Showing Up – My Olympic Inspiration, A Minute, A Few Words, An Old T-shirt, Pay It Forward.

“You’re not in the official squad Toby. You don’t get swimmers and uniform.”

This announcement from the head coach was in front of 30 of the best water polo players in the country – some of them my great mates. All of us were striving to be a part of the Sydney Olympics just 2 years away.

We were in the briefing room above the pool at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra for an Australian Men’s water polo training camp with Serbia.

When the coach asked if everyone had their gear, I was the only one who put my hand to say I didn’t.

I was on scholarship, living and training at the AIS at the time. The training block in the lead up had been the hardest I’d ever trained. I’d put everything into it but still hadn’t been selected in the official squad.

It was a completely fair response.

“You can join in the conditioning work and be part of the warm ups. But you won’t be getting game time. You can watch and learn.”

I wanted to crawl into a dark corner and hide.

Showing up

I sucked it up and showed up to the sessions to do what I could.

At the end of the week, everyone was back in the same briefing room. The group was heading to Sydney for official games.

“Does everyone have their travel and accom details?”

I didn’t, so I stuck up my hand again.

You’ll have to make your own arrangements if you’re going to come Toby.”

Another stinger in front of the group.

There wasn’t much point staying in Canberra by myself. So I organised a lift and one of the Sydney squad offered me a bed at his parent’s place. We’d be able to get to the sessions and the official games together.

One of the assistant coaches put me on video duty in Sydney so I recorded the training sessions and practice matches.

Then it was time for the first official game.

A minute, a few words and an old t-shirt

We were out at Homebush Aquatic Centre, built specifically for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This was an important Olympic preparation event. The whole squad was in a room beside the pool running through game strategy. I stood up the back listening.

Dry land warm ups were done then it was time to go poolside.

As I left the room, one of the most senior players grabbed me in the hallway. I’d only known him for about 3 months since he’d returned from playing professionally in Europe. He was at the AIS too and had been in the Australian team for 4 years. He was considered one of the best players in the world.

He took me aside and handed me a shirt with the Australian Water Polo logo on it. It was an older version, but very similar, to the ones the squad had been given.

“I want you to have this. I think you deserve it. I know one day you will be a part of this squad.”

Then he walked out to the pool deck. It was all over in less than a minute.

What stands out is the impact this had on me as a person first and foremost, and by default on my water polo career.

It wasn’t something that I sought out, or could control at all. I couldn’t ask for help with it.

At a time when I just kept on showing up, seriously doubting what I was doing, and seriously doubting whether I would ever be good enough, he took a minute, a few words and an old shirt to inspire me forever.

I didn’t make the Sydney Olympic team, but revisiting that gesture kept me going in the next 6 years in the lead up to Athens.

Paying it forward

I’ve kept looking for the chance to do the same for others whether that’s through a t-shirt or some other modality. I’ve become increasingly aware of the responsibility of the privilege of my experiences and opportunities.

In fact, it’s how I see this writing.

It’s definitely not easy. Sometimes writing feels like open heart surgery. I know I can’t please everyone, every time. But if I hear it’s had an impact, then I’m stoked.

And even if no one reads these articles, then at the very least they force me to reflect and clarify my own thinking. In a way, that means I can’t lose.

So thank you.

I appreciate the fact you’ve read this far. That you might let me know if you found it useful, or share it with a friend or colleague who might, or challenge my thinking.

I plan to keep showing up because I’ve found it’s a way to take a gift, a lesson or a moment in time and pay it forward.

The Challenges Of Asking For Help (And What Can Be Done): Demons, Debt, Listening, Action, Importance and Qualifiers.

Asking for help can feel brutally hard. The higher the stakes, the harder it feels.

Why then, when it seems so simple, is it so hard?

When I deconstruct my own experience in asking for help, I’ve noticed a few patterns.

Demons

Everyone has demons. Here are some of my “friends” that show up when I need to ask for help:

“They’ll find out I’m a fraud.”

“They’ll think I’m desperate.”

“It’s a waste of their time.”

“I’m not good enough.”

“I should have figured this out for myself by now.”

Regardless of the ask, I find the more important the situation feels to me, the more intensely I experience these.

Debt

Debt is another insidious aspect of asking for help – the idea that, even before I ask, I might “owe” this person.

There’s a fascinating book called Debt: The first 5000 years. In it, David Graeber writes about the social and psychological impacts of credit – owing money, favours, work, items to other people.

He writes about the discomfort of obligation that can positively form community relationships or turn sour to toxic behaviour and power dynamics or even the dehumanisation of the debtor.

Listening

I remember sitting in a mentor’s meeting room high in Brisbane’s skyline to ask for help with a new business right when COVID had hit. I felt exposed putting the truth of the challenges on the table. My “friends” were out in force.

To sit with these and then actually listen to the advice was hard.

