How to Swim Faster

July 3, 2007  

At a recent workshop on creativity, I discussed “the performance paradox” – the concept that trying harder produces poorer results.

Afterwards, one executive in the audience came up to me and told me his own story.  He said…

“When I was a kid, I went to summer camp.  One of our daily activities was swimming.  We were told to swim our laps as fast as possible.  As we did, the camp counselors timed our speed.  We did this over and over, each and every day.

“As expected, our lap times improved the more we practiced.  However, about half-way through the summer, our improvements stopped.  No matter how hard we tried, we could not go any faster.

“It was at that point that the counselors told us they would no longer evaluate us on our speed.  Instead they were going to rate us based on the quality of our stroke.  We discovered afterwards that we were still being timed.  Surprisingly, by focusing on style rather than speed, we all went significantly faster.  When we stopped trying to go faster, we went faster.”

Reduced performance is often the result of focusing on a “goal” rather than being “present.”

In what areas of life can you improve YOUR performance by focusing on what is in front of you rather than worrying about the result?

Where, in the past, have you improved your performance by being present?

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4 Responses to “How to Swim Faster”

  1. Tracey on July 6th, 2007 11:44 am

    This comment was right on time. On Wed., I came across an author’s comment that reinforces your posting. He said that we live in an age where the “activity” has become more important than the “moment” in which it is done. I’m always looking for philosophies that help me slow down and live in the moment. Your site is awesome.

  2. David Zinger on July 9th, 2007 6:41 pm

    I appreciate the post about not having a stroke, trying so hard, but gaining an effective stroke. I think this is true for me when I create humor. When I play with it I am probably okay but when I “try” to make it funny it shows!

  3. Zoe Routh on July 12th, 2007 1:01 am

    Loved this one! I went to summer camp too but luckily they never timed our swims – it was all about fun there.

    You’re so right about timing and performance – we can get so sucked up in numbers. The happiest marathon runners I know are the ones who finish at the end – they’re happy just to have done it. The most miserable? the sub-four-hour runners who wrestle with time goals. 30 seconds off their pace and their face droops to the ground.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Stephen Shapiro on July 29th, 2007 12:36 pm

    Thanks for your comments.

    Tracey, I am glad that these posts are helping you slow down a bit. We are in a goal-obsessed society. I want people to realize that not only is this often unhealthy, but it is also counter-productive.

    David, your comment raises an interesting point. Being goal-free does not mean you don’t have to prepare. As Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer once said, “Inspiration that falls on the unprepared and untrained mind is lost.” Practice may make perfect. But more importantly, it allows you to be present – and to improvise.

    Zoe, I’m glad your summer camp was about fun. I think kids these days are being driven too hard and as a result are not learning some important skills: creativity and social skills…both of which are stimulated by play.

    Thanks again.