Tuesday 29 April 2014



You may or may not know that I swim...A LOT. About 2 or 3 kilometres a day, sometimes more. I call myself a "Wild Swimmer" because I love swimming in the outdoors. I'm getting older now, but there was a time when I swam competitively. In 2007 six of us swam The Channel as a relay team to raise funds for poorly children. That was a test of my technique, resilience and preparation!

To prepare, you have to acclimatise to cold water and swim lots and lots of laps in the pool and hours in the cold sea to acclimatise. Swimming lots of laps can be boring unless you've trained your brain to go into a trance, to focus on your goal or simply mull-over ideas and put the world to rights. It helps pass the time.

You might wonder what on earth I am telling you this for on a career blog. Simple. Whilst swimming this morning, an idea came to my mind in the confines of my lane in the 25 metre pool I spend most mornings in. The key word here is 'confines'. It struck me in this large 5-sided tank of water that I was confined and, rather than feeling caged-in, the boundaries of the lane were very helpful to practicing my technique. Then it struck me that anyone succeeding in any particular job, career, sport or game, is similarly confined and benefits in the same way.

You see, nearly every business great, celebrity or sports star that we love have mastered their skills, strengths, talents and gifts within their specific arena. They have become outstanding by making themselves uniquely talented whilst performing ‘in the zone’. Every exceptional person you can think of has excelled within the confines of their chosen discipline. They have mastered the structures, rules and regulations of their chosen field and learned how to use these ‘guidelines’ (like a swimming lane) to their advantage.

In just the same way 'a field' can be a large strip of land surrounded by a wall to grow crops, the word 'field' can be used to describe an occupation, profession, trade or vocation. The more clear the demarcation lines around 'the field' the more recognisable it is. Some people get hung-up on the semantics that differentiate one field from another, e.g. Osteopath / Chiropractic, Farrier / Blacksmith, Sociologist / Psychotherapist. (Sometimes radical ways of interpreting the rules come along and we see the birth of new fields; but that’s another story for another blog entry).

Professional footballers make their living quite literally on a field of play. But their sport is differentiated by rules and regulations as is each position in the team from forward to defender, goalkeeper to winger. Otherwise their sport would be chaos and each game would be a free-for-all with no way of managing it. 

Skills mastery is a key ingredient in career success in whatever field, occupation or sport. For example, when I am swimming well, I know that I will take exactly 18 strokes of frontcrawl to swim a 25 metre length in the pool. If my stroke is inefficient, it will take more. If less, I will tire more easily. Knowing this fact about my performance disciplines my mind and helps me swim more efficiently because it gives me a reason to focus on form and technique. It also stops me from getting tired. 


Going back to football, world-renowned David Beckham has mastered his footballing skill to the extent that he is famous for his precise passes of the ball and great goals scored from free-kicks. He is outstandingly talented yet he plays within the confines of strict rules, keeps the ball within the boundaries of the pitch and focuses his energies, ultimately, on precision goal-scoring. 

He can tell when he is performing well or not by the number of goals scored or whether his passes to other players land at their feet or go off the pitch (field of play). His experience gained through many hours of practice inform him when he has made an error or when he is playing well. He can adapt his technique according to the results because he sees where his passes or shots on goal finish-up.

We know it takes the world's most successful people about 10,000 hours to get to the top of their field and Beckham’s level of expertise. Be that in sport or in business. This means that people like Bill Gates, David Beckham or sports stars like Maria Sharipova will have invested in the region of 10 years hard work, focus and sacrifice to win-through to achieve recognisable success.

Mastering technique requires much dedication. Yet, perhaps equally importantly, we need to understand the rules of the landscape we operate in. Choosing to specialise and become masters of our career attributes, talents and gifts means we must understand, visualise and respect the confines of our professional discipline. This is why we use the word ‘discipline’ to describe an occupation or skill in a sport.

Far from cramping our style and reducing our choices, limiting our peripheral vision helps us to concentrate our attention, effort and time into becoming proficient at what we do best. There will always be people who would rather taste a wide variety in their career choices before they settle down to focus on one thing.

However, after experiencing the peaks and troughs of my own career journey – once I discovered my own career passion - coupled with 15 years of coaching others along their career journeys, I can safely say that it is the people who knuckle-down sooner into their own rhythm in the confines of their preferred field who tend to reap the greatest rewards and look happiest. Limiting our choice, focussing our attention and pouring our energies in a specific field make our decisions far easier and career so much more resilient to the inevitability of change in the 21st Century labour market.


Following the global financial crisis of 2008 earning a sustainable livelihood has become much more about finding a wage than building a sense of career. We see the phrase ‘career resilience’ used to describe how important it is for personal survival to be able to evolve from one skill-set to another in order that we find work that puts food on the table. Yet deep-down, I see the workers who master their talents as being the most resilient, the most happy and the better equipped to face the ever-changing work landscape. They are also the most employable.


My advice, therefore?  If you wish to excel, ‘learn to swim’ in the confines of your own field. Invest many hours in mastering your skills and polishing your talent. This is one reason why the artisan craftsmen and women I see are so in demand and always have a sparkle in their eye. That way, you stand more chance of being master of your own destiny and eating whilst many others go hungry.
Here are 5 words that will help you along the way:

  1. ‘Discipline’ – it takes a lot to focus your mind on a particular goal worth striving for. Unless your goals are worth devoting yourself to, the discipline will never come.
  2. ‘Control’ – Sometimes, alongside ‘Discipline’, we have to control our thoughts, actions, emotions and thirsts for the temptations that might thwart our progress.
  3. ‘Denial’ – often great plans are undone by refusing to acknowledge the reality, even when we can see why we’re failing as clear as day.
  4. ‘Sacrifice’ – Along with the many temptations that risk distracting us, we have to give-up some of our favourite indulgences like TV, crappy food, unhelpful friendships and delusions if we are going to fulfil our potential.
  5. ‘Opportunity’ – Having honed all of our talents and skills and polished our gifts to a bright sparkle, none of the investment of time, effort and dedication is worth a bean unless we are able to recognise the opportunities to excel that come our way.


Step-back for a moment and look at your work/life plans. Can you see your metaphorical ‘swimming pool’? Can you visualise the shape and form of the guiding constraints of the particular field you wish to specialise in? Have you disciplined your technique through many hours of practice so that you know exactly when your technique is great and you’re performing well? Give your potential a chance, zero-in your focus, choose your goals well and polish your devotion.

Strange as it may seem, the truly outstanding talents who walk alongside us in this multi-faceted, diverse, complex and decision-laden world, know better than anyone does the confines of their own fields. And that is exactly the reason they came to shine so brilliantly.

Happy swimming!!

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