secret of success

The secret of success: Lessons from a long distance swimmer

It was in the July of 1987 that a young long distance swimmer by the name Lynne Cox set out to swim the Bering Strait; a channel that bridges the US and the Soviet Union. It was at the middle of the cold war and tension was rife between the two countries.

Lynne hopes her swim will generate goodwill and peace between the soviets and the American people. She believes that by symbolically bridging the distance between the US and the Soviet Union, she can give their people a chance at becoming friends.

Now nobody has ever swam the Bering Strait,  and for good reasons many people believe the swim to be impossible. For one the water is deadly cold (sometimes only 6 degrees warmer than an ice-cube). Others believe the soviets will never give their permission.

Two weeks to the date set aside for the swim, Lynne still had no Soviet permission, no escorts boats, no corporate sponsorship, and she wasn’t 100% certain she could survive the water.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, she was training hard everyday in anticipation of her swim which by the way,  she was able to make on time, on the appointed day.

As I read the story of Lynne Cox, it wasn’t her swims (as remarkable as they were) that fascinated me. It was the sheer tenacity of her approach towards success, her embodiment of so many qualities that makes success inevitable.

Below are some of the lessons I learnt from this remarkable woman. 

1. Believe in yourself first, others will follow eventually

Lynne saw every swim, even the ones presumed to be impossible as possibilities. She believes there is no water her body cannot swim if she trains and prepares hard enough.

She didn’t get deterred by people’s perception that her swims were dangerous or impossible but rather she was able to change their perception with every successful swim.

Take a look at that big goal of yours and ask yourself; do I believe beyond any reasonable doubt that I can achieve this? If your answer is No or Maybe, then it’s time you start working on your belief and self-confidence.

2. Start from smaller but similar goals

The Bering strait swim was 11 years in the making. During that time, Lynne wasn’t just busy trying to get permission and support for her swim, she was also making smaller swims that will boost her confidence and her body’s ability to handle the cold.

She was able to swim across 10 of the coldest and most difficult waterways around the world in just 80 days to prepare herself.

3. Burn the bridges behind you

How far are you willing to go to succeed? Lynne emptied her bank account and went into debt to sponsor her swims because there was no corporate organisation that believes in her enough to sponsor her.

When you burn the bridges that will make you look back and consider retreating, you have no other option than to give success your best of the best shot.

When you approach your goals with a single-minded determination to succeed, crazy things happen, believe me. Because you chose to have nothing else, success becomes inevitable.

4. Set a deadline

After 11 years of preparation, Lynne decides if she doesn’t set a deadline, the Bering Strait swim is going to take her whole life to prepare.

Not surprisingly, it was after she set her deadline that she starts to see some real traction. She start to make progress which saw her making her swim on the appointed day.

If you’ve had a goal for so long and you seem not to be making progress, the best solution is to give it a deadline. The time restriction pushes you outside of your comfort zone where you’ll no longer make lacklustre attempts. Your brain starts to think of creative means of helping you achieve your goal.

5. Be your own biggest motivator

All the greatest achievers I know of do not rely on outside sources for motivation, it comes from within. Lynne was no different. She was her own biggest coach.

“Be calm; focus on what you’re going to do. Don’t get distracted, don’t get overwhelmed, take it all as it comes” Lynne said to herself before the Bering Strait swim.

What we say and how we say it to ourselves have a great power on our abilities and performance. Lynne understand this power immensely and she uses it to her advantage all the time, especially at moments of fear and doubt.

6. Handle Obstacles as they come

Lynne never allowed the many obstacles that came her way to overwhelm her and thus prevent her from taking action. Rather she focused on doing everything she can in the situation having the faith that everything will fall into place.

It was not until a day to her deadline that she got the soviet’s permission to swim their waters. She didn’t give up hope when it wasn’t forthcoming. And as discouraging as it is, she continued to train and to do her best.

Even if it seems like your obstacle wouldn’t go away, keep doing all you can in the situation. You’ll be surprised how everything finally fall into place.


The Bering Strait swim was the highlight of Lynne’s career. It wasn’t her biggest goal, but it was her most difficult. She achieved it through sheer singleness of purpose, determination, belief and a touch of madness.

And the results were remarkable. She become famous. She had invitations pouring in; from media outlets all over the world, from the US president, from the Pope, from the soviets. She had a stone erected in her name. During the signing of the INF treaty between the Soviet Union and the US, president Gorbachev made reference to her swim and called it a symbol of improving relations between the US and the Soviet Union. She had won.

Years later, she will go on to become the first person to swim to Antarctica.

Yes,  the path to Success might be paved with thorns but the sweetness of its fruit will more than compensate for the pain.

No matter how big a goal it is you’re pursuing, have it in mind that it can be achieved. I hope the story of Lynne Cox inspires you as much as it did me.

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Image credit: The new Yorker

 

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Jamila Mustapha

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and translator. I started The Midas Finger blog to explore ways we can live up to our highest potential, because I believe by living any other way, we do ourselves a great disservice.
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