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Forget willpower: How to achieve more for your business

Debra Searle

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Much of our success (and failure!) in business comes down to the mindset with which we approach our daily challenges and future business goals. A novice rower, Searle rowed 3,000 miles alone across the Atlantic, acquiring tools and strategies that she still relies on today to grow her businesses. In this session, Searle focuses on the practical ways we can stop relying on willpower and start implementing daily habits that allow us to make major changes in our businesses.

“Husband Abandons Wife Mid-Atlantic”—a headline I learned to live with. And quotes of the week: “Are you still married?” “Not woman of his dreams.”

I promise that I am not here to talk about my ex-husband! But this journey changed everything for me, especially my career.

That one key decision, to continue alone, changed my life forever, because it taught me that I could set seemingly impossible goals—and achieve them—and it gave me the mindset tools and strategies to overcome what seemed initially like an impossible goal. More people had been to the moon!

It also taught me that willpower alone is not enough! “I will be more positive today,” is just not sustainable over 111 days alone at sea or even one day at work.

So, for the three and a half months I was alone out there, I spent a lot of time working on mastering my mindset and developing a load of mindset tools and strategies that would keep me motivated, keep the oars in motion, and keep me sane in what was an incredibly stressful situation to have put myself in.

These mindset mastery tools were simply helping me to do one thing. That made all the difference and continues to make all the difference as I grow my businesses now. Do you want to know what that one thing was? They helped me to control my thinking.

Thinking affected the way I felt, and this, in turn, affected my actions and productivity. It’s not a difficult concept, but is hard to do without the right armory of mindset mastery tools. We’ve got to personally know what works for us.

This equation sums it up: think–feel‒act = result.

Since our thoughts connect directly to our feelings, and, in turn, the way we feel affects our actions, we can deduce that, in order to change even one aspect of our actions or our performance, we must first start by changing the way we think.

The research into top performers—those who excel in their chosen field—suggests this division: Eighty-five percent of their success is due to mindset—confidence, resilience, self-belief, and determination—and only 15 percent of their success could be attributed to their skill level.

Yet, as business people, we probably have the numbers the other way around when it comes to where we put our energy and budget when trying to grow revenue.

So I’d love to share eight of those mindset mastery tools and strategies, by taking you on this Atlantic rowing journey and showing you the birth of each of them, how I used them at sea, and how I have applied them to my business life. Because, for me, they have been crucial in helping me launch and grow four businesses.

This is where the journey started—Tenerife.

When we entered the 3,000-mile Atlantic rowing race, I’m fairly sure the other competitors didn’t see us as a threat:

  • We were the only mixed-sex team.
  • I had never rowed before.

I’d picked a great partner in Andrew, though, as he is six foot five. I’d had plenty of expedition experience, and we believed we had the right combination of skills to win the race.

There was a big storm on the first night, so it was a huge mistake to do nearly all of our training on the River Thames in London. But, in the chaos of that night, I discovered something: I loved it.

Unfortunately, we discovered something else that night: Andrew suffers from a condition that is hard to put a name to, but, in essence, it was like a crippling phobia of the open ocean.

Over the next several days, his mental and physical conditions deteriorated rapidly. But, of course, that left me with a decision: Do I carry on alone, or do I give up and get onto the rescue yacht?

There was so much to consider that this change in our plans had thrown up. Stress bubbles: I could get run over by a supertanker while I was sleeping, or get attacked by a shark, or get washed out of the boat by a wave and I’d never catch back up to the boat.

I started running this movie in my head where I saw myself confidently carrying on alone—Top Gun—the “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” scene. Embellishing—Xena: Warrior Princess— wind in my hair, rippling muscles.

It gave me the courage to go for it and take a risk.

Continuing alone was a seemingly impossible goal. But by running the positive movie of Andrew leaving, it helped me plan and prepare for that moment, and, consequently, I felt in control of both my emotions and my actions. It gave me confidence to go for it.

I felt like I could just press “Play.” I have found this to be a brilliant technique to use when I’m getting stressed about anything. The key is, I always see the reasons for saying no and see myself dealing with them perfectly.

Three other men went solo, but didn’t make it. It didn’t matter because I believed. I believed that so passionately.

My routine was two hours on, two hours off, with 20 minutes of sleep. I took a tour of the boat—no washing, no loo. Bucket and chuck it.

My thoughts:

  • Beauty
  • Whales
  • Sharks
  • Turtles—30 forward and 40 back
  • We started in October. The first team won in November, and I still had 2,000 miles to go.
  • Hurricanes—sleep deprivation

Each one is attached to a great memory:

  • Awesome ski holiday
  • Special weekend away
  • Girls’ night out
  • Family holiday

So, if, like me, you sometimes struggle to choose the right mindset, then we have to rely on outside stimulus to help us. You see, it’s actually very difficult to even make it to work with a great mindset fully intact.

