Guiding Positive Change

KP and me, at the start of a wonderful partnership.

If you came to KP and asked him to turn you into a champion then he’d start by having you dive into a cold pool, predawn, three days a week. At the beginning, it didn’t matter to him what you did at the workout. The key was getting there, and diving in.

There was a lot behind Kev’s instruction: wake up early, face the predawn, make a habit of tolerating discomfort and rack up an early win.

It’s a form of superpower.

I’m ticking down the final workouts in an eight-module series. It’s the longest challenge I’ve ever completed, going to take 60 weeks.

Expert level stuff, due to the pandemic.

Normally, I aim for focus block of 105 days (15 weeks). Stay put and make sure the first thing I do every day is one positive step towards my target.

I was in my 30s before I ever truly applied myself. The results were life changing.

My strength training history runs 37 years into my past, to a rickety Universal Gym in high school.

To “win” at strength training… dive in, and stick with it.

Over 37 years, the specifics don’t matter as much as I tend to think.

I like strength training for a few reasons:

  • You can always find something to improve.
  • It doesn’t take much time, to capture most the gains.
  • Done properly, it’s useful.

To contrast different meanings of “properly”, I’ll share a story from a Kiwi friend of mine. He used to train “hard”.

  • Hard… as in, bring a chair into the shower so you didn’t have to stand after swim practice.
  • Hard… as in, needing to pause walking up two flights of stairs after a track session.

His more moderate friends asked “why” and “what’s the point” => well, he was trying to get good. In his case, “good” for triathlon.

Proper training, getting good, optimal time allocation.. it helps to know the larger goal sitting behind your daily routine.

Where are my daily actions likely to take me?

I’m aiming towards being highly functional at 60 yo. For my kids, the techniques are similar but the goals are different.

So let’s take some lessons from sport and apply them into the larger world.

These techniques work.

The most important thing to remember is Coach KP’s advice to DIVE IN!

Above, is a picture of the swim finish at Ultraman Hawaii. I’m 33 yo and leading out. Just before my 30th birthday, I’d started swim training. When I started, I wasn’t able to swim more than 100m of freestyle without stopping.

Ultraman is 10,000 meters, point-to-point, in Hawaii. Because the coast is curved, there are times when the athletes are more than a mile offshore.


I’ve gone from zero-to-decent in a wide range of activities.

Passing skills to my kids, and my readers, is the main way I impact the world.

Let’s start by addressing what holds us back from diving in…

It takes way less than 10,000 hours to get proficient at something.

3 swims a week, every week, for three years, was enough for me to get proficient – defined as 57-minutes for an Ironman Swim.

From proficient to outstanding => the diminishing returns kicked hard… about 1,000,000 meters for each minute reduction in Ironman swim time (down to 50-minutes for 2.4 miles).

If I told myself the path to swimming greatness required 10,000,000 meters then I might not have started.

Here’s the thing, I captured most the value in my first 1,000 days of swimming – 30 to 33 yo.

In weightlifting… 15 to 18 yo.

In calculus… 18 to 21 yo.

In finance… 21 to 24 yo.

Think about your own skill development. There is a 1,000 day ramp up, after that, it’s about depth.

At the start of the pandemic, our schools closed and we had to figure out home school. One of our most popular sessions was Art-with-Mom.

My son didn’t think he had any talent. He had fallen prey to the hazard of thinking his current ability reflected his potential.

Turns out the kid is great, but he had to start to find out.

You might think you’re stuck in your ways. I’m not so sure. The capacity to change does not have a sell-by-date. Radical change can happen from seemingly small choices, done daily.

The picture above… What’s happening there?

Consistency => since my kids have been able to stand, they have done at least one swim workout per week, every week.

One session a week will not get you to the top.

However, a decade of consistency, might get you to a position where you can get really, really good by doing 10-sessions a week for a few years.

