I just knew I wanted to go to the Olympic Games. In reflection, I would say that I was trying to prove something to myself. I think that ultimately, I was trying to prove that I was enough.
It was great to be a guest on Jeff Bullas’ podcast recently.
Jeff is an online entrepreneur, influencer, author and speaker on all things digital. He has been featured on Forbes as a “Top 20 Influencer of Chief Marketing Officers” and ranked #1 Global “Digital Marketing Influencer”. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Inc., and Huffington Post. Having built a social media tribe of over 700k followers, he now advises startups on marketing and influencer strategy.
Jeff and I met back in my Bluewire Media marketing days and have become great friends, sharing highs and lows of our journeys both personally and professionally.
In this interview we cover a bit of ground:
The three questions that have guided my professional journey.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
So I needed to be present and stay present to have a chance of hearing what I was looking for.
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:
Send a thank you email/text/note/gift to the helper. Different scenarios and relationships require different gestures.
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.
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.
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.)
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:
I trust and admire their work.
I trust and admire them as people.
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.