How Michael Phelps Can Inspire Your Startup

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I want to be able to look back and say, ‘I’ve done everything I can, and I was successful.’ I don’t want to look back and say I should have done this or that.” Michael Phelps

Unless you are living on another planet, you could not have missed the incredible medal haul of Phelps.

How does one man achieve so much? Is it because of his 6ft 8in wing span and body shape which helps him conquer the swimming pool? Or is there something more?

And What does this mean for you and your startups?

#1 Start early and focus on what you are best

“If you want to be the best, you have to do things other people aren’t willing to do.”

Michael Phelps started training at the age of 7 and never looked back.

While there is a time and place for early adopters, the startup world rewards the early movers disproportionately. There is research which says that the first one gets 80% of the available value and the next one 14%. The rest fight for the 6%.

Always ask the question “what benefit is my offering giving to the customers?” Once you are clear, and your customer responds to it, focus on it. Keep practicing and improving.

#2 Sharpen your axe every day

Phelps has done swimming from the age of 7 and swam every day. Every Day!

Can you imagine that kind of commitment? Whatever the weather conditions, he would don his swimming cap and goggles and start swimming. This sheer dedication to the craft helped him put the distance between him and others.

Anders Erickson was the first to discover the 10,000-hour rule for expert performance.

The only way to get to that is practice every day.

I was recently in a pitch presentation, and a startup in the VR field said their AI machine had clocked 500k minutes of database, and this is its competitive advantage.

An early start is what will put the distance between your enterprise and others.

#3 Prepare for the worst

2008 Olympics. It’s the 200-metre butterfly finals. Phelps goggles are getting filled with water. He is unable to see clearly. What does he do? He keeps swimming as if nothing has changed. In the final lap, the goggles are completely filled, and he is nearly blind. Outcome: not only does he win the gold he sets a new record.

If there is one thing you can say for sure in business, it is this: Things will go wrong.

And when they do, you should be prepared.

An Ex-Australian Navy officer once told me, which stuck with me all my life: “You can never be shocked twice.”

If you prepare for the worst outcome, you will overcome it when it presents itself. Build the Ownership mindset in your employees so that you have an extra pair of eyes and ears on the ground.

What are the outcomes which you need to prepare for?

Flood of negative reactions from Customers

Cash running dry

Key personnel leaving you

Most large businesses have a written document titled Business Continuity Planning. Prepare for disasters and you will pole vault them when required

#4 You are limited by your beliefs

You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get. – Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder at the age of seven. Imagine if he or his family decided to use that as a label for him. How limiting would that have been?

Ian Thorpe, who was his competitor, at one time famously said that no one could beat Mark Spitz’s seven gold medal haul. Phelps broke it with eight golds in the 2008 Olympics.

What a way to silence the naysayers!

Once you startup, you should focus on the business you have. Keep thinking about the customer and what you can do.

Learn from the mistakes of others.

As long as you are focused on the customer, you will always aim high and every day, you will generate new ideas to satisfy the customer.

Keep testing and churning out ways to delight your customer.

Don’t be limited by what is possible. Dream and aim high. Focus always on delighting the customer.

#5 Start Again

All was not rosy with Michael Phelps two years back. There is the infamous alcohol incident and his subsequent rehab. But he did not let it define him. When everyone had given up on him, and he had “retired”, he came back for one more shot at “immortality.”

There will be times when the going will be tough. You may even find yourself on the knees, down and beaten. It may even look like a dead end.

Hunker down, batten down the hatches.

Find out what makes you great. What do your customers love you for? Seek out the customers who love what you have to offer. Get the reinforcement. Get the team together and your investors in a huddle. Recraft your operations if necessary.

Get the team together and your investors in a huddle. Recraft your operations if necessary.

Start again. Come back with renewed energy.

True champions don’t always have smooth sailing. They also taste the dust sometimes.

What separates them from losers is that they come back, they start again.

Grit your teeth, spit the blood, fight the dust off and rise again. Be a Gladiator.

The podium of success awaits your moment of glory.


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Do You Want To Change Your Life For The Better?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

1938. Karoly Takacs was writhing in pain. The 1936 world class pistol shooter had just shot his right hand. His right hand by which he would hold his pistol.

The pain of the extinguished hopes was more than the physical pain. Everyone looking at him said “A great career which could have been has just ended” Or did it?

By 1939 i.e. in a year’s time, he won the National Shooting Championship. Olympics was cancelled in 1940 and 1944 due to World War 2. Finally in 1948 Olympics, after waiting for nine years, he wold the Gold medal and also in the next Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

He won all these championships by his LEFT Hand.

Back in 1938, He could have easily moaned in grief and led a victim’s life which everyone would have shown sympathy to. Instead he rose above his physical and mental challenges and achieved the impossible.