Option Value for Excellence => an opportunity to take myself some place interesting (but I got to dive in).

Regardless of outcome => positive habits are useful, to crowd out bad habits and surround one’s self with go-getter peers.

Sport, languages, art, academics, learning to read, vector math…

How might one go about making dramatic progress?

Set your daily hurdle at the 1,000-day rate.

Let’s use teaching a kid to read for example. Learning to read is the highest return activity I have ever come across. Improving reading comprehension yields a durable competitive advantage.

The best way to teach a kid to read is… “reading aloud with a kid.”

Thing is that’s often inconvenient for the parents. Fortunately, it takes very little support to change the life of a young reader.

5 minutes, AM and PM, every_single_day, for as long as it takes.

We saw progress after 15 weeks, about 1,000 minutes of my time.

Roll forward 1,000 days and my kids start each day with 20-minutes of reading.

A year ago, we tacked-on Spanish with a 5 minute daily hurdle. The younger kids started with Spanish School Bus and our oldest with Duolingo.

This summer, we progressed to hour-long classes with an online tutor. The progression seemed natural to the kids. We’re Zooming into Guatemala for the classes.

Five minutes, to 20 minutes, to an hour.

Nobody noticed…

The Power of Incentives is always under-estimated, not just in executive compensation!

I pay for achieving a streak.

The first 100 days of the minimum is worth a $100 gift.

  • Paying off a summer reading streak was how I bought my way into the 20-minutes every morning.
  • With a top-up from his grandparents, my son rolled a 300-day Spanish streak into the lego you see at the top of this section.
  • My daughter did a deal for a guitar by committing to 100 lessons.

Track your streaks, and don’t mess with them!

Positive Cascades Start With Action Before Dawn

I pay attention to what I do before 7am.

There seems to be a positive cascade that results when I can get something useful done before 7am.

If you have kids then getting them on this schedule also makes bedtimes easier => for years, bedtimes were the absolute toughest part of my emotional life.

If you have trouble falling asleep then don’t worry about it. Consistently wake up early and start getting stuff done. Your sleep will sort itself out, or not. Either way, you will be better off.

Back to 37 years of strength training…

Focus on completion, not results.

For my kids => focus on staying in the game, building good habits and playing well with others – it’s easy to peak a kid WAY too early in life.

I’m glad I saved my downhill slide for adulthood… 😉

For myself => Pay attention to what screws up tomorrow.

  • Increasing my hurdle to the point where I get hurt, burnt out or lose interest.
  • Creating a crisis so I skip the minimum.
  • Travel, late-nights

Now that I’m able to look back 30+ years, there isn’t any session, day, week or year that stands out. What made a difference was consistent positive action.

If you miss, or start to dread, the minimum then you’ve set the bar too high.

Two things I learned from watching kids and parents:

  • Less is OK, quitting is not.
  • (Just like us…) kids don’t know what they want.

Back to that cold pool, in the dark, before sunrise… well, sometimes the pool is warm, you’ve had a nice breakfast and you still don’t want to dive in….

How do you deal with that?

With myself, I focus on the result. To get the result, I need to accept what’s required.

What’s required? Action before dawn, or a lower daily target.

With our kids, sometimes we need a little bit of negotiation… we agree to “less” so long as we hit the minimum => of weekly swimming, or daily reading, or whatever our current focus area. With the minimum set at the 1,000-day level, we can maintain a streak without undue strain.

The idea here is to stay in the game, today, while creating an option to become great, later.

By the way, the road to greatness can be different than we imagined (see below).

I often hear athletes say, “I need an event to get out the door.”

Here’s the thing about anything… …for me to do it right, I am tempted to take risks with my health, my relationships and my future.

I’ve found this lesson applies to high-performance everything.

Along with diminishing returns, came increased risks.

As a young man, my one dimensional periods were a mixed bag – athletics, by far, the least harmful of my single-minded earthly pursuits.

Choose Wisely.