“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve got.”
Debra Searle clung to these words as she rowed solo for 113-days across 2,963 miles of open ocean, carrying on alone after her husband dropped out two weeks into the Atlantic crossing.
And today at Workfront’s Best of Leap user conference in London, Debra dazzled delegates with the story of her amazing adventure—and passed on her eight tips for success in any walk of life.
First, let’s set the scene.
A former physical education teacher, Debra had never rowed on the open ocean before starting the Atlantic challenge in 2001. She and her then husband had prepped for their voyage on the quiet waters of the River Thames in London. “Looking back, it sounds comic,” she said.
But just 14 days from their starting point in Tenerife, her husband was forced to drop out.
Facing crippling panic attacks and blackouts, he was taken off the boat by a rescue yacht.
Debra, aged 27 at the time, faced a choice: continue alone or abandon the challenge.
“It’s amazing how one key decision can change the course of your life,” she said.
Debra resolved to continue.
She described at Best of Leap was how every obstacle was overcome: from crowded shipping lanes, to hurricanes to sea turtles bumping the bottom of her boat. Loneliness was an ever-present challenge.
And there were daily practical problems of rowing solo in a 23-foot boat where every process was designed for a two-person crew.
Debra explained her simple equation about performance:
"How you think affects how you feel and how you act – and that’s what generates a result, whether positive or negative."
Research on the success of high performers across different walks of life has found that 15% of that success relates to skills, while 85% relates to attitude, Debra told delegates.
“I was forced to find the tools and attitudes to keep me going,” Debra explained. “I came to the conclusion that I needed to hijack my own thinking.”
She added, “The more I’ve thought about it, that equation is so important. I didn’t have skill or strength; attitude was all I had left.”
Her three-month Atlantic odyssey was powered by eight “attitude tools”:
1. Run the movie
Imagine yourself confronting and overcoming your fears, challenges and questions. Play the scene out in your mind. “After a few days of running the movie, I realized the fear had gone. You find yourself prepared for the real moment. It’s true in any situation; you can be in control of your performance if you’ve run the movie beforehand,” Debra said.
2. Imagine your alter ego
Debra imagined herself as “Xenia the warrior princess” during the voyage: an archetype of female strength and courage. “Imagining your alter ego helps you prepare for the work ahead,” she said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve imagined that I’m Richard Branson before a business meeting or negotiation.”
3. Have a contagious belief
“What matters is that you really believe you’re going to make it – even when you’re surrounded by doubters,” Debra said. “I felt I was the luckiest person alive on so many of the days I was out there.”
4. Find memory songs
“I’m not naturally the kind of person who leaps out of bed full of the joys of spring; sometimes I need a little help,” she said. Finding songs or creating playlists that stirred positive thoughts and memories helped Debra stick to her challenge. The same method helps her today on the drive to work to arrive at the office with a positive outlook for the day.
5. Shift out of your comfort zone to innovate
“The comfort zone shifted eventually to where it needed to be – I was innovating like you wouldn’t believe,” Debra said as she described trying to manage a boat designed for two. Today, she applies the same thinking to her businesses: asking what lies outside the organization’s comfort zone that could be a route to innovation.
6. Use free words wisely
Debra described how receiving texts of encouragement from strangers via satellite phone made her think carefully about the power of words. She said: “I realized that free words are contagious and there’s a never-ending supply – it changed the way I think.” Debra added that in the workplace she realized at complaining and negativity could be contagious too. “Don’t give out whinge-vouchers, they serve nobody,” she said.
7. Play the arrival scene
“It was never really a solo effort – without them I never would have made it,” Debra said, paying tribute to her family and support team back home in the UK. She described imagining achieving her goal: arriving at Port St Charles in Barbados at the end of her journey and being reunited with her family and friends. “Playing the arrival scene” – visualizing her goal – kept her motivated at the toughest moments of the challenge.
8. Choose your attitude
“This is the one thing I had a choice about. Every day I made an attitude choice: I said it out loud. It had to be a positive attitude – negative attitudes were banned on the boat,” Debra said. She advised delegates to do the same: to take back to their organizations a daily choice to display a positive attitude.
What’s happened since her voyage? Global acclaim, business success, and being made an MBE by The Queen. A Hollywood movie is being planned to tell her story.
Debra’s message at Best of Leap London was simple and powerful.
How you choose to think and your attitude to the world can make a major difference to what you achieve.
“But it’s not just you: there’ll be positive ripple effects on your friends, family, colleagues and customers,” she said.
You can watch Debra's epic story distilled into this minute-long video:
Get caught up on all of the stories coming out of Best of Leap 2017 with these posts:
"Get Ready For The 4 Challenges Shaping The Future Of Work" with Workfront CEO Alex Shootman
"Send Spreadsheets Back To The 1980s And Unlock Right-First-Time Creativity" with Glenn Joyce at Boden
About the Author
Shelbi is an experienced public relations professional with experience in both agency and corporate marketing environments. She currently guides brand awareness, market research, analyst relations, and customer content. She has nearly a decade of BtoB and BtoC experience helping companies tell their stories in the changing media landscape — in traditional media outlets, social media, and now through content marketing.Follow on Twitter More Content by Shelbi Gomez