Walking through the double doors to the outdoor pool at Meadowbrook in Baltimore, I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s incredible,” as I watched a woman effortlessly swim laps in a 50-meter lane.

At the time, I barely knew how to put on a swim cap, and desperately wanted to be able to swim 25 meters without having to stop constantly to breathe. “There’s no way I could swim 50 meters,” I thought, as I watched her flip and kick off the wall.

Rather than concern myself with being able to swim 50 meters, I refocused on strengthening the skills I needed to finish 25 meters without stopping.

It wasn’t pretty, but a couple of weeks later, I completed 25 meters without stopping. “Do it again,” Marci, my coach insisted, while I pleaded for just 30 more seconds of rest. “3-2-1… Go,” she insisted.

And I went—and I went—and I went, each time decreasing my rest, increasing my distance, or both.

Just eight weeks later, I found myself gasping for air as I completed my first 50-meter swim. It was, again, not pretty.

Visions of drowning made it impossible to focus, and I wound up doing a mixed-up version of the doggie paddle and breast stroke as I heard Marci’s voice, “You got this, Misti, keep it going.”

In that moment, I figured she must have known something I didn’t, so I claimed her belief in me as my own. Aching to improve, I did every assignment she gave me.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself back in the 50-meter lane with Marci barking orders and giving instructions to improve my stroke. I was (and still am) far from looking (or feeling) effortless in the water, but I did just complete a 4,800-meter swim as part of my training for the 5-mile open water swim for Swim Across America.

Last year, I went for 3&3. I raised $3K and swam 3 miles. Completing that challenge inspired me to go for 5&5 this year.

In fact, looking back, completing that first 25 meters without stopping to breathe inspired me to go for 50 meters, which inspired me to go 50 meters without stopping, and so on.

A year ago, I didn’t think I would ever be able to swim 50 meters without stopping. Today, I have no idea if I’ll be able to complete the 5-mile open water swim on September 20th within the time limit, but I’m starting to believe that anything is possible.

As I reflect on this journey, I’ve come to discover a few of the key components to achievement:

  1. You don’t have to be inspired to start, but you have to start to be inspired. The only reason I decided to learn how to swim was because a good friend suggested it might help my hip pain. The rest came later.
  2. Set small goals, reach them, and then decide what you’re inspired to do next. A good friend of mine recently launched an awesome online summit, where he shared dozens of interviews with highly successful experts. A week or so post-launch, he was beating himself up for only selling X amount of recordings. “I planned to sell X (very big number) of recordings and increase my list by X (another very big number),” he said. As a result, he could not appