Achieve Excellence

Achieve Excellence

Congress could be as inspiring as the Olympic Games. That said, I don't think our goal should be to inspire. We should focus on achieving, on creating something beautiful, as seeing our work as art. When we do, I'm confident it will turn all aspects of political culture on its head. And ultimately, that will inspire a nation. 

Sunday night, we watched Michael Phelps (MP) return to the pool as a fifth-time Olympic swimmer, bringing home team gold along with Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held, and Nathan Adrian in the 4x100m freestyle relay—taking back the top spot from France's victory in 2012. And literally, last night as I was prepping this post, MP touched the wall first to win gold in the 200m butterfly.

While we’re on the subject of the Rio Games, how about Lilly King’s gold medal in the women’s 100m breaststroke—and her comments that Olympic records can still be set by racing clean? If we can value racing clean in the Olympics, what if we value campaigning and governing “clean”?  

How do we approach our work the way an Olympic swimmer achieves excellence in the pool? Thankfully, we have incredible insights from Bob Bowman, currently Team USA's head swim coach and career-long coach to MP, the greatest Olympian of all time (and then some). In The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work, Bob outlines what he calls the Method. Simply put, it's the plan he puts in place to achieve success. 

To be honest, I believe with certainty the reason Congress has a perpetual 11% approval rating is rooted directly in our lack of this kind of thinking or operating. If you want the full dose of what Bob has to say (and I sure hope you do), you should buy the book and compare what he's saying with the way your congressional office, campaign, nonprofit, or even personal life are currently operating. 

As we dive in today, we'll focus on five key ideas from The Golden Rules that will help anyone in politics create a work culture that's life-giving. 

1.    There's a difference between excellence and winning medals. 

I love that Bowman makes this distinction. As he recounts the dinner over which Michael Phelps informed him of his plans to return to swimming for yet another Olympics, Bob puts it this way: 

Michael wasn't coming back to win medals; he was coming back to achieve something. (p. 7). 

Later in the book, he illustrates why the distinction between the two is so important. In fact, Rule 2.2 actually reads, "Seek to achieve, not to medal." He explains: 

In all my years of coaching Michael and other world-class swimmers, I have never made "to win an Olympic gold medal" their primary mission. I tell them, "Gold medals are out of your control. Another swimmer may simply be better than you on race day." But if they set their sights on breaking a record—at nailing the best time possible—then they can visualize something that's tangible, achievable, and within their control. 

For a young athlete to see that distinction, he must have the proper outlook. An attitude that's geared toward achieving personal satisfaction and serving the needs of a team—and not toward simply gaining public recognition. (p. 47). 

Of course, if we're going to talk about achieving, that quickly raises the question of what, exactly, are we trying to achieve? In the age of cable news and Twitter, it seems politics can turn into a real-time reality TV show where the people on the inside are the stars, always on the set but perhaps never contemplating or communicating the ending of the script. I love where Bob's Method begins. 

2.    Vision is the essential ingredient. 

The Method begins with one essential ingredient: a vision. You need a vision of where you want to go, what you want to do, who you want to be someday down the road. Simply put: In your mind you must program your internal viewfinder toward a performance, toward an achievement, toward a scene that you see taking place in the future. Something you want to be part of. That's your vision. (p. 24). 

For Liberatus, our vision is healing through a deeper knowledge of freedom. Healing is our end destination, and that makes our work a ministry, because it won't be fully achieved until the Kingdom of Heaven is established on a restored earth with Jesus as our King. The Kingdom will be defined by creativity, Truth, and Beauty, so I believe that freedom itself is a creative pursuit of Truth and Beauty, and if we're living our lives in pursuit of anything else, we aren't really free. I don't think many people in politics are living free—myself included, far too often—even while we supposedly fight for freedom. 

That's a tough thing to say, and I am including most of my work in politics, before creating Liberatus, as needing a new vision. I needed healing in many ways myself, and still do. The vision is healing because we need to look at the problems in politics holistically. The reason presidential debates aren't actually debates, and the reason fitness isn't valued (enough) on Capitol Hill, and the reason Legislative Correspondents often feel burned out sending mail, and the reason grassroots activists are tired of bland talking points, all stem from the same root: our hearts aren't tuned to desire what's true and beautiful. We need healing for that to change. 

