Growth Habits interviews are among my favorite things I get to do.  Think about it—I get 30 to 45 minutes to sit down with legends who rewrote history in their field.  This month, I had the chance to sit down with Carl Lewis, who is the winningest track athlete in modern history, with nine Olympic gold medals and one silver.

I love the word “winningest.”  According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “Winningest” describes someone who has “achieved the most success in competition.”  And, although I don’t believe that success in life can be simplified to just wins and losses, there is something about the spirit of competition and learning to overcome obstacles that inspires me.

Carl Lewis overcame obstacles again and again over the course of his illustrious career.  Growing up, he was the worst athlete in his family.  But, thanks to good parents who taught him that the most important competition is being better than you were yesterday, Carl persevered.  Eventually, his body caught up with his drive.  And, as we all know, the rest is history.

Here are four things I learned from my interview with Carl Lewis:

  1. Find great coaches. I asked Lewis about the importance of coaching in track and field.  His response: “You wouldn’t even know me at all if I didn’t meet coach Tom Tellez.”  Who is Tom Tellez?  Only one of the winningest track coaches in history.  According to Lewis, coaching makes the difference between being an unknown, to being one of the greatest of all time.  A lot of people assume that success in track (and in life) is simply a matter of talent.  But I’ve found again and again in my career, when you ask an exceptional performer how they became so great, it always began with a coach.  What does that tell you?  If you have a dream that’s important to you, do everything you can to work with a coach who has a track record of producing results.  You can’t reach your potential without a great coach.  
  2. Practice with total focus. Lewis said that his practices only lasted a couple hours—but they were packed with intensity directed to clear goals.  A lot of people think they’re working hard just because they’re putting in a lot of hours.  The truth is, many people are just working long.  It doesn’t do much good to slog through hour after hour of work if you’re not focused.  You can get a lot done in a short time if you have clear goals and you bring your full effort to the moment. 
  3. Lewis said that having life “simplicity” always accompanied his top performances.  In high school and college, that meant that his social life wasn’t as robust as it might have been.  As an adult, it meant that he centered his life around his practice.  Near the end of his career, it meant that he simplified how he ate—getting rid of certain foods in his diet.  Often success isn’t as much about the things you do as much as it is about the things you don’t do.  What do you need to cut out of your life?  How can you simplify things so that you can focus on what really matters?  Do you need to cut off social media?  Do you need to eliminate certain projects at work that are sapping all your time?  The answers will be different for each of us—but Lewis’ point is right on:  To be successful, we have to simplify. 
  4. Think about your goals in reverse.  When I asked Lewis, “what advice do you have for people pursuing dreams?”, he replied, “Start with the ultimate and work back.”  This is a habit of most of the great achievers I’ve met.  They have a clear idea of what they want in their life and they develop a “backwards plan” to get it.  If you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to know how to make decisions in day-to-day life.  But if you have a clear picture about what you want for your life, you can measure your daily decisions against your ultimate goal to see if you’re on track.  Knowing your ultimate goal helps you plan all the little intermediate steps that you need to make along the way in order to get where you want to go. Knowing what each of these intermediate steps are, and when you need to achieve them, makes your goal feel real in your head.  It changes you from a dreamer to a doer; from someone with a wish to someone with a plan.

I hope each of us can implement Lewis’ wisdom into our own lives as we pursue what matters most to us.  Achieving greatness is possible if we have the right plan.  Lewis’ advice of finding great coaches, practicing with total intensity, cutting out distractions, and having clear goals is a plan that can help each of us be a little better.  When you follow these basic rules, you can accomplish more than you currently think is possible.  Lewis’ advice is something that everyone with a dream should take to heart.

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