It’s been a treat to watch Michael Phelps’ stellar performance this week at the Rio Olympics.

From cruising through the water at mach speed, to genuine emotion on the gold medal stand with the national anthem playing and flag being raised, to affection for his family once the festivities were over. It’s been epic.

While we’ve been enjoying the glossy “made for TV” version, it’s important to remember that there’s always more to the story than what we’re shown. And as I’ve read more about Michael Phelps, it’s clear that there are important lessons we can learn from his career that can help us in our own.

Here are five that I’ve learned.

Play into your strengths

As a friend observed yesterday, Michael Phelps is blessed with a physique that is perfect for swimmers: his arm span is the equivalent of someone 6’9” tall, his torso is equivalent to that of a 6’5” tall person, while his legs are akin to someone who stands 5’11”. All of which contributes to being a “natural” in competitive swimming.

In other careers, the same idea holds true. You’ll have more success when you choose something that plays into your strengths.

If you’re naturally persuasive, that lends itself to sales or other client related paths. If you’re naturally curious, then perhaps journalism or scientific research could be natural callings.

Don’t do what I did back in college. At 5’2” and 110 pounds, I insisted on trying out for crew as one of the rowers. In retrospect, I would have been a natural as a coxswain – the light person who sits at the front of the boat and keeps everyone rowing in time.

Life throws up enough obstacles that it makes sense to lean into our areas of strength when it comes to our careers.

Do the work

Even when you’re a “natural”, you’ve got to work hard. I can only imagine how many hours Michael Phelps must have logged in the pool and the gym over decades of training. To achieve excellence, you can’t rely on pure talent or your natural gifts.

The same holds true in our corporate careers. We’ve all seen people who had the native intelligence to do more and to advance, but simply didn’t want to do the work to keep learning and growing.

Be one of those people who keeps working on being better.

Remember, you can’t control the outcome of who will win the race or the promotion. You can only control the work you do to prepare.

Be willing to experiment

The press picked up on some red circles on Michael Phelps’ back and shoulder. Turns out he and several other Olympians have been trying out an ancient Chinese therapy for pain relief, even though it hasn’t been proven scientifically.

While some have scoffed at this approach, and even wondered whether there’s a placebo effect going on, it’s the result that matters.

In a career setting, that same open mindedness to exploring possibilities and experimenting with new methods and new ways of thinking is how breakthroughs are made.

If you keep thinking conventional thoughts and taking conventional actions, you’ll get conventional outcomes.

Take the high road

When a longtime rival “trash talked” Michael Phelps during the U.S. National Championships, and questioned his ability to compete in the Rio Olympics, Phelps responded by beating that rival’s previous winning times and saying the following:

“I saw the times. I saw the comments. There are a lot of things I could say but I won’t. I let what I do in the pool do all of my talking and that’s how I’ve always done things. From a standpoint of what anybody else says, that’s their own business. You can keep saying anything, I don’t mind it, but you won’t get a rise out of me.”

Likewise, there will be times when the competition takes a nasty turn. The best thing to do is to remain above the fray. As tempting as it is to respond in kind, remember that the way you handle this type of situation speaks volumes about the kind of person and leader you are.

Be big. Take the high road whenever possible.

And there’s another quote I like along the same lines, but I can’t remember the source: “I never lose my temper unless it’s on purpose.”

Get (and stay) in touch with what matters

After achieving huge success, Michael Phelps experienced a significant downturn in his career and life, isolating himself from friends and family and losing motivation.

Ultimately, he decided to go to rehab and embraced the opportunity to turn things around. To get to know himself, reconnect with his family and close community of support, and figure out what really matters.

Any of us can (and probably will) fall into a tough patch or two in our careers. Maybe even a full-fledged slump. The key is to find a way onward, upward and forward.

That usually involves getting in touch with what matters in our lives. Taking time out to get our priorities straight. Honoring our community of supporters – especially close friends and family. Reconnecting with our best self, and once again doing the work to find the place where we belong and can make the best use of our talents. Regaining our motivation and sense of purpose.

In the end, it’s about living a “no regrets life”. Or as Michael Phelps put it,

“This time, it’s about trying my hardest, giving it my all. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with any regrets.”

The fact that Michael Phelps has seen both highs and lows so far in his career makes him an even more useful example to look to as we navigate our own careers.

Plus, I have to admit I’m partial since we’re both affiliated with Arizona State University, where he trains with ASU head swim coach Bob Bowman.

So remember to learn from MP:

  • Play to your strengths
  • Do the work
  • Be willing to experiment
  • Take the high road, and
  • Get and stay in touch with what matters

What lessons resonate most with you?

Leave me a comment – I’d love to hear.

Image credit: Guardian Liberty Voice