Over the past weekend, as we marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we had a chance to reflect on the power that words have to change the world. But for all the potential that well-chosen words have for changing the world out there, it’s the power that words have to change how we think and engage that can make the difference in whether or not we realize our own goals and dreams.
If you watched the news this morning, you might have seen an excellent case-in-point. The media are all abuzz today with the story of the amazing journey of 64 year-old swimmer Diana Nyad who–after 53 hours in shark-infested ocean–yesterday rose trembling and exhausted but finally victorious in her 35-year quest (her first try was in 1978 and her latest, that ended after she suffered multiple jellyfish stings, was in 2012) to be the first person to make the 110 mile swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West without the protection of a shark cage. If I ever meet her personally, I know my second question for her will be, “why do you think this 5th attempt was successful when all the others, over three and a half decades ended in disappointment?” I say my second question, because my first question, of course, will be, “Without a shark cage, are you nuts?”
In one of her interviews this morning she revealed three words that she said allowed her to prevail against the inhospitable conditions, fickle currents and the salt water sores that affected even the inside of her mouth so that in this morning’s interviews she sounded more like a heavyweight boxer than a marathon swimmer. “I came up with a three-word mantra that helped me get through. It was, ‘find a way.’” She explained that there was no real moment when she had an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the moon or the wonders of the sea around her. When you’re swimming for 53 hours, she explained, it is almost all suffering. But when she encountered pain and exhaustion and all the obstacles that pushed against her over two-plus days of stroking through open water, she would repeat to herself, “Find a way.”
It seems pretty simple. Almost too simple, But when you consider the real meaning of those words, it makes sense. In the midst of adversity, to say ‘find a way’ is to express faith that a way exists and that it can be found. With that philosophy, the creative mind is engaged, the stores of experience are consulted (for her, almost 35 years of it), and the possibility of a dead-end is not even on the horizon. What that choice of words did, that got Diana Nyad finally to shore in the seventh decade of her life, was to willfully ignore thoughts about what she might have lost due to the physical limitations of an aging body, the setbacks of her past or the fears that she might never accomplish what she set out to do so long ago. That mantra focused her mind instead on what she had and what she could do. And so, after 35 years and five attempts, the right words did for her what they have the power to do for you; to find a way.