Think about it—you get in the car, and you start driving to work. What do you do next? Put on the radio? Make some calls?

How’s the traffic making you feel? Is road work causing you to make really slow progress, and how is that making you feel, especially when you finally pass the road work and there is not a single builder in sight?

Or is there standing room only on the train or the bus because you were late getting the kids out the door for school, so you missed your opportunity to get the earlier, quieter service?

Maybe your journey is going fine. No traffic. Flying along. Listening to the radio playing some great tunes. Then, the news comes on—a horrific report that immediately makes you think, What if that was my child?

How do you feel then? It has a big impact on your think‒feel‒act equation. You’re so stressed before you even reach the customers building.

My mindset, and attitude, is so important to the success of my goals that I feel the need to protect it.

If I am going to win business, then I need to have the right mindset, and this is a very simple way to take control of it. That’s why I use a memory songs playlist.

I never wanted to row this alone. It was a change I didn’t want. But life is full of unexpected changes that we don’t want—for some that might be Brexit or Trump or changes in our workplace or a parent getting cancer.These things put us outside our comfort zone.

Alone in the Atlantic, coping with the constant stress of living and reacting to these conditions, was a hard place to be. I was driven further outside my comfort zone than I ever thought would be feasible to survive. But I did it, and here is what I found.

When we are pushed outside our comfort zone, if we stick at it, the comfort zone always shifted to where we are, and I have found this to be true of every situation since. Plus, outside our comfort zone is where we innovate and learn something new and where we grow in confidence.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got, and I didn’t want that way of life anymore. I was prepared to spend more time working outside of my comfort zone to get it, because the Atlantic had taught me that the comfort would always shift toward me.

Coming back with this attitude resulted in more than I could even dream of:

  • Expeditions = Bruce Parry and Ellen AacArthur
  • Shared a stage with some incredible people
  • TV presenter
  • Two books published
  • Speak to thousands of people a week
  • Buckingham Palace to sit on board of director for Duke of Edinburgh
  • Cofounded The Business Women’s Network Forum at Buckingham Palace
  • Hollywood film in development

So I’m OK, I’m really OK with unexpected changes to the plan these days, because if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

After two months of dealing with these life-threatening dangers alone, it wore me down. I hit rock bottom just before Christmas and spent a great deal of time crying. I called the team back home. Christmas alone—I made it happen at sea in a bikini and Santa hat! Loneliness—I was just so lonely. Text messages, free words, had the power to keep me going. What lengths would I be prepared to go to? Would I get a Christmas parcel to a customer in the middle of the Atlantic or the land-based equivalent? I certainly aspire to now. The shore team set a benchmark for the lengths I should be prepared to go to. And I aspired to use my free words more positively.

Visualization—the family on quayside. What would it feel like? What an incredible moment. I was the only one who made it solo.

There is one final mindset strategy that I wanted to share, and it’s probably the one I used the most. Because this was the only thing out there that I truly had a choice about. I had every reason to have a rotten attitude—it was dreadful out there. Choosing my attitude each morning helped me take control of that think‒feel‒act equation.

As I said at the beginning, since our thoughts connect directly to our feelings, and, in turn, the way we feel affects our actions, we can deduce that, in order to change even one aspect of our actions and the resulting performance, we must first start by changing the way we think.

So let me ask you: Which of these might help you change the way you think?

  1. Running movies before a key event so that I don’t jump at the scary bits and I’m more in control of my performance
  2. Having an alter ego to give me a confidence boost
  3. Maintaining my passionate belief even when surrounded by doubters
  4. Using memory songs to ensure that I’m in the right mindset when I walk through the door
  5. Finding ways to be innovative when everything was changing and I was outside my comfort zone, then sticking at it and waiting for the comfort zone to shift
  6. Absorbing those free words—pay it forward now—and planning the free words I’ll use to make me look for the positives in the actions of my colleagues
  7. Playing an arrival scene movie to keep me pushing on toward the goal
  8. Finding and committing to using a trigger that reminded me to choose my attitude each morning

Because, as I said before, I don’t think willpower works. It’s not sustainable. We have to find the mindset tools that personally work for us.

What’s the alternative? I guess that you leave here and do nothing different, but remember: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The studies show that 85 percent of the attributes of top performers are mindset orientated, not skill related.

None of these take more than a few minutes, and they cost absolutely nothing, yet they totally allow me to support myself rather than sabotaging myself with negative thinking, and I believe that is true of all of us.

If we can learn to control our thinking and choose the right attitude, anything, absolutely anything, is possible.

Debra Searle has launched three companies, won World Championship medals for Great Britain, presented more than 40 programs for the BBC and become the youngest ever trustee of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. She runs a diversity training and consultancy business and is passionate about helping organizations maximize the opportunities present in a diverse workforce and customer base.


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