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Do Sweat The Small Stuff
by Cary Mullen

And other lessons from a wind tunnel in Buffalo.

Winning Tips:
1) Seek out resources that will catapult you to greater success. Using the best resources will complement your natural talent and give you a competitive advantage.

2) Assess everything, no matter how trivial it may seem. When you are serious about success, there is no such thing as a factor that is too small: everything counts! You need to continue testing your technology and equipment to stay at the top of your game.

You should have seen me storming around that day. I was like an angry bull, kicking at the ground and knocking things out of my way. And just like an angry bull, there was no reasoning with me.

You see, I’d left the house that morning convinced that I was one of the fastest racers on the ski team. Only a few hours later, I discovered that I was actually the slowest. Not second slowest, or third. But bottom of the heap. And the worst part about it was that I didn’t have a clue as to why.

We were up in Buffalo that day, in one of the wind tunnels that NASA uses to test prototype rockets. That’s one of the perks of being a ski racer - is getting to go into wind tunnels. Anyway, the idea is that wind tunnel testing improves your aerodynamics which in turn improves your race time.

In ski racing, every 1/100th of a second counts. So we were there that day to work on our ‘tuck position’ – that’s the position skiers take when they’re on a flat or straight section of the course and they want to get up as much speed as possible.

I learned a lot that day. And not just about tuck positions either.

The way the test worked was each team member would take his turn in the tunnel, get into his tuck and get a wind resistance reading. The lower the resistance, the faster you were. Or in my case, I should say - the higher the resistance, the slower you were.

The first time I came out slowest, I didn’t make a big deal of it. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I just need to fix my tuck.’ So I went out the second time with a lower tuck position and I held my arms differently – last again. ‘That’s OK, I’ll get there in the end,’ I told myself (it wasn’t under my skin yet). And I went out the third time with my legs held legs closer together and my hands stretched way back – again, the tortoise of the team.

It went on like this, again and again. No matter how I modified my position, I kept coming last. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was getting. Well, actually I can – VERY frustrated. And embarrassed too. I think it was around the 4th attempt that the bewildered muttering began. By round 6, I was stamping my feet. By eight, I was throwing my gloves around and growling out the kind of colorful language that only Quentin Tarantino would get away with. (Okay so I have been overly competitive at times.)

What the heck was going on? It didn’t make sense. I was not the heaviest on the team, and yet, here I was, coming in behind teammates who were 40lbs heavier than me? Where’s the physics in that? Surely bigger guys are more wind-resistant?

By the time I was into my tenth run, I had tried every position I could think of and still I was last. To be honest, I was getting a bit desperate. So I took a deep breath and told myself - ‘look, I can’t be the slowest one here, there has to be something I can do.’ And I started going through every possible factor, one by one, no matter how irrelevant or trivial it sounded. If it wasn’t my tuck position, what could it be?

My equipment? I took a look at my ski poles, goggles and helmet. There wasn’t much I could change there – all the guys used pretty much the same gear. I guess I could change my helmet to one with an alternative design with a smaller windflap and a slightly lower back. But how much difference could that make, I thought?

Nevertheless, I figured I had nothing to lose at that point, so I tried on this new helmet. And straight away, I shot up to the middle of the rankings. When I combined it with holding my hands way forward, I came out fastest of all.

It was a great feeling. Not only was I now the fastest, but I had solved a problem that I was beginning to think was hopeless. All day, I’d been flailing around looking everywhere else for the answer to my slow times. And now I’d found it – it had been on my head the whole time.

Clearly, I shouldn’t have just assumed that my first helmet was the best choice. I’d heard that it had done well in wind tunnel tests and that was good enough for me. But I should have tested it further instead of just ruling it out as a factor.

The way I was thinking, I simply didn’t have time to worry about this little seemingly irrelevant piece of equipment. I was too busy working on the bigger picture - on my technique, my tuck positions, my fitness, my weightlifting and my exact intake of carbs and proteins. I was so absorbed with calculating my calorific intake to the nearest cracker, that I was blind to factors that were so much more basic.

Admittedly, my attitude to coming last all the time wasn’t exactly helpful. I was so annoyed and embarrassed, it was clouding my vision. And the more it happened, the more stressed I became. If I hadn’t got so rattled by my poor results, I might have stopped to consider my equipment earlier.

Instead, I took my equipment for granted. I just assumed that if the equipment worked for other people, then it would work for me. The thought of trying a different helmet didn’t even enter my mind.

That day in the wind tunnel taught me that there is no single element too small to consider when you are serious about success. You can be so caught up searching among all the big factors, looking for some big grand solution, when sometimes it’s the little things that make a huge difference.

I realize now that I need to identify these little things. The details are important. And I can’t just assume that if something works for other people, then it’ll work for me, too – I need to test it for myself.

I also realized that persistent testing lead me to the answer – however infuriating it was! If I hadn’t kept at it in the wind tunnel that day, I would never have learned that I needed a new helmet. It’s crucial to get constant feedback. After all, to win we need the best resources, the best techniques, the best technology and the best equipment.

I wonder if there are any “small” or “basic” factors in your life that you are taking for granted?

What areas are you handicapping yourself by not working with optimal equipment and technology? Or what small technique could be impacting your results? It could be as small as a single sentence in which you ask your client for the business at the end of your meeting. Have you really tested all of your success factors to see how they work for you in particular, or have you just accepted what other people have said?

What are the things that may be impacting your performance that you haven’t yet taken time to consider? For those of you that work directly with people, you may be surprised to learn that our communication techniques are the single most overlooked success factor for most people. There are a myriad of skills and practices that impact how effective and compelling we are in our communication with others.

Make sure you take care of the little things. Don’t just look for the grand solutions. Fine tune your performance for greater success and seek out the resources that can catapult you to the next level.

Until the next edition of Winning Insights, I wish you EVEN Greater Success.

Conquer Doubts, Lunge through Fears and Find Focus,

Cary Mullen, Olympian, World Cup Champion and author of HOW to WIN

Coaching Great People to EVEN Greater Success

PS: Combine the best equipment and resources with your own unique strengths to have the ultimate advantage for winning.

Copyright© 2006 Cary Mullen. All rights reserved.

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