Scott Stoll logo world traveler. A bicycle wheel and the globe symbolizes Scott's journey around the world on a bicycle.
Scott Stoll wearing an embarrassingly tight swimsuit.
Here's me at the pool in January during the rain. Brr. Luckily the water is warmer than the air.

Harnessing the passion to swim one mile

And a quick life update

I’ve landed in Stanford, California a “census-designated place,” whatever that means. I live on the campus of one of the best schools in the world. I’m not sure I’m smart enough—and I’m definitely not rich enough—to go to school here, but I do sneak over and sit in classes and pretend I’m rich and smart. I’m pretty sure my IQ points go up a couple notches until I get home have a beer and watch Netflix. 

I’m surprised how much I miss Cincinnati, Ohio, especially my friends and my home. Our apartment here is a downgrade in every respect except the pool. Yes, we have a heated pool and spa.

Now that I’m a Californian, I’ve committed myself to getting in shape and shedding my Midwestern body. But even though I am committed, it is still hard to find motivation some days. However, I’m not the only one suffering this challenge. I made a friend named, Bill, who works at the Stanford think tank. He said his biggest challenge was that swimming was too boring, and he didn’t have anything to think about. Haha! How is that for irony!? I told him that I have plenty of things to think about. Swimming is a good break to let my brain process all of those extra thoughts. As a side note, I was working myself up to asking Bill for a job, but unfortunately, he moved. So, the Stanford think tank will have to remain a little empty without all my big thoughts to fill it up. It would have been nice to move them out of my head. 

Anyway, I was making good progress on my swim and learning to use passion as a type of motivational fuel. For most of my life, the type of passion I used was love. You could call it inspiration, excitement, cathexis, playfulness, mania—many different things. That last one, mania, is an ancient Greek word for obsessive love. Apparently, obsessive love is not good, but I get a lot of mileage out of it. I mean that literally. Mania powered my bicycle and now my swim. 

The Greeks had lots of words to describe love. You can look them up. To clarify, love means affection for a person or thing, whereas I’m defining passion as a type of motivational energy, and love being one type of motivation.

So, the mistake I’ve made for years—my whole life really—is waking up and waiting for inspiration to strike. I thought I had to be in the right mood. I had to love every moment of what I was doing or it just didn’t seem worthwhile. However, I can say, that waiting for inspiration to strike is a mistake. (I’m self-employed, so I set my own schedule.) Sometimes, I would go swimming first thing after my coffee. Sometimes, I’d go just after lunch, even though my grandma always made me wait an hour. She thought a full stomach inhibited blood flow and that I would cramp up and drown. Sometimes I’d go mid-afternoon but that interferes with nap time. Mostly, I wait until the last possible moment, just before the pool loses the last rays of sunshine. Even in California, it’s cold in January. 

There are many days where love is absent and I force myself to do it anyway. The “get up and get ‘er done” mentality. That is willpower. Willpower isn’t something that makes me leap out of bed in the morning; however, after doing this for some months, I realized willpower is also a type of passionate motivational energy. The interesting thing is that if I could get myself to the pool using my willpower, eventually love would take over and I would start to enjoy my swim. 

Though I am afraid of open water, as I talk about in my story about swimming from one island to another, I do love to swim in a pool. After huffing and puffing for a month, I developed the stamina to swim two laps without taking a breath. I love submerging myself and literally drowning out the noise of the world. (It’s so unbelievably, painfully noisy here compared to my tranquil Ohio home.) 

Drowning out the noise gives me lots of time to think! (Bill would be proud… maybe.) And I thought about my passion. I learned a lot about willpower from the book Discipline Equals Freedom* by Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL. And one surprising thing I learned was that I could actually circumvent both love and willpower to get the job done. He recommends just doing it. Don’t think. Do! 

So for some weeks that’s all I did. I walked myself to the pool. Got in the water. And swam. It was easier than thinking about it, planning it, waiting for inspiration, and when that didn’t happen, forcing myself. It was like a magical spell of delusion that I cast upon myself. I erased the thoughts of what I was about to do and just did it. 

For six months, I had been swimming most days. I was confident I could swim a mile, but I was also afraid I might injure myself (again). I made a few attempts and failed. And some days, I walked to the pool and didn’t even get in. However, my brain was still processing the different types of passion, and one day I had a breakthrough. 

