Inside the Mind of Diana Nyad

My wife, Klassy, is reading Find a Way by Diana Nyad, who was the first person to successfully swim from Cuba to Florida. In her 20s Nyad attempted the swim but failed. Then she didn't swim at all for 30 years. But she knew in her heart she could do it, and she did — in 53 hours of non-stop swimming, at the age of 64.

Because swimming long distances is so challenging and requires so much dedication, what the swimmer does in her mind makes all the difference. And in much of the book, Nyad describes what she does mentally.

Klassy has been gaining a lot of value from these descriptions, and I've been gaining a lot from Klassy sharing it with me. Three principles in particular have been very useful for both of us, and I'd like to share them with you here.

1. Engagement or escape. That's all there is. This simple distinction has clarified so many things. Where you are alive is where you are engaged. If you want to feel alive, if you want to solve a problem, if you want to achieve a goal, engagement is what you're after. What gets in your way is escape.

2. Exercise your willpower, just like you would a muscle. Willpower is not binary. It's not on or off. You can have degrees of it, and you can improve it. When you look at the chocolate in the cupboard and you want to have some, you don't only have a choice between having it or not having it. Another choice is to exercise a little willpower to make yourself stronger. See if you can put off having the chocolate for five minutes. You'll be surprised at how little effort it takes to exercise your willpower, and how good it feels to do it. And it strengthens you for the next challenge. Exercising your will this way doesn't require force. It's more like a question or an experiment.

3. If your heart isn't in it, don't bother. This is always a question to ask and to answer honestly. Find a way to either find out that you really want something, or find a way to do something else instead. Nyad lives by a quote from Mary Wilder: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" It's easy to forget that life is short and if you're going to do something, you'd better get at it and make it count. In the end, heart is all that matters.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

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