Rising to the Top: What We Can Learn from America's First Swimmer

Understanding the path of how America's first swimmer rose to prominence allows us to absorb the key lessons for success.

   Success usually requires doing things differently 
Success usually requires trying something new that is, doing things differently

In his recent book The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man's Fight to Capture Olympic Gold tells the story of America's first swimming champion, Charles Daniels. It is a fantastic story with lessons that stretch way beyond swimming, some of which are detailed below

A hero who is not likely to succeed

When you met Charley at the time of his youth, you wouldn't have thought that he would end up winning Olympic Gold because:

  • He was terrified of the water.
  • As a child and teenager, he was skinny.
  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were few swimming pools in the US. Britain and other European countries had many more swimming pools than the US.
  • While his son Charley was still a child, Charley's father left his mother and burdened her with financial difficulties, making her an outcast in society. His father also turned out to be a swindler of the same magnitude as Bernie Madoff, and as Charley became famous, he feared that he would be associated with him.

Despite the physical constraints imposed on him by his disability, Charley was able to become a swimming champion:

  • He was instrumental in the creation of "the crawl," a technique that is now more commonly known as "freestyle."
  • In 1904, the first gold medal in swimming was awarded to the American athlete.
  • At every distance from 25 yards to the mile, he held the world record.
  • At the Olympics, he won seven medals (four golds, one silver and two bronzes). This record was not beaten until 1972 by Mark Spitz.

The story of Charles Daniels follows a pattern that is likely as old as humanity: an underdog overcoming obstacles and steep odds to achieve great success. What can we learn from Charley's story that might be applicable to our lives?

As told in the story of Charles Daniels, the following lessons are essential:

Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina begins with the statement that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This means that happy families share key attributes such as acceptable levels of financial security, mutual affection and respect, effective communication, and so on. The absence of one or more of these attributes typically results in unhappiness. One way to think about it is that certain stars must align to be happy.

The same idea applies to success (however it is defined) in investing, business, or careers: successful people have similar characteristics. The Waterman reminded me of what I've learned advising wealthy families - that it's not so much your starting point but what you do with what you have that leads to success.

In particular, here's what we can learn from Charles Daniels' story:

1. Do what you love and not the money. In the early 1900s, amateur swimming didn't bring in any income and was a hindrance to career success due to the hours of training it required. There weren't corporate sponsorships after Charley's swimming career like there are today, so he had to sell insurance between Olympic Games to support himself. His passion for swimming drove him to be great, not money.

Following their passions is a common attribute of self-made wealthy individuals – their goals are primarily non-monetary. They want to make their own mark on the Universe. Their wealth is usually a result – not an end in itself. Research in The Wealth Elite: A groundbreaking study of the psychology of the super rich confirms this conclusion: "very few [successful entrepreneurs] set themselves the specific goal of one day becoming multi millionaires."

2. It is important to persevere. In addition to overcoming obstacles, Charley worked through problems that seemed impossible. For example, a year before his first Olympic Gold medal, he was beaten by competitors in Europe. He didn't quit; he kept his focus on the long-term goal and kept working.

As Calvin Coolidge said, "Nothing can replace persistence. Unsuccessful men with talent are common; genius goes unrecognized; and education does not ensure success. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Every successful person I know (and I know a lot of them) has gone through hard times in their businesses and lives. There is no easy way to success. You have to persevere.

3. Innovate by trial and error. Charley's success was largely due to his development of an effective swimming stroke. He didn't just copy everyone else; he observed what they were doing, then added his own twist after trying different methods for hours on end.

If everyone does the same thing, competition is fierce and success is tricky. On the other hand, finding a better way to do something will give you an advantage. For Charles Daniels, his better way required him to fail many times before figuring out what the press called "crawling on water." As a result, success requires embracing failure - or as John F. Kennedy said: "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."