You may say “I am not an Olympic Athlete. How is this relevant to me?”

Let me ask you: “Do You want today to be better than yesterday?” If yes, then this is for you.

Because if you focus on the very core aspects of your life then your today is going to be better than yesterday.

What are these core elements?



Deliberate practice



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Purpose Trumps Passion.

This is one of the foundations of Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Why so?

Lets look at what these terms mean:

Purpose: The reason for which something exists, a person’s sense of resolve or determination

Passion: strong and barely controllable emotion, an outburst of emotion, an intense desire or enthusiasm for something

Do you see the difference? Where would you hitch your ride to?

Having a purpose becomes a guiding beacon in our life.

Does that mean Passion has no place? We all are energized by our passion. But would it last for long?

If you asked Steve Jobs in his 20s about his passion, he would have said “Eastern Mysticism”

Too often what we think is passion, is actually a keen interest. When we are done satisfying it, we move to another “passion” and then after some time we find ourselves rudderless.

Purpose is that rudder in our life.

Why do athletes and sportspeople achieve so much? They live every day in service of that purpose.

Often people say “I don’t know what my purpose is?”

Look back in your life. Find out when you have been most joyous or felt most fulfilled or energized.

It could be as far back as your childhood or college days. There lie the seeds of your purpose. Maybe there was something about discovery or about organizing things or about achieving something.

Relate those incidents to your other significant life experiences and you will find a pattern.

If you cant find anything, then ask yourself “Whom can I serve? What can I do which can help someone?”

Don’t be limited by time or money. You can help people by just being there.

Volunteer for some cause. Often, People discover their purpose when they do volunteer work.

I believe that at our very core, we all want to serve others because this interconnectedness is what keeps this world moving. We just are waiting to discover it.

Whatever the purpose, there is a power which comes to it when you Focus on that one single purpose


What separates a Purpose from a To-Do list is SKILL.

Why skill?

Like all skills, it needs to be developed and nurtured.

Once Focus is developed, you bring the power of concentration in your life.

Focus helps in excluding the non-essential and concentrating on the most essential things.

No wonder Daniel Goleman, the pioneer of Emotional Intelligence, in his book calls Focus as the Driver of Excellence.

Focus narrows your attention to the most important part of your life.

With Purpose as your beacon, you ask yourself “what is the single most important thing in my life which will deliver my purpose? What is the one thing which will make the most important impact this year and this month?”

Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in their book The One Thing brings this point out repeatedly as how focus on the one thing has a transformational effect.

The flip side of focus is you stay away from multi-tasking. While multi-tasking looks and sounds exciting, it does not generate the results.

A study done by Clifford Nass, a Psychology Professor in Stanford University, found out “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything”. [Link Here]

As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan vividly point out “People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk; but what we can’t do is focus on two things at once”

Notice the word Focus again. That is the key.

Bring Focus in your life and unlock the powers of concentration. This key is not easy to find and needs practice.

Deliberate Practice

It is only when we undertake deliberate practice around building a particular skill, we become a force to reckon with.

We have all heard about the 10,000 hour rule for experts.

Anders Ericsson (Link here) who first came up with this rule, had one more critical element along with it.

10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

You need to not only practice but also bring in deliberate practice.

Angela Duckworth of GRIT fame mentions how she asked Anders Ericsson how deliberate practice works. It is not just repeating something over and over again. It is about setting up the entire skill into small chunks, seeing the linkages between them and then, setting up a feedback system.

How does this work?

Suppose you want to become fitter and have decided to run every day.

Just running every day 1 hour and clocking 10,000 hour is not going to make the world’s fittest person.

You need to start with a goal: what do you want to achieve in that one hour? Certain distance or calories burned or both?

Next, you will break down the run into prep, actual run and post run.

You will break the run into equal units.

Now you will monitor each of these every day with the aim to get better every day.

Every day in some small way. Maybe you will run 10m more or 100m more every day. May be your speed will increase 0.5% every day. Keep the increase very small because cumulatively they will generate a massive impact.

Gain feedback from each of this stage. What is working? Do more of it. What is not working? Do less of it.

You will hate this but no music while running. Why? The best of runners bring awareness into every moment to be with the experience and learn from it.

Building the Awareness muscle is the key to Deliberate Practice Click To Tweet

Can you see the elements of deliberate practice now?

This process helps in entrenching what is working. It creates new neural networks which not only retain memory of what you are doing but also add to your self image that “It is like me to make measurable progress every day”. This discipline of doing it every day will eventually translate into a healthy habit


One of the most powerful forces in your life is the force of Habit.

Once entrenched, they become unshakeable. What is important is you need to have habits which create a transformative effect.

