladimir Salnikov was. As far as I was concerned, Salnikov was Russian computer virus. A wry smile appeared on Killion's face, "Well," he said, "I just sort of got out of my own way. I had been training hard and feeling good in competition. I kept my head in my race and didn't worry about what Salnikov was doing. He made a slight mistake in his race, and I was able to capitalize on it."
Lots of times I think about epic performances being full of tricks or special knowledge. Most of the time the greatest performance in any arena are so basic that they almost seem magical. And in just focusing on the basics and getting the job done, you put yourself in a position to win rather than a position to lose.
3. Managing Your Highs and Lows
The last thing that Sean talked about while on deck was this: perceived success and failure is just feedback. Everyone will have "bad" days and everyone will have "great" days. If one can use success to stay focused on what is working, and use failure to correct the things that need work, then each day is a step in the right direction. If you can have that mentality with whatever you do, then you will consistently have satisfying results.
While I was working in public accounting, I knew early on that it wasn't the right career for me. Even though I have moved on, there are still a lot of wonderful little tricks that I picked up from those years. All experiences--in some way or another--can be used as direction to become the person that we want to be.