When Michael Phelps’s alarm clock went off at 6:30 A.M. on the morning of August 13, 2008, he crawled out of bed in the Olympic Village in Beijing and fell right into his routine.
He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and walked to breakfast. He had already won three gold medals earlier that week—giving him nine in his career—and had two races that day. By 7 A.M. , he was in the cafeteria, eating his regular race-day menu of eggs, oatmeal, and four energy shakes, the first of more than six thousand calories he would consume over the next sixteen hours.
Phelps’s first race—the 200-meter butterfly, his strongest event—was scheduled for ten o’clock. Two hours before the starting gun fired, he began his usual stretching regime, starting with his arms, then his back, then working down to his ankles, which were so flexible they could extend more than ninety degrees, farther than a ballerina’s en pointe. At eight-thirty, he slipped into the pool and began his first warm-up lap, 800 meters of mixed styles, followed by 600 meters of kicking, 400 meters pulling a buoy between his legs, 200 meters of stroke drills, and a series of 25-meter sprints to elevate his heart rate. The workout took precisely forty-five minutes.
At nine-fifteen, he exited the pool and started squeezing into his LZR Racer, a bodysuit so tight it required twenty minutes of tugging to put it on. Then he clamped headphones over his ears, cranked up the hip-hop mix he played before every race, and waited.
Phelps had started swimming when he was seven years old to burn off some of the energy that was driving his mom and teachers crazy. When a local swimming coach named Bob Bowman saw Phelps’s long torso, big hands, and relatively short legs (which offered less drag in the water), he knew Phelps could become a champion. But Phelps was emotional. He had trouble calming down before races. His parents were divorcing, and he had problems coping with the stress. Bowman purchased a book of relaxation exercises and asked Phelps’s mom to read them aloud every night. The book contained a script—“Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away”—that tensed and relaxed each part of Phelps’s body before he fell asleep.
Bowman believed that for swimmers, the key to victory was creating the right routines. Phelps, Bowman knew, had a perfect physique for the pool. That said, everyone who eventually competes at the Olympics has perfect musculature. Bowman could also see that Phelps, even at a young age, had a capacity for obsessiveness that made him an ideal athlete. Then again, all elite performers are obsessives.
What Bowman could give Phelps, however—what would set him apart from other competitors—were habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. He didn’t need to control every aspect of Phelps’s life. All he needed to do was target a few specific habits that had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with creating the right mind-set. He designed a series of behaviors that Phelps could use to become calm and focused before each race, to find those tiny advantages that, in a sport where victory can come in milliseconds, would make all the difference.
When Phelps was a teenager, for instance, at the end of each practice, Bowman would tell him to go home and “watch the videotape. Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up.”
The videotape wasn’t real. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly. He would visualize his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns, and the finish. He would imagine the wake behind his body, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, what it would feel like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart.
During practices, when Bowman ordered Phelps to swim at race speed, he would shout, “Put in the videotape!” and Phelps would push himself, as hard as he could. It almost felt anticlimactic as he cut through the water. He had done this so many times in his head that, by now, it felt rote. But it worked. He got faster and faster. Eventually, all Bowman had to do before a race was whisper, “Get the videotape ready,” and Phelps would settle down and crush the competition.
And once Bowman established a few core routines in Phelps’s life, all the other habits—his diet and practice schedules, the stretching and sleep routines —seemed to fall into place on their own. At the core of why those habits were so effective, why they acted as keystone habits, was something known within academic literature as a “small win.”
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
For example, when gay rights organizations started campaigning against homophobia in the late 1960s, their initial efforts yielded only a string of failures. They pushed to repeal laws used to prosecute gays and were roundly defeated in state legislatures. Teachers tried to create curriculums to counsel gay teens, and were fired for suggesting that homosexuality should be embraced. It seemed like the gay community’s larger goals—ending discrimination and police harassment, convincing the American Psychiatric Association to stop defining homosexuality as a mental disease—were out of reach.
Then, in the early 1970s, the American LibraryAssociation’s Task Force on Gay Liberation decided to focus on one modest goal: convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from HQ 71–471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”) to another, less pejorative category.
n 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, reclassifying books into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism—Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”). It was a minor tweak of an old institutional habit regarding how books were shelved, but the effect was electrifying. News of the new policy spread across the nation. Gay rights organizations, citing the victory, started fund-raising drives. Within a few years, openly gay politicians were running for political office in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon, many of them citing the Library of Congress’s decision as inspiration. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, after years of internal debate, rewrote the definition of homosexuality so it was no longer a mental illness—paving the way for the passage of state laws that made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.
And it all began with one small win.
“Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal,” wrote Karl Weick, a prominent organizational psychologist. “More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered … like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up.”
Which is precisely what happened with Michael Phelps. When Bob Bowman started working with Phelps and his mother on the keystone habits of visualization and relaxation, neither Bowman nor Phelps had any idea what they were doing. “We’d experiment, try different things until we found stuff that worked,” Bowman told me. “Eventually we figured out it was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers. We worked them into a routine. There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory.
“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”
Back in Beijing, it was 9:56 A.M.—four minutes before the race’s start—and Phelps stood behind his starting block, bouncing slightly on his toes. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, as he always did before a race, and then stepped down, as he always did. He swung his arms three times, as he had before every race since he was twelve years old. He stepped up on the blocks again, got into his stance, and, when the gun sounded, leapt.
