If you are looking for a veritable wellspring of inspiration, lessons and metaphors, look no further than Diana Nyad’s nearly unfathomable accomplishment this weekend.
Over the course of 53 brutal hours, Nyad, 64, swam 112 miles of choppy, shark-and-jellyfish infested water from Havana to Key West, becoming the first person to ever complete the journey without a shark cage.
It was a feat she was unable to accomplish in 1978, at age 28. Then, she had to be pulled out of the water after swimming for more than 49 hours through 8-foot swells. She had been stung repeatedly by jelly fish and her tongue was so swollen from sea water that her crew could barely understand her when she asked, “Can’t I keep going?”
She tried again, unsuccessfully, in 2011 and 2012, after a 30 year break from competitive swimming. This was her fifth attempt.
When Nyad emerged from the water on the beach of Key West, surrounded by stunned and cheering onlookers, she was badly dazed and painfully sunburned.
“I have three messages,” she said. “One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.”
All powerful lessons, with valuable takeaways for life and business. But there was another aspect of Nyad’s triumph that I found interesting for those of us in communications.
Nyad’s last attempt was cut short after she endured painful stings from box jellyfish. (“You feel like you’ve been dipped in hot burning oil” she said. “You burst into flames.”) This time, Nyad wore a full bodysuit and custom face mask, as well as a lanolin-based topical cream that helps prevent and treat stings.
Does the fact that these tools are available make anyone more willing to jump into the water and try that swim for themselves? Does it make the challenges Nyad overcame sound any less grueling or daunting?
Over the past several years, the communications industry has ascribed incredible value to the power of emerging technologies. There’s no doubt these tools make great contributions. At the end of the day, though, they can only do so much. You still need sound judgment, quick instincts and deep insight.
Generally those traits come with hard-won experience. What many seasoned professionals have in common is determination and faith in the power of sustained effort. As our increasingly real-time environment conditions clients and agencies to seek frequent rewards and constant affirmations, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that genuine, sustained results are generally achieved with perseverance, focus and true determination.
Tools are great—but they are only as powerful as the people who operate them. And every technology has its limits.
Take Nyad’s mask for instance: While it did protect her from stings, it also made it very difficult for her to breathe, so she had to take it off. Instead, she relied on her team to spot jellyfish, ward off sharks and keep her on the best course—avoiding thunderstorms and even cruise ships. It just goes to show that technology can help, but it is no substitute for experience and human expertise.