In their book, The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan give the example of Michael Phelps the Olympic Swimming Legend. In kindergarten, his mother was told “He’s not gifted, Your son will never be able to focus on anything”.

When the latest Olympic Games got over, his gold medal count was 23 making him the most decorated in the Olympian history. What changed?

Somewhere at age 12, Phelps decided to swim every day: seven days a week, 365 days a year. He did that from age 12 till those Olympics.

He focused all his energy into one task – swimming daily such that at some point it became a habit and not something he had to push himself to.

Think about a daily habit most of us have? Brushing our teeth.

Initially, your parents had to use all their persuasion to get you to brush every morning but over time, this has become a habit for you.

There is another effect of habits. They act as levers. Not only do you change one thing, you setoff a ripple effect which changes everything around us.

Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit  gives several examples of this. He gives the example of how lady shifted from chain smoking to jogging and it changed how she ate, slept, worked and saved money. Areas where you won’t normally associate that it would have an effect on but they do. He calls it as the Keystone Habit.

Keystone Habits have a ripple effect across our life and touch all aspects Click To Tweet

This is the power of habits. There are many functional habits which you can work at but one habit which will have a transformational effect is expressing Gratitude.


The Youth Gratitude Project Research convincingly shows that grateful youth are happier, more satisfied with their lives, friends, family, neighborhood, and selves. (Link here)

They also report more hope, engagement with their hobbies, higher GPAs, and less envy, depression, and materialism.

Does this mean you have to say “Praise the Lord” everyday? Not necessarily.

If you look around, there are millions of things happening right now to make sure you are successful in whatever you are setting yourself out for.

The sun has risen giving us the warmth we need and the nourishment that the plants need to start the food cycle.

People have reached their place of work early or are working to keep the electricity going, the traffic signals working, trains and buses running, your office is lit up and charged for your presentations and your computers, the hot coffee, the lovely chairs and the table of your meeting room: you get the picture.

Yes you might be paying money for it but everyone is doing their part so that you can do your part.

Patricia Ryan Madson, Emerita Stanford University, in her book, Improv Wisdom calls it the Silent Gifts.

Everyday is Christmas if you are thankful for the silent gifts which have come your way Click To Tweet

Harvard Medical School reports (link here) that people who thank more frequently or better still, maintain a Gratitude Journal report lesser diseases, are more healthier and happier than average.

Whom will you thank today?

One of the techniques which has helped me is the POST technique: People, Opportunities, Situations, Things.

We are quick to thank when we get things but there are people who make impact on our life, opportunities which open new directions to our life and situations which help us learn about ourselves and others, which are more powerful.


So the Core elements of change are:



Deliberate practice



Finally, these are only tools to create a positive force in our life. How and how much we apply it in our life will decide whether how big will the transformation be in your life.

Bronnie Ware is a writer and songwriter from Australia who spent several years caring for dying people in their homes. In her fascinating book The Top Five Regrets Of the Dying, she says that the one of the highest regrets, dying people have is

“I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”

No matter what experiences you had in the past, today is the chance to make the change.

Live your life so that your epitaph boldly states, ‘No regrets. H Jackson Brown Click To Tweet

Will You bring about change in Your Life?


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Do One Thing

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“If a thing is worth doing, then it is worth doing well.”

If a thing is worth doing, then it is worth doing well. Click To Tweet

We often hear this. Then, why is it that, when it comes to our business we tend to get scattered?

Have you walked out of a meeting where a ton of initiatives have been thrown, all exciting, project maps worked out and you are all fired up? 6 months later, you find you are nowhere and all the initiatives are only taking time and not making any money?

I have been in a major initiative where there were 42 initiatives running at the same time. Yes 42! I still remember the painful meeting reviews where nothing was progressing and everyone’s nerves were frayed. Only pet projects were moving and the impact of those on business was still debatable.

I was high strung, as so much time was invested and very little was achieved.

Against this, I remember we were in the midst of transition of a Free to Air Television to a subscription channel. It was a mammoth project involving satellites, people on the ground, advertisers, the works. But, since the objective was only one, all the moving parts were clearly aligned to one objective. And if they were not, they were ruthlessly weeded out.

The Lesson is very clear: Do one thing but do it very well.

Having one initiative at a time, makes sure that all the parts in the organization are focused on delivering it. Remember for a lot of people this itself is extra work. For the production or service delivery guy or sales guy on the ground, this is one more item he needs to finish every day. All this within the same time available and with no respite on the daily deliverables.

Having one project makes sure that to each and every person, you are delivering only one message. This helps every one know what is most important to you and to the business.

It brings in speed and ruthless efficiency. It acts as a building block to the organization on which future success is built.

Do one thing but do it really well Click To Tweet

What action do you need to take to bring this focus? What would stop you to bring this focus?

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