It’s hard to hear uncomfortable feedback, pointing out obvious things I’d overlooked. It’s a struggle to stay quiet and truly listen rather than make myself feel better and smarter by going through all the things I’ve already tried.

I had my notebook and pen ready to go.

I know having an agenda, script and key questions is best practice. But on this occasion I didn’t. I was struggling to even find the right question to ask.

So I needed to be present and stay present to have a chance of hearing what I was looking for.

Action

I’ve been blown away by some of the counsel I’ve received from incredible people by simply asking for their help.

This is where debt plays out. Because if I’m going to ask for help, then I better be ready to do something with it.

This is the hardest part. Because it means I’m going to have to change. I’ll need to do something differently and I know in advance that’ll take effort and energy.

To that end, I try my best to do two things once I’ve asked for help:

  1. Send a thank you email/text/note/gift to the helper. Different scenarios and relationships require different gestures.
  2. Keep the helper in the loop of any progress made on the back of their advice even if it’s a dead end.

I’ve found that if I’m truly willing to do the work, then this is the best way for me to repay the debt and clear the sense of obligation.

It’s also helped me build some amazing relationships.

Importance

I’ve been fortunate. I unknowingly stumbled across asking for help a long time ago.

I’m a nerd at heart. In year 12 maths, I asked my teacher if they’d be willing to help me for 20 mins before school. They were. Every week. I put in the work and had my best results.

I had some great water polo coaches throughout my career to the Olympics. Each had strengths and weaknesses. My realization though, was that if I had a specific challenge, then I needed a specific answer.

When I wanted to put on muscle, I didn’t speak to my water polo coach. I spoke to my strength coach, Chris Gaviglio a discus and shot put guy who had put on more weight, faster than anyone else I knew.

When I was excruciatingly nervous before my first world championships in Fukuoka Japan in 2001, I asked my captain, Nathan Thomas how he dealt with it. He’d played Olympics, world championships and professional club competitions internationally. I learned from his pre-game routines.

When I wanted to improve my swimming speed and endurance, I went to train with Shannon Rollason, the coach of Jodie Henry and Alice Mills – some of Australia’s fastest swimmers at the time.

My observation here is that, in each of these examples, there was clear importance for me. Reconnecting to importance is a powerful way to work with the obstacles that stop me asking for help. (You might find this 3 min Momentum exercise useful.)

Qualifiers

Asking for help is one of my favourite life/time/productivity hacks.

And sometimes any help is good help.

But not all help is equal. So who should I ask?

Here are my qualifying criteria:

  1. I trust and admire their work.
  2. I trust and admire them as people.
  3. They have already done specifically what I am trying to do.

It’s not about saving an hour here or there. It’s about saving me potentially years to get to the outcome I’m looking for.

It all seems pretty obvious, but being specific about the challenge I face and then finding the specific person best in a position to help me, has accelerated my learning enormously. It would be nearly impossible to quantify how many hours this saved me as a student, athlete, entrepreneur, father, husband – in any role really.

And it’s not always necessary for it to be in person. In fact it can be as simple as finding the book, podcast, video from someone who fits those same criteria then doing the work.

Because now, even knowing the discomfort in advance, I’ve come to realise that for me to make progress, it’s just too important not to ask for help.

“Who Am I?” (v15,493) – How To Regain Momentum In 3 Mins

If you’re anything like me, you might like to just get straight to the “how to” part.


So here it is.


I’ll explain the backstory afterwards.

Regaining Momentum

As an experiment, I’ve tried this exercise recently with people feeling stuck in different situations: intense negotiations, family troubles, stepping down from their business and assessing job opportunities.


They found it useful. I hope you do too.



Do What Matters Exercise [3 mins]

  1. Open up a new note on your phone.

  2. Title it Daily Practice.

  3. Write in a sub header: Do What Matters

  4. Then allow yourself only 30 seconds to write your responses to each of the 6 questions below in the note you just created.

[NB: I say 30 secs for 2 reasons – firstly to stop perfectionism taking over, secondly to get you up and running as quickly as possible. You don’t need perfect answers here. If you don’t know an answer just write something down. Something is infinitely better than nothing. In my experience, you’ll have a very good gut sense of what matters to you. You can always refine it later.]

Questions (copy these directly into your note)

  1. What are your values?

  2. Who is important to you?
    It can be specific people or groups of people. An important note: I find people often don’t include themselves. This is an exercise in self awareness. Without you, there are no other relationships. So please make sure your name is on the list.

  3. What is important to you?
    This can be broad or specific. They might be goals or more generalised concepts. Up to you.

  4. What is your purpose?
    If you don’t have one, take a guess.

  5. What would you willingly do for free?

  6. What energises you?

Then check this note ideally every day or, if not, then at least whenever you’re feeling stuck.

Add to it and edit it as you see fit. Then use it to guide your decisions and actions.


That’s it.


[If you choose to give this a crack, please let me know how you go in the comments or contact me directly.]



