Thursday, 7 January 2016


On July 10, I was in Athens to address the Management Team of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Normally, after giving a talk I can sit down, hopefully enjoy the applause and relax, knowing that my job has been done. In this particular case, I was truly amazed by what I heard from the person who spoke after me who was also the person who hired me, Mr. Roberto Greco – GSK Vice-President, President and General Manager Greece – Cluster Area Director Adriatics. From the first second of his address to the very last sentence, Roberto kept me riveted to my chair.
He spoke about freediving, using it as an analogy for going forward in life. Freediving means diving on a single breath of air, without using equipment that would make it possible to breathe underwater. Theoretically, it is something we can all do. After all, for the first 9 months of our lives, we humans exist in an aquatic environment very similar to seawater. If an infant is submerged under water, it instinctively holds its breath for up to 40 seconds while making swimming motions. For some reason, we seem to lose this ability as soon as we start walking.
The oldest archaeological evidence that confirms human breath hold diving dates back to at least 5400 BC. On the Mediterranean coast, freediving was a regular practice during the classic ages, as evidenced by plenty of Greek myths and legends, while in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the desire for pearls and other aquatic goods fuelled freediving activities for centuries. Even now, Japanese and Korean female divers still use a technique that is at least 2,000 years old, holding rocks to take them to the bottom of the sea where they pick up shells and seaweed.
That’s all very interesting, you may say, but why should anyone want to give such information to a group of pharmaceutical company managers? Surely not to encourage them to go diving for pearls! No, Roberto Greco’s message was all about pushing boundaries and he used the example of freediving to illustrate it. In particular, he talked about Enzo Maiorca who, in the 1960s, prompted the first major development of what was still a virtually unknown sport, which he would dominate for the next 25 years. In 1962, Maiorca determined to become the first person to reach and breach the fateful 50 metres barrier, despite predictions from scientists that beyond 50 metres, the human lungs would collapse from the pressure! Maiorca dismissed their claims and then repeatedly proved them wrong by increasing his depths and setting no fewer than 17 world records.
Meanwhile, in 1966 Frenchman Jacques Mayol appeared on the scene and he would soon be the first to dive to 100 metres with a single breath. So much for scientists and medical experts! The two men subsequently found international fame through Luc Besson’s 1988 movie The Big Blue, a beautiful, albeit heavily fictionalized depiction of Maiorca and Mayol’s 20-year rivalry, which is still considered the best visual representation of the “Zen” of freediving. It is worth noting that, despite their impressive achievements, the current world record is an astonishing 214 metres, held by the Austrian Herbert Nitsch.
Maiorca and Mayol are fine examples of people who were willing to push their boundaries, believing that those boundaries existed to be tested, stretched and broken. We all have our own comfort zone – a behavioural space where our activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security and we benefit from low anxiety and reduced stress. But if we want to progress and improve, we need to challenge ourselves. Where we have boundaries, we should not simply accept them but push them.
How to push your boundaries
  1. When you think you have done enough, do more 
Larry Bird is one of the greatest basketball players of all time and, like all champions, he worked and trained hard at his sport. When everyone else had finished a training session, he would stay behind to practise some more. He once said, “I don’t know if I practised more than anybody but I sure practised enough. I still wonder if somebody somewhere was practising more than me.” You can be sure that if he had found that person, he would not only have equalled his rival’s hours of practice and exceeded them.
  1. Suffer now, enjoy later
The ancient Spartans are credited with the saying “The more you sweat in training, the less you will bleed in battle,”  and warriors and sportsmen are probably the best models when it comes to persistence and striving to achieve their goals, even though they may not enjoy the process. Muhammad Ali, the legendary heavyweight boxer said, “I hated every minute of training but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” So, whatever your situation, if you wish to improve it or yourself, push your boundaries, even if it’s painful.
  1. Be prepared to be surprised
It’s easy to think that champions in any field have somehow been blessed with a talent that requires no polishing, no practice and no sweat. If you think this, you could not be more mistaken. Take Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese striker has been named FIFA World Player of the Year on three occasions (2008, 2013, 2014) and is one of the best-known, most admired and instantly recognisable footballers in the world. Last year Jese Rodriguez, who has made no secret of his admiration for Ronaldo, tweeted this message: “I remember the first time when I went to Real Madrid’s training, I got there 2 hours earlier to impress my coach but when I got there I was surprised to see Cristiano already training.”
If one of the greatest players in the world thinks that he needs to train harder, what’s our excuse?
  1. Say yes
Another boxer, Jack Dempsey, who reigned long before Muhammad Ali was even born (he was world champion from 1919-1926) put it succinctly: “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”
In other words, when every part of you is saying “No”, you tell yourself “Yes!”
Coming back to the subject of freediving, it’s interesting that records for holding one’s breath for the longest time are set in water because people can hold their breath twice as long underwater they can on land. The reason: the “diving reflex” by which the body slows its heart rate and metabolism in order to conserve oxygen and energy when submerged in cold water. The world record for holding your breath is 11 minutes, 35 seconds for men (Stéphane Mifsud, 2009) and 8 minutes, 23 seconds for women (Natalia Molchanova, 2011). For most of us, 2 minutes is the limit but for these people, pushing boundaries is the biggest challenge.
You don’t have to be a freediver or a sporting champion to push your boundaries. It’s all about character and aspirations. If you care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible, then you are likely to be one of those people who is willing to push boundaries as far as they will go… and you will!

Written by:
Michael R. Virardi
Trainer | Speaker | Author

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