Phelps knew that something was wrong as soon as he hit the water. There was moisture inside his goggles. He couldn’t tell if they were leaking from the top or bottom, but as he broke the water’s surface and began swimming, he hoped the leak wouldn’t become too bad.
By the second turn, however, everything was getting blurry. As he approached the third turn and final lap, the cups of his goggles were completely filled. Phelps couldn’t see anything. Not the line along the pool’s bottom, not the black T marking the approaching wall. He couldn’t see how many strokes were left. For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be cause for panic.
Phelps was calm.
Everything else that day had gone according to plan. The leaking goggles were a minor deviation, but one for which he was prepared. Bowman had once made Phelps swim in a Michigan pool in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Some of the videotapes in Phelps’s mind had featured problems like this. He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. As he started his last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require—nineteen or twenty, maybe twenty-one—and started counting. He felt totally relaxed as he swam at full strength. Midway through the lap he began to increase his effort, a final eruption that had become one of his main techniques in overwhelming opponents. At eighteen strokes, he started anticipating the wall. He could hear the crowd roaring, but since he was blind, he had no idea if they were cheering for him or someone else. Nineteen strokes, then twenty. It felt like he needed one more. That’s what the videotape in his head said. He made a twenty-first, huge stroke, glided with his arm outstretched, and touched the wall. He had timed it perfectly. When he ripped off his goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, it said “WR”—world record—next to his name. He’d won another gold.
After the race, a reporter asked what it had felt like to swim blind.
“It felt like I imagined it would,” Phelps said. It was one additional victory in a lifetime full of small wins.
Six months after Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa, he got a telephone call in the middle of the night. A plant manager in Arizona was on the line, panicked, talking about how an extrusion press had stopped operating and one of the workers—a young man who had joined the company a few weeks earlier, eager for the job because it offered health care for his pregnant wife—had tried a repair. He had jumped over a yellow safety wall surrounding the press and walked across the pit. There was a piece of aluminum jammed into the hinge on a swinging six-foot arm. The young man pulled on the aluminum scrap, removing it. The machine was fixed. Behind him, the arm restarted its arc, swinging toward his head. When it hit, the arm crushed his skull. He was killed instantly.
Fourteen hours later, O’Neill ordered all the plant’s executives—as well as Alcoa’s top officers in Pittsburgh—into an emergency meeting. For much of the day, they painstakingly re-created the accident with diagrams and by watching videotapes again and again. They identified dozens of errors that had contributed to the death, including two managers who had seen the man jump over the barrier but failed to stop him; a training program that hadn’t emphasized to the man that he wouldn’t be blamed for a breakdown; lack of instructions that he should find a manager before attempting a repair; and the absence of sensors to automatically shut down the machine when someone stepped into the pit.
“We killed this man,” a grim-faced O’Neill told the group. “It’s my failure of leadership. I caused his death. And it’s the failure of all of you in the chain of command.”
The executives in the room were taken aback. Sure, a tragic accident had occurred, but tragic accidents were part of life at Alcoa. It was a huge company with employees who handled red-hot metal and dangerous machines. “Paul had come in as an outsider, and there was a lot of skepticism when he talked about safety,” said Bill O’rourke, a top executive. “We figured it would last a few weeks, and then he would start focusing on something else. But that meeting really shook everyone up. He was serious about this stuff, serious enough that he would stay up nights worrying about some employee he’d never met. That’s when things started to change.”
Within a week of that meeting, all the safety railings at Alcoa’s plants were repainted bright yellow, and new policies were written up. Managers told employees not to be afraid to suggest proactive maintenance, and rules were clarified so that no one would attempt unsafe repairs. The newfound vigilance resulted in a short-term, noticeable decline in the injury rate. Alcoa experienced a small win.
Then O’Neill pounced.
“I want to congratulate everyone for bringing down the number of accidents, even just for two weeks,” he wrote in a memo that made its way through the entire company. “We shouldn’t celebrate because we’ve followed the rules, or brought down a number. We should celebrate because we are saving lives.”
Workers made copies of the note and taped it to their lockers. Someone painted a mural of O’Neill on one of the walls of a smelting plant with a quote from the memo inscribed underneath. Just as Michael Phelps’s routines had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with his success, so O’Neill’s efforts began snowballing into changes that were unrelated to safety, but transformative nonetheless.
“I said to the hourly workers, ‘If your management doesn’t follow up on safety issues, then call me at home, here’s my number,’ ” O’Neill told me. “Workers started calling, but they didn’t want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas.”
The Alcoa plant that manufactured aluminum siding for houses, for instance, had been struggling for years because executives would try to anticipate popular colors and inevitably guess wrong. They would pay consultants millions of dollars to choose shades of paint and six months later, the warehouse would be overflowing with “sunburst yellow” and out of suddenly in-demand “hunter green.” One day, a low-level employee made a suggestion that quickly worked its way to the general manager: If they grouped all the painting machines together, they could switch out the pigments faster and become more nimble in responding to shifts in customer demand. Within a year, profits on aluminum siding doubled.
The small wins that started with O’Neill’s focus on safety created a climate in which all kinds of new ideas bubbled up.
“It turns out this guy had been suggesting this painting idea for a decade, but hadn’t told anyone in management,” an Alcoa executive told me. “Then he figures, since we keep on asking for safety recommendations, why not tell them about this other idea? It was like he gave us the winning lottery numbers.”
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