I’m rather suspicious of motivational sound bites. “The only way to reach the moon is to aim for the stars”, for example, makes me cringe. It’s not just a matter of the saccharine phrasing, it’s also the assumption of success. What if you don’t make it to the moon? What if your best simply isn’t good enough?
Last night I found out.
The answer didn’t come in a glib, well-turned phrase, polished by a professional motivational speaker. It slipped out in conversation over dinner.
It helped, of course, that the dinner was the Learning and Performance Institute’s Learning Awards at the Dorchester Hotel. It also helped that the speaker was Liz Johnson, who a few minutes later stood up and delivered one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard (and as a conference chairman and awards dinner habitué, I’ve heard plenty of speeches).
Liz Johnson is a British Paralympian with cerebral palsy. A swimming world champion, she took gold at the Beijing Paralympics and bronze in London 2012, where she also read the athlete’s oath in the opening ceremony. These successes are the result of having trained relentlessly throughout her school and university days, and of focusing on success while at the same time keeping her options open by – for example – graduating with a good degree, leaving her able to move into business in the future.
How, I asked her, could she top what she had already achieved? Was she training for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? I’m sure that after the success of London 2012, British athletes are rather tired of hearing this question posed by armchair athletes like myself, but Liz answered with an easy openness.
She accepted that after three Paralympic Games, getting to a fourth might be difficult. Competition would be tough. But swimming and competing were in her blood and she would try her best. This much I expected. After all, you don’t become a champion by giving up. This is the competitor whose mother had told her from birth that she could achieve anything despite her disability (and whose death from cancer inspired Liz to gold at the Beijing games).
But Liz said something else. She accepted that she might not make it. That was the way things worked. And so yes, as always in her life, she would make sure that she was always open to other opportunities if they came along. She had her degree and could always go into accounting. But with selection for the squad years away, there could only be one thing in her mind when she was in the pool: “You have to train like you’re going to Rio”.
And that’s it: train like you’re going to Rio. If an inspirational champion like Liz Johnson can put her all into training while at the same time accepting that her best not be quite good enough, who am I to differ? It’s a strangely liberating concept. What is the worst that can happen? Aim for the stars and you might not make it even to the moon. You might end up flat on your face. That’s out of your control. What is in your control is how much effort you put into your practice, be it as an athlete, a leader or as anyone who cares about their work.
Based on last night’s success in simultaneously charming and moving a crowd of 350 in an extemporised 15-minute speech on behalf of children’s charity Dreamflight (her flight with them in 1997 changed her life, she says), I’d guess that Liz will have many different options open to her – including a career in the media – if she doesn’t make it to the next Games.
Whatever else happens, her own story of achievement inspired everyone in that room both to believe that helping others is worthwhile, and to believe in overcoming impossible odds. Liz Johnson’s success is the result of an attitude that blends fierce ambition with realism, an attitude that can be summed up in six short words which even the most sceptical of us can believe in:
Train like you’re going to Rio.