My day began as usual. After my lame morning routine of drinking coffee and reading the news, I decided to go swimming. But today, it was raining. I was tempted to take the day off. Instead, I thought, “You are going to get wet one way or another. Don’t think. Just do.” So, you could say this type of passion is allowance. I allowed myself to go swimming. I committed to the idea. I stopped debating and mindlessly walked myself to the pool. 

Once in the pool, which thankfully was warmer than the cold rain, but still feeling unmotivated, I thought, “I’ll swim one lap and go home. One lap is better than nothing.” To my surprise, my first lap was great. The rain made my swim even more peaceful. It dulled the noise and bright lights. And I was the only one brave enough to get in the pool. So, I began to plan my swim. I’ll do 10 freestyle. Take a short break. Try the kickboard. Et cetera. I broke my swim into manageable steps. Let’s call this type of passion allegiance. You could call it planning or whatever you want, but I’m thinking of it as a type of devotion to the idea. It’s a lustful passion similar to being infatuated with a woman and imagining every conceivable way to get her phone number.

As I swam, my plan was working, but I was becoming bored. Swimming is slow and monotonous. This is where I turned my willpower on. I psyched myself up Tony-Robbins style and powered through the water. It felt good. I was strong enough to keep afloat and I was breathing easily. The tricky thing about swimming compared to other types of exercise is that when you fatigue, you begin to sink. It gets increasingly difficult to keep your head above water, breathing gets hard and exhaustion comes on quickly. 

I was still feeling strong. I had muscles I didn’t have. My technique had improved. I felt like I was flying through the air. On the flip, it was impressive to see the size of the waves I was generating. And I imagined the ladies, if they saw me, would be oohing and aahing. Let’s call this type of passion love. I truly enjoyed what I was doing and felt like I could go on forever. It was a weird sensation as if my body switched from a primitive combustion engine to a cosmic warp drive. 

But of course, I couldn’t go on forever. I was bored again, fatigue made it hard to breathe and I was worried about my shoulder clicking. So, I mixed up my swim a little. I did the breaststroke. I slowed down, added a couple extra breaths, and focused my thoughts back on the feeling of flying. Let’s call this type of passion harmony. I was analyzing my mind, body and environment and made adjustments. I literally found my second wind. 

It was exciting. I had swum 60 laps. I only need 11 more. I knew that I had already performed great. My body deserved a break. But I also knew that I could reach one mile. I could feel the impending success. I was in the zone. I wanted the win. There was no stopping me. Let’s call this type of passion knowledge. I knew I could do it. And I wanted this dream to become a reality, I wanted to be able to say for the rest of my life, “Yes, I can swim a mile!” 

With only a few more laps left, another interesting thing happened. I thought, “If I can swim a mile what else can I do?” A flood of new dreams poured in: Can I do the Escape from Alcatraz swim? Can I swim from the United States to Russia? (It’s actually a mere 2.4 miles away.) Let’s call this type of passion wisdom. This is where you take your hard-earned knowledge, facts and figures, and see new patterns. I think of it as 2+2=5. My achievement has led to a new world of possibilities.

So, surprisingly and magically, I swam a little more than one mile. Looking back at my life, I realized that this process was at play many times in my past, especially when I rode a bicycle around the world, though the steps were much more prolonged. I spent years trying not to think about what I was about to do. I knew if I listened to the naysayers, I would find many reasons to not even try. Luckily my trip didn’t require that much planning, and I started before I realized it. However, I spent over a year just forcing myself to keep moving forward. I called this “Survival” in my book. It wasn’t until India that I entered the love stage and learned to appreciate what I was doing despite the hardships. Australia and New Zealand, English-speaking countries with good amenities, helped me harmonize, get healthy and push forward. Once I set my wheels in motion in Africa, I knew nothing could stop me short of an accident or act of god. Surprisingly, I finished, and then got the reward of this idea: If I can do this, I can do anything! 

PS. Now that I finished this story, I’m going for a swim before I overthink it. 

Recommended reading

* If you’d like to learn how to harness willpower, I suggest you read Discipline Equals Freedom by Jocko Willink. (Amazon affiliate link.) 

Since this article was published, this book has also been recommended to me. The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage. The premise is that you have 5 seconds before your brain begins to overthink things, which is different of my 5-second rule when it comes to dropping food on the floor.

Lynne Cox: The Swim That Lifted the Iron Curtain. A story about swimming from the USA to Russia by the National Park Service.

Learn how Jerry Seinfeld uses love instead of willpower in my article Don’t Break the Chain and download a worksheet to track your goals. 

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Scott swims from one island to another overcoming his fear of water and fulfilling an old dream.
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