Life is not designed to hand us success or satisfaction, but rather to present us with challenges that make us grow

TERRY LAUGHLIN is the founder of Total Immersion, an innovative swimming method focused on teaching students to swim in a highly efficient manner. Between 1973 and 1988, Terry coached three college and two USA Swimming club teams, improving each team dramatically and developing 24 national champions. In 1989, Terry founded Total Immersion and turned his focus from working with young, accomplished swimmers to adults with little experience or skill. He is the author of Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier, which I recommend reading after watching the videos titled Freestyle: Made Easy. I was introduced to Terry and Total Immersion by billionaire investor Chris Sacca, and it single-handedly taught me how to swim in my 30s. In less than ten days of solo training, I went from a two- length maximum (of a 25-yard pool) to swimming more than 40 lengths per workout in sets of two and four. It blew my mind, and now I swim for fun. It changed my life.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Mastery by George Leonard. I first read this book 20 years ago, after reading Leonard’s Esquire article, the seed from which the book grew. Leonard wrote the book to share lessons from becoming an Aikido master teacher, despite starting practice at the advanced age of 47.

I raced through its 170-plus pages in a state of almost feverish excitement, so strongly did it affirm our swimming method. The book helped me see swimming as an ideal vehicle for teaching the mastery habits and behaviors closely interwoven with our instruction in the physical techniques of swimming. I love this book because it is as good a guide as I’ve ever seen to a life well lived.

A brief summary: Life is not designed to hand us success or satisfaction, but rather to present us with challenges that make us grow. Mastery is the mysterious process by which those challenges become progressively easier and more satisfying through practice. The key to that satisfaction is to reach the nirvana in which love of practice for its own sake (intrinsic) replaces the original goal (extrinsic) as our grail. The antithesis of mastery is the pursuit of quick fixes.

My five steps to mastery:

  1. Choose a worthy and meaningful challenge.
  2. Seek a sensei or master teacher (like George Leonard) to help you establish the right path and priorities.
  3. Practice diligently, always striving to hone key skills and to progress incrementally toward new levels of competence.
  4. Love the plateau. All worthwhile progress occurs through brief, thrilling leaps forward followed by long stretches during which you feel you’re going nowhere. Though it seems as if we’re making no progress, we are turning new behaviors into habits. Learning continues at the cellular level . . . if you follow good practice principles.
  5. Mastery is a journey, not a destination. True masters never believe they have attained mastery. There is always more to be learned and greater skill to be developed.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I began my coaching career in 1972 and had immediate and unbroken success. Between 1975 and 1983, I coached 24 national club and college champions and tremendously transformed every team I coached, from middling to high- performing. However, in 1983 I suffered a discouraging setback, losing a coaching job in a power struggle with a control-oriented parent board immediately after my young team won a Junior National championship.

The disappointment of having a promising team taken away from me after investing five years in their development put me into a state I didn’t recognize at the time: the stages of grief. Over the next four years, I went through three head coaching positions, experiencing success in the pool in each, yet never feeling happy or satisfied.

In 1987, I finally recognized that unresolved grief was keeping me from enjoying my work, and that only a hiatus from coaching could resolve it. As well, I had nothing in the bank to show for 16 years of employment and was looking at college tuition payments for three daughters, starting just five years later.

With reluctance, I left coaching—uncertain if I would return—to see whether my native intelligence and abilities would prove more remunerative in another field. For two years, I worked in marketing communications, first at a technology company, then in a hospital. I earned enough to pay the bills, but I still wasn’t able to put anything away for the future. More important, I was unable to summon any enthusiasm for my work.

I easily understood the problem. As a head coach for all those years, I had been essential and instrumental in anything significant that occurred. The success or failure of the entire enterprise was due mainly to my efforts and abilities. In the corporate world, I felt like a cog: It didn’t much matter if I even came to work or not, and I simply could not endure that feeling.

In the spring of 1989, I left the hospital job and began planning two one-week summer camps for Masters swimmers—the first Total Immersion programs. In the summer of 1990, I held four such sessions and in 1991, six, plus a few clinics for Masters teams. These didn’t support our family—I did that with freelance magazine and marketing writing.

I had no long-term vision for where this might go, but I was making a real impact on those who attended and loved being self-employed with my job security dependent only on the quality of my efforts. Yet, from that modest beginning, I’ve gone on to undreamt-of success with Total Immersion, which has grown to a network of more than 300 coaches in 30 countries. It’s recognized as the gold standard in effective swimming technique.

My earlier failure, and brief sojourn outside coaching, taught me that I was born to coach and teach swimming, but also that I was not cut out to be someone else’s employee and needed to be in charge of my own destiny.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to? What new realizations and/or approaches helped?
My lifetime goal was to be the best swimming coach possible. It was never to run a company. Yet with the growth of Total Immersion, I found myself—by default—in the position of CEO. I don’t mind admitting that I was a pretty crap CEO. This occurred, in part, because whenever I was given the choice to perform an executive or coaching task, I would always opt to perform the coaching task. Far more of my energy went into developing coaching skills than company leadership skills. My failings as an executive often had greater adverse effect on Total Immersion’s growth than my strengths as a coach had a positive effect.

Two years ago, I was given a diagnosis of incurable, stage IV prostate cancer. Realizing that treatment would take up time and sap my energy, and that I did not have limitless time to accomplish important undone work, I delegated most of my executive responsibilities to a pair of associates, both of whom are a generation younger and who have impressive loyalty and intelligence, and bring a boundless sense of caring to their work. Since that decision, Total Immersion has undergone a striking turnaround and is now far better positioned for business success—and to endure for the long term—than was previously the case.

Just as important, I’m now in my most productive period ever in the aspects of TI to which I add the greatest value—creating our educational and coaching content and curriculum and developing our coaching cadre. Finally, I’m more excited, energized, and satisfied than ever by my work and contributions. The positive energy this generates is doing a great deal to keep me healthy and help me respond in a more salutary way to my treatments.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
I would ask a smart, driven college student to examine what is it they are driven to do. Are you driven to achieve an intrinsic or extrinsic goal? Several years ago, I read an op-ed in The New York Times that described a study of 10,000 West Point cadets who were followed for up to 14 years. They were asked as first-year cadets to describe their career goals.

Those who cited goals intrinsic to being an outstanding officer—developing excellence as a leader and communicator, earning the respect of the troops under their command—went on at much higher rates to earn commissions as officers, extend their service beyond the five-year minimum, gain early promotion to higher ranks, and report a high degree of satisfaction with their Army service.

Those who cited extrinsic goals—earning promotions and gaining status—were less likely to earn commissions and early promotions, or report a high level of satisfaction, leading them to terminate their service after the minimum five- year period at higher rates.

The same will apply in any field of endeavor. If your highest goal is incremental, patient, continual learning and development in critical skills and core competencies—and you allow recognition, promotions, and financial rewards to be a natural result of the excellence you attain at core competencies— you will be far more likely to experience success and satisfaction, and perhaps even attain eminence, in your field. As a swimming coach, from my earliest days 40-plus years ago, these were my basic motivations:

To continually deepen my understanding of technique and performance. I’ve never been satisfied that I had the last word, always felt certain there were further insights and nuances to be learned;
To have a life-changing positive impact on those I coached; and

To leave an enduring mark on the field of swim coaching, to leave the profession better off than I found it. At 66, I’m just as passionate and curious as I was at 21, if not more so, and I have no plans to retire. I can’t imagine anything else I might have done which would have brought greater fulfillment.

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