Aug. 1, 2008
Unless you live on another planet (and that planet lacks a satellite dish), you probably heard that Michael Phelps broke Mark Spitz unbreakable Olympic by winning eight gold medals. Call it The Great Haul of China.
Unless you live on another planet (and that planet lacks a satellite dish), you probably heard that Michael Phelps broke Mark Spitz’ unbreakable Olympic record by winning eight gold medals. Call it “The Great Haul of China.” I was caught up in the drama. I think most people were. Busy preparing to recruit new Kappas, my college aged daughter missed her favorite events, the gymnastics. But she said the whole sorority stopped everything to watch Phelps. I found Phelps was not only impressive in the pool, but out of the water, in front of the camera, answering numerous inane questions from panting reporters. He answered all with patience and poise. Watching the interviews and reading the online papers, I noted a number of life and business lessons. This is part one of a four part series where I will discuss life and business lessons from America’s latest sports hero. 1. Overnight Successes Never Are. Okay, I admit to living under a rock four years ago. I recall nothing from the Athens Olympics. I never heard of Michael Phelps until a few weeks ago. It seemed like he came from nowhere, an overnight success. But wait, Phelps won six Golds and eight total medals four years ago. Yikes! How could I miss that? So he was an overnight success four years ago! Nope. This is his third Olympics. For most of his life Phelps has been working to become an overnight sensation. Are you laying the foundation for a decades old business that will one day be considered an overnight success? 2. ADHD Need Not Limit You.Phelps was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder as a kid. “I remember my English teacher,” Phelps said, “I think it was in middle school, saying, ‘You'll never be successful.’” I guess it all depends on how you measure success. Upon receiving the ADHD diagnosis, Phelps mother, Debbie decided to prove everyone wrong. “I knew that, if I collaborated with Michael, he could achieve anything he set his mind to,” she said. Debbie refused to make excuses herself or to allow others to make them. “Whenever a teacher would say, ‘Michael can’t do this,’ I’d counter with, ‘Well, what are you doing to help him?’” Debbie used her son’s interests to focus him. When he complained about reading, she gave him the newspaper sports section and books about sports. When he struggled with math, she hired a tutor and instructed the tutor to frame word problems in swimming and other sports terms. When he became frustrated at a swim meet, she explained the importance of sportsmanship (it’s as important as winning). By sixth grade Phelps asked his mother to cease his medication. ADD and ADHD characterize a lot of contractors. Yet, it only limits those who let it. If you have ADD, maybe you lack the patience for some tasks, maybe you lack the patience to endure an unendurable corporate meeting. That’s not a big loss. And, as contractor Dave Squires says, ADD can result in more creativity and when people with ADD are interested in something, they can focus like a laser. That’s certainly been my experience. People with ADD and ADHD need a positive outlet where they can direct their extra energy. For Phelps, it was swimming. For contractors, it can be the frenetic pace of the contracting business. In fact, I would venture to presume that ADD and ADHD are well suited for the contracting world. Certainly there have been few limits on the number of highly successful contractors who share the traits. If you have ADD or ADHD, are you channeling your energy in a positive direction? Are you hiring people to perform the tasks you lack the patience to tackle? 3. Top Performers Help Those Around Them Get Better.Phelps brings out the best in others. It’s not just that he performs so well and works so hard others want to emulate him, he’s genuinely supportive of his teammates. Marianne Limpert, a Canadian Olympian who swam on his elite team in Baltimore said, “'Before I started training with him, I had of course heard about Michael. I thought he would be this swim automaton, you know, a really humorless person. But he's a really good teammate. He pays attention to other people. He knows when somebody needs encouragement. He jokes around. Most of the time, to tell you the truth, he's just this big goof.” When 32 year old Jason Lezak swam the leg of his life to come from behind and overtake the nudge Alain Bernard, the world record holding, trash talking French swimmer from the top of the platform in the freestyle relay, Lezak was swimming with inspiration while Phelps and the rest of the relay team cheered him on. He recorded the fastest split in the history of the relay. He swam beyond himself. No doubt, Lezak swam for himself. But then, he swam for himself before and since without winning the Gold or performing at the same level. How are you supporting your team? When the chips are down and you need them, will they perform beyond themselves? 4. Dream Big.When Phelps was just a kid, not even a teenager his coach, Bob Bowman, called his parents into a meeting. He explained that their son was exceptional. He had the potential to contend for medals in the 2004 Olympics and would start breaking world records soon afterwards. By 2012, if not sooner Phelps would be the best swimmer in the world. Bowman was dreaming big, but Phelps had to catch the dream. He did. Phelps said, “If you dream as big as you can dream, anything is possible.” Phelps dreamed of Gold, and then dreamed of surpassing Mark Spitz’ seven Gold medals from the same Olympics. “With so many people saying it couldn't be done,” he commented, “All it takes is an imagination, and that's something I’ve learned and something that helped me.” What are your dreams? Are you listening to people say something can’t be done or are you dreaming big? 5. Hug Mom.When George Bush called Phelps to congratulate him, he counseled Michael, “Give your mom a big hug for me.” Phelps did. After winning his last Gold, Phelps told the reporter who stuck a microphone in his face, “I don't even know what to feel right now. There's so much emotion going through my head and so much excitement. I kind of just want to see my mom.” He gave his mother and sisters hugs and kisses. When was the last time you hugged Mom? And what about Dad? Have you forgotten him? Matt Michelis president of the Service Roundtable (, an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at You can contact him directly at [email protected]. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at [email protected].