Thursday, April 14, 2016

Reverse Engineering Success: Two Tacky Adages That Are Completely True

They say that if you want to be successful, then you should copy successful people. They also say that you’re the average of the people you spend the most time with.

In general, I ignore tacky adages like the ones above. As a personal trainer, though, my mission is to help my clients reach their goals. So lately, in an effort to reverse engineer my own success (two Paralympic American swimming records, beating autoimmune disease, a master’s degree), I’ve been thinking hard about what makes me tick.

After careful reflection, I realized that much of my success could be boiled down to the above two themes. Today, I’d like to discuss three of the successful people* I've copied, the effect they’ve had (and continue to have) on me, and the characteristics I’ve sought to emulate in each of them.


I met Steve way back in elementary school. I think the reason we became friends in the first place was because every day on the bus ride home from school, he would give me half of his brownie. Steve was a great sharer. Either that or he just didn’t like the brownies that much. I think it’s the former, though, because to this day Steve would rip the shirt off his back for a friend if he needed it.

Growing up, Steve and I were ultra-competitive in everything we did, whether it was video games, basketball, Razor scooter racing, or pizza eating. Despite my physical difference, Steve never made me feel anything other than normal. He constantly pushed me to try new things and test my physical limits, the most important of which ended up being swimming.

Although Steve was never the biggest kid, he had the biggest heart, and it was infectious. In all my time in the pool, I never saw anyone work harder than Steve. Not once did I see him give up on a workout. Some of my teammates would probably say the same about me, but the truth is that I learned it from Steve. I looked to him constantly for motivation. In fact, I wouldn’t even dive into the pool until I saw him do it first.

Outside the pool, Steve’s intellectual curiosity is unrivaled. From solving Rubik’s cubes to complex math problems, Steve always asks deep questions and completely immerses himself in study until he finds an answer.

Today, Steve has a government job as an engineer — or at least so I’m told, since much of his work is classified.


I met Frank in middle school. Frank was different from my other friends. He’d grown up in a rough neighborhood. His parents worked a lot and weren’t around much. He played too many video games and struggled to stay focused on his schoolwork, coming dangerously close to having to repeat the seventh grade.

Many kids with Frank’s upbringing would have simply gone into the family business. Not Frank, though. Come high school, he turned his life around, discovering himself and his many talents.

He was an artist, a builder. He was a musician, a poet. And boy was he an athlete — a natural at just about every sport he tried. Not only that, it turned out he had an eye for proper movement and teaching others, too. Moreover, he was quite the socialite, constantly prodding me to come out and play when I would've otherwise stayed in and been my reclusive self.

Frank’s passion, creativity, and stick-to-itiveness rubbed off on those around him, especially me. Today, Frank is an architect, as well as a very occasional graphic designer. He also coaches young athletes in swimming and triathlon.


I met Don in high school and was immediately drawn to him because of his incredible work ethic. (Coincidentally, he tells me that’s precisely the reason he latched onto me, too.) Don was the best tennis player in the whole school, despite being one of the youngest on the team. He was also the best cellist in the orchestra, his mathematics skills were second to none, and he was fluent in two languages and learning his third.

The most amazing thing about Don was his ability to take on so much and still excel in all he did. His workload would have buried most mere mortals, including me. The guy barely slept, yet he still found the energy to go out of his way for his friends and family whenever they needed him.

Over the course of high school, college, and beyond, Don and I pushed each other to be our best in school, at sport, and in our friendships. It wasn’t so much that we were in competition. Rather, we were each other’s biggest fans. Day in and day out, I strived to emulate Don's drive.

Today, Don is a middle school teacher, track coach, and recreational marathoner.

Success Guaranteed

It would be easy to take all the credit for my successes thus far in life — to chalk it all up to my own iron will. But it’s simply not true. I didn’t do it on my own. Instead, I owe my success to my support system  people like Steve, Frank, and Don, whom I simply couldn’t imagine letting down after having watched them accomplish so much.

Indeed, success is about surrounding yourself with goal-oriented people who inspire you to be your best. Do that, and success is guaranteed.

*Their real names are withheld. (Go find your own inspirational friends!)

Share This