I’ve found that connecting to importance is a pathway to regaining a sense of momentum. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. Other times acceptance and mindfulness are a required part of the process too.


Bringing some definition to who I am and then reconnecting with it helps me create an internal locus of control and helps me distinguish between my reaction to the situation (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can).

The Backstory

When I resigned recently, I was trying to decide what to do next. I had identified so strongly with my role in my business that when that was removed, I felt I’d lost a part of my identity. I felt stuck.


“Who am I?”
wasn’t a question I could easily answer.


When I did begin to think about it, there was a risk of my response becoming a philosophical swamp.


I opted for extreme utility instead.

Decoupling

I drew this sketch one day and it helped me to think about the situation.

Obviously, the circle in the middle represents who I am.


The radiating lines represent, at a macro level, the expression of who I am into the relationships I have in the world as a husband, father, friend, coach, founder, colleague and into various areas of my life – work, spirituality, health, fitness, social, leisure etc.


At a micro level, a line might represent the expression of who I am into very specific situations like a difficult conversation or my choice to do my work outs at home rather than going to a gym.


(I realised through COVID that the opportunity to train at home was in service of role modelling exercise for my daughters. This has been the single most important factor that has helped me stick to my strength and mobility program.)


Seeing things in this way allows me to decouple who I am from what I do.


It also allows me to choose how I engage in these various activities.

Definition

Once the decoupling became apparent, the next step was to bring some definition to answering “Who am I?”. (Some would say there is no “I”, but that’s for another conversation.)


There are a myriad of ways to do that and I’ve tried a bunch.


Values finders, strengths finders, psychometric profiling, vision building tools etc. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of rabbit holes. Some reports really resonated. But more often, they have ended up buried as attachments in my email, never to be seen again.


The other challenge with these exercises is that they can take a long time. The time investment becomes a barrier to getting started and a barrier to putting the insights into practice. And to me, that’s where all the value is created.


So 8 weeks ago, rather than starting from a blank page, I opted to grab what I had – my values and a vision statement that I’d done in past exercises. I hadn’t created the Do What Matters exercise at that point.


I added them to a note to reflect on each day before I started work.

Editable

I found myself editing that note most days or simply highlighting parts that didn’t sit well or I felt needed updating. I also added some things like purpose and behavioural principles.


By having it editable, I’d stumbled across an empowering insight: I have the chance to change it every day if I choose; to make it more of who I am; to remove parts that no longer fit.

What my note currently looks like

This is different to how your note will have turned out. I didn’t have that exercise structure when I started this.

It absolutely captures the essence of my responses to those questions though. They’ve just been captured and rewritten in a different format.

Feel free to copy this too if you’d prefer to use this as a starting point. I’ll leave up to you.

Daily Practice

Version 15,493 [NB: I’ll explain this next]

Do What Matters

Purpose

  • To build a better world by helping people bring all of who they are to everything they do.

Values

  • Love ❤️
  • Gratitude 🙏
  • Humility 🌱
  • Exploration 🌌
  • Contribution 🌅

Vision

I earn respect by being deeply connected to my family, friends, work and life; by exploring ways to bring all of me to everything I do and helping others do the same.

People say that I am humble and a voracious learner; that I integrate all parts of life; that I’ve connected them with fascinating people and had a tonne of fun together.

I build trust by doing what matters; acknowledging when I’m wrong; listening and asking questions first; sharing my stories; living my strengths and walking my talk.

The highest standards I uphold are characterised by focus, patience, reflection and action.

My legacy will be that I loved deeply and was loved in return; that I impacted the lives of my family, friends and millions globally; that I made the world a better place; that I had an impact on the grand challenges of our time; that I contributed far more to humanity’s pool than I took away.

Behavioural Principles

  • Committed action I am all in. I bring all of me to everything I do. It’s hell yeah or not at all. Pressure, stress, fear, vulnerability are the price of entry.

  • Ideas are free, strategy + execution is everything. I pause and consider then execute fast to test and learn.

  • Do what matters I manage priorities not time. Importance is my compass, as is fear. Time is non-renewable.

Version 15,493

A few weeks after I’d resigned, a friend asked me: “How’s Toby 2.0 going?”.


It was the editability of the note that made me think that this wasn’t really version Toby 2.0.


How many versions had there actually been?


I realised that this note was an imperfect but workable definition of who I am today. And that there have been thousands of versions prior and hopefully many more to come.


I really like the idea of being an architect of who I am, so I found a calculator (link below) that would tell me how many days I’ve been alive.


Turns out it’s 15,493.


If versioning happens daily, and assuming I make it, then tomorrow I’ll be at version 15,494.


I realised that the work of being myself is never done, it doesn’t have to be perfect and I can always update it tomorrow as I reflect and learn.


Until death that is.


I find that liberating.



Associated Links

Calculator

Other posts about transition