Michael Phelps Says One Thing Separates Successful People From Everyone Else

Success, in whatever you pursue, is all about paying attention to the small things.

Image via Getty
Image via Getty

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. 28 medals, 23 of them gold. (In fact, Phelps has more medals in his trophy case than well over 150 countries.) 

Clearly Michael gotten a few big things really, really right.

But he did it by getting countless small things right.

And he’s following the same approach where water conservation is concerned.

By the year 2030, the United Nations estimates that close to half of the world’s population will live in countries with limited water supplies. Americans consume more water per person than individuals in any other country, which means collectively we can have a huge impact on water supplies.

What’s one small thing you can do? Turn off the faucet every time you brush your teeth and you can save between 2 and 4 gallons of water. If we all did that, we could save over 500 million gallons of water a day.

How much is 500 million gallons of water? Over 31 million plastic bottles of water. Per day.

Since this is Michael’s third year as Colgate’s global ambassador for the #EveryDropCounts campaign, I talked with him about life after swimming, why he’s so involved in water conservation… and the importance of doing the small things right. 

We all go through times where we transition to new things. That can be especially hard if you were extremely successful at your last pursuit. How did you find new goals you wanted to pursue?

Keep in mind I had two “retirements.” (Phelps retired in 2012 and returned to competitive swimming in 2014.) It’s like I had a practice round. (Laughs.)

It is challenging to leave something you’ve done at a high level. But my first retirement helped me make my transition to the second one.

Plus, having kids changes your perspective, too. Having kids naturally makes you refocus.

So with all that said… the answer is to keep grinding on things that are important to you. For me, one of those things is water conservation. Water is obviously massive for me, but not just because of swimming. We’re about to be a family of five. Being able to teach our kids some of the things my wife and I are so passionate about, teaching them how much we can do as a nation and a world to ensure clean water…

As an American, it’s sad to see we’re among one of the worst countries in the world in terms of conserving water. India has a population of around 1.4 billion people and only about 10 percent of them have running water.

We talked last year and I have to admit I was embarrassed that I left the water running when I brushed my teeth. It was such an easy “fix” to make.

Entrepreneurs like to talk about scaling, and water conservation is a perfect example of how if everyone made a few small changes the overall scale would be huge. If everyone turned off the faucet while they brushed their teeth… the impact would be astronomical.

The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day. That’s two bathtubs full of water. Think if you had to carry all that. Many people do.

But it’s so easy to forget. I went to the Master’s with some friends. A buddy was doing the dishes… and he would start talking and leave the water running… and we had just had a conversation about it five minutes before.

It’s all about paying attention to small details. Throughout my career… I could never have gotten to the level I reached without paying constant attention to all the small things. 

Success, in whatever you pursue, is all about paying attention to the small things.

Tighten up the small things and the big things always take care of themselves. 

You clearly had high expectations for yourself in swimming. Do you struggle to keep your expectations more “reasonable” in other areas of your life?

I don’t try to keep my expectations reasonable. That’s not how I work.

In my swimming career I wanted to do something no one had ever done. But I take basically take everything super seriously — and I’m very hard on myself when I don’t accomplish a goal.

So I guess that’s a blessing and a curse. (Laughs.)

Clearly that approach helped me in swimming. And it helps me in areas where I try to help people: Water conservation, mental help… I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to help people. 

Any tips for for people who are about to shift into a new pursuit, a new phase of life…?

Keep it simple. Decide what you want to do. Pursue something that is important to you. 

And then do what you need to do. I wanted to be the best swimmer ever. So I did what I had to do. Doing things right gave me the opportunity to accomplish my goal.

That’s how I approach water conservation and mental health awareness. I focus on constantly doing as many things right as I possibly can.

Success leads to success — as long as you do things the right way.

Speaking of success… you were in the gallery for Tiger’s final day of the Master’s.

Tiger is a great example of trying to do as many things as possible right. It was so cool to see how in tune he is to every small detail. Every step he takes is so thought-out and precise. 

That’s a powerful lesson in how the greats succeed in their respective fields. The small details play such a massive role.

To watch how dialed-in and prepared he got himself to get the opportunity to win another major…

I always thought he wasn’t done, just because of the kind of competitor and person he is. It’s really hard to a GOAT (greatest of all time) is finished.

It was also really cool because I can relate to seeing someone who overcomes personal struggles. It was a real privilege to see, in person, one of the greatest stories in sports history.

And it was a great reminder that success, even at the highest levels, really is about the small things.

Originally Published on Inc.

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