- By Kerry Hannon
My Facebook and Twitter feed was ablaze last night with shout-outs to Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old endurance swimmer, who vanquished the fearsome Florida Straits and finished a daunting 52-hour, 54-minute, 18.6-second, 110-mile swim from Cuba to Key West.
One fiftysomething female pal posted, “You're never too old to chase your dreams…." Another said, “I turn 55 on Sunday, and she has inspired me beyond belief!”
Diana Nyad's 'Xtreme Dream'
The first person to have accomplished this feat without fins or a shark cage, Nyad is an inspiration to all of us boomers, especially women. She’d been trying to complete this challenge for 35 years, failing four times previously. On her website, Nyad called it her “Xtreme Dream.”
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In fact, I think her magnificent achievement offers important career lessons for women in midlife.
Despite the naysayers who thought she was too old to complete the swim (and not just because of venomous jellyfish and the potential for fearsome sharks), Nyad proved that persistence, willpower and fierce dedication to your dreams can trump age.
Her 3 Messages to the World
When she hit the shore, Nyad spoke from the heart: “I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”
That’s a perfect triad of advice for so much of what we aspire to do in life.
7 Career Lessons for Boomer Women
But, putting on my career expert hat, here are seven lessons boomer women can learn from Nyad’s breathtaking swim:
1. Be prepared for setbacks. Nyad put in four years of arduous training and meticulous planning to deal with health and safety problems she knew she could encounter.
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Lay the proper groundwork to achieve your career goals, anticipating what could thwart them and coming up with appropriate Plan Bs.
This is especially key if you hope to switch careers in midlife. I’ve found that those who succeed are typically the ones who have planned and pursued prudent, well-researched moves.
Incidentally, during Nyad’s swim, she mentally sang to herself the Beatles’ "Paperback Writer," which includes these apt lyrics about persistence: Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look?
2. Don’t be afraid to fail. Achieving a career goal that requires a leap of faith usually takes spirit, strength and a thirst to find meaning in life. Nyad demonstrated that brilliantly.
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Each time she had to abort this swim previously, Nyad declared it would be her last. But she then went back into the water to try again. Her personal pursuit was unshakeable.
You won’t always succeed when trying to land a job, get a promotion, score a raise, execute a project or launch a venture. But you can’t let that possibility stop you from making the attempt. And, of course, you'll learn from your mistakes and failures along the way.
3. Ask for help. To paraphrase Nyad, moving ahead in your career, as she did in the Florida Straits, “takes a team.” It’s critical to have encouraging mentors, networking contacts, colleagues, family members and friends who can encourage you and suggest ideas to help you succeed — especially if you’re considering taking a dramatic dive and switching careers. Don’t be shy about requesting advice from them.
After each try, Nyad consulted with experts on how best to finish the swim the next time. After her attempt two years ago was foiled by an asthma attack, for example, she invited a pulmonologist to join her 35-member support team.
4. Take advantage of the latest technology. For this swim, Nyad wore a special suit to shield her from jellyfish and applied a gel that helped keep their venom from penetrating her skin.
The shark divers who swam ahead of her carried zappers to ward off the predators.
You probably won’t need such accouterments for your job or your next one. But there are undoubtedly new software programs, websites and social networks that you should know. If you’re not up to speed, take a class at a community college or online to become comfortable with essential technology.
5. Stay in shape. Nyad reportedly never felt her failures were about her physical training, but the things she couldn’t control, such as stinging jellyfish and strong currents.
When you eat healthfully and follow a workout regimen, you’ll boost your physical vigor and mental sharpness. As a result, you’ll have the necessary get-up-and-go to face career challenges ahead. You’ll also present yourself better as a job candidate, preventing hiring managers from thinking you’d lack the stamina to excel at work.
6. Look to your heart for guidance. Nyad followed her own, pushing past setbacks and pursuing her passion every stroke along the way.
As New York City–based career coach Maggie Mistal writes, “Most of us assume that the way to find a job is to see what’s available in job listings or to select a career based on someone’s advice, but these often lead to unfulfilling choices. It is in our hearts that we should seek guidance about finding career paths that lead to long-term success and happiness.”
7. Remember to give thanks. Despite her exhaustion and salt-swollen tongue and lips, Nyad paused two miles from shore to thank her crew. According to her website, Nayad told them, “This is a lifelong dream of mine, and I'm very very glad to be with you. Some on the team are the most intimate friends of my life, and some of you I've just met. But I'll tell you something: You're a special group. You pulled through; you are pros and have a great heart. So let's get going so we can have a whopping party.”
Nyad’s words suggest that although swimming is a deeply solitary pursuit, even athletes like her rarely accomplish their goals alone.
Her praise offers a good reminder that when you complete a project at work, you should send a similar message of gratitude to your colleagues. It’s not just the right thing to do; offering thanks today will also carve a path to the career support you'll need in the future.