For us, we've decided that the best way to work to bring healing to American politics, considering the place and time we're in and our own limitations, is to run a weekly journal focused on bringing Truth and Beauty to American politics. Organizationally, we may expand and develop our plans in a way that will look different: the structure of an organization should always be shaped by a vision but is never the vision itself. Our mission and goals and objectives will change, but the vision will be constant. American politics needs healing. 

But for now, as we journal, we look at topics like Bob Bowman's Method because Truth and Beauty are real and tangible ideas. Healing isn't just a wishy-washy ethereal idea. It's tied directly to our work and our humanity, day in and day out. 

As you work to establish a vision for your workplace or implement one that's already there, take notes of all you're learning in the process. 

3.    You can learn from any experience, even if it's not ideal.

It's hard to believe now, but when Michael Phelps first went to the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a fifteen-year-old he didn't win any medals. In fact, he only swam in one event and finished in fifth place. But going to the Olympics, sorting out everything from nerves to remembering to tie the strings of his bathing suit, prepared him for Athens. And Beijing, and London. And now Rio. (And Tokyo??)

About the Athens Olympics, Bowman writes,

When we went to Athens four years later, he wasn't scared; he was prepared. No silly mistakes this time. And, with his confidence soaring, his race results took off as well. He won the first six of his eighteen gold medals. (p. 215). 

Similarly to my friends Zane and Calah whom I interviewed earlier this year about their work in the sport of triathlon, Bob would actually create bad situations for his athletes. At one point in MP's career, Bob even stepped on his goggles intentionally so they would leak. It turned out to be a wise move: later in his career, Michael had leaky goggles again and couldn't see anything. This time, it was at the Beijing Olympics. But he set a new world record in the Water Cube and won his tenth gold medal anyway. (pp. 188-189). 

When you think about how many medals MP ultimately won—and is now winning in Rio—we have to look at what sustains him over the long haul. 

4.    Build Community. 

I think we intuitively know this is a requirement for any pursuit, although I think too often we are either jaded by bad experiences or look for community in the wrong places—or we don't truly understand community at all (for example, happy hours on the Hill don't generally build the kind of community where you can share all of your darkest secrets with a friend and come out on the other side even better friends—but that’s not to say no deep friendships are formed via happy hours!). 

It seems so vital to the world of sport, but I love what he says about one aspect of community— helping others believe in themselves:

Belief. I contend that that is one of the greatest gifts you can share with others: the belief that they can succeed. (p. 159). 

Ultimately, though, if we have a clear vision, and a long-term plan and focus on how we are going to achieve it, then making sure our team is part of a strong community will be critical for the ultimate success of the vision—even if, and especially if, it takes time away from the work, because that's what it takes to build community and come back to our work more engaged and energized. 

There's so much more that could be gained from reading The Golden Rules. There are many interesting stories I've skipped over and I hope you'll read the book and learn from them all. Ultimately, why does all of this matter for our work? 

5.    "We can all set out to be champions." (p. 253). 

If you take the time to plot a route that gets you toward your goal—a step-by-step-by-step method—you're going to be, as I often tell Michael, "in the ballpark." And, once you're there, you'll be in position to make something memorable happen with the passion you possess and the preparation you've done. (p. 254). 

Maybe you've never seen yourself as a champion. Maybe you only see yourself as average, maybe you don't believe you can achieve anything worthwhile. Maybe you see your work itself as mundane and unfulfilling. But it’s time to throw all of that out with the trash, even though I know we live in a world where there's a constant construct that some work you just have to grind through. But I think Bob Bowman shows us that that's not the truest perspective for our work—and we're talking about a coach who helps people swim face down in a pool staring at a black line for hours and hours and hours of their lives. 

But as he writes, it really is so much more than that. There's a reason why we love to watch the Olympics. There's a reason we jump to our feet when another gold medal is won. We're celebrating the achievement of something beautiful. 

Our fellow Americans could look at our work in politics and respond the same way. Truth and Beauty are possible, and when we pursue them well, perhaps even achieve them, the exclamation of all who see it should be unanimous: LIBERATUS—we are set free. 


In what way do you need to focus on creating something beautiful in American politics, instead of seeking recognition, significance, or status?

LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to writesubscribing to the journal, or by funding the movement through monthly giving or by making a purchase in our store