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USA’s Michael Phelps competes in the Men’s 200m Individual Medley Semifinal during the swimming event at the 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro

ODD ANDERSENStaff/ADP/Getty Images

Navigating transitions can be both exciting and challenging, at whatever stage you are in your career, as they require you to leave your comfort zone and take a road less traveled. That has certainly been the case for me. In the last several years, I’ve had many different types of roles that have posed challenges I didn’t think I was ready for or would be able to tackle. And they have all provided fantastic opportunities for professional development.

Throughout my career thus far, I have often felt comfortable within a given role and worked with great teams that I really enjoyed, yet I have still continued seeking new challenges. Each time, I’ve felt regret for leaving behind a job that I knew how and loved to do. Yet, deep down, I knew that taking a leap of faith and trying new things would help me develop professionally in ways that I couldn’t even imagine at the time.

It certainly hasn’t always been easy. I’ve found that the road less traveled has been paved with difficult and unexpected obstacles. When I did not think that I could overcome them, I felt small and helpless. But whenever I’ve been faced with professional and personal crossroads, I have kept going and succeeded. And I’ve often done so by referencing the following motivational principles put forth by Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time and one of my heroes. 

Be true to yourself, and embrace failures as opportunities. In one of his interviews, Michael said, “This is me, and this is my journey.” That is a useful guiding principle, highlighting the idea that the path we choose to walk is one that not everyone will understand or agree with, yet we must not fall prey to other people’s views and instead continue to do what we believe is best for us. We have to be true to ourselves and pursue what feels right at that moment, trusting that things will fall into place and that we will learn from our mistakes and emerge even stronger if we keep at it diligently.

As Michael also described, we need to realize that we will fail from time to time in our professional journeys, but that those failures are wonderful opportunities to grow and we should embrace them. Growth can be painful, but the type of pain that we choose to go through for ourselves can also be  the most powerful tool for leveling up, and we should be grateful for it.

Go the extra mile to move ahead. Michael has also spoken about how “the greats do things when they don't always want to, and that’s the separation.” This principle reminds us to celebrate successes along the way and continue to push ourselves and keep going—to meet the opportunities disguised as challenges and develop strong motivational mindsets. In Michael’s words: “There are a lot of people who are very talented who can make it there. There are very few people who can deal with the pressure and stress that happens when we’re there,” and this necessitates being “physically, emotionally and mentally ready.” 

While he was talking about swimming, the lesson is applicable to all sorts of situations when we are under pressure, especially in those important moments in life when we are tested to do our best. Those are often times that result from the culmination of many years of hard work, when everything is riding on that one moment, which is all you have to prove yourself.

In a career development context, that could be an interview for a job you really want. The way you present yourself on that day is all you have, which is why being prepared in multiple ways for that moment —having always gone that extra mile along the way—is crucial.

Surround yourself with inspiring mentors. Even though he won the gold medal one year, Michael said he had to put that behind him to get ready for the next race, knowing that he had multiple other races ahead of him. He described the importance of eating and sleeping the right amount, which aren’t aspects that we often think about in our careers, but are crucial for our professional success.

He especially spoke about his coach, who challenged him and forced him to think differently, and indeed mentors can make a big difference in career advancement in directions that we might want to pursue by summoning us to reach our full potential even when we don’t think we can do it. They instill confidence in our abilities so that we can perform well even in their absence, and continue to push us to new professional heights that we never thought possible. As Michael’s coach did for him, these individuals continue to believe in our abilities even when things get tough, encouraging us to overcome obstacles along the way and celebrating our successes, both big and small.

Believe that the sky is the limit. Michael’s success has been built on his philosophy of no limits. It has guided his entire career, as he describes at length in his book, No Limits: The Will to Succeed. Referencing the Biggie Small song, “The Sky is the Limit,” which he often listened to, Michael said:

“As a kid growing up I believed that. I believed that whatever I put my mind to, and if I was willing to make sacrifices and I was dedicated, that I could achieve absolutely anything. I still do.”

This statement is incredibly inspiring and something that I try to remind myself of every day and live by. I also believe that the limits we encounter are really only those we place upon ourselves. I may be an impractical dreamer at times when it comes to my career trajectory and what’s possible, but this belief has helped push me ahead of the game often when I didn’t think it was possible to go any further or exceed limitations I had placed upon myself to overcome.

Use failures as motivation to succeed. Along his journey to Olympic gold, Michael worked to “define what excellence was” and set goals along the way. That is a vital principle to live by also every day when it comes to career-building. Have concrete goals, and ask yourself how you can continue to be better than you were the day before. In the interview I’ve described, Michael talks about a time when he was upset because he was close to a medal yet ended up in 5th place. He used that to motivate himself to perform better, and the next year, he broke a world record.

Indeed, even from a young age, Michael wanted to “do something the world had never seen” in the sport of swimming and realized that, in order to do that, he had to “do things differently from everyone else.” It is motivating to learn about how he maintained this motivation to keep striving in order to continually improve—and ultimately win so many gold medals. While it takes a special person to have this kind of drive, there is no reason why we can’t aspire to do the same thing in our own careers and continue to push ourselves to do better every day.

To conclude, failing and winning like Michael Phelps within our career journeys can help establish some useful guiding principles and rules to live by when it comes to managing professional failure and success in a balanced way. As for me, I continue to work on being better today than yesterday, while realizing that professional ups and downs can be navigated with optimism, strength and “going all in” to pursue whatever I decide to do next in my career.

So much of this is a mental game. What we tell ourselves can greatly influence how we view our roles along the way, and what we can ultimately achieve. The no-limits mentality can have a major impact on our career trajectories. I recommend that you adopt this mindset and see where it can lead you—how it can help you rise up from difficult moments you might be facing that you don’t think you can overcome. If we live by the principle that there are no limits to our professional accomplishments except those we set for ourselves, we might think differently about our career trajectories, especially when it comes to what we believe about ourselves and how far that can take us on our path.

Adriana Bankston is a policy consultant and the first-ever Congressional Policy Fellow sponsored by the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, cell and developmental biology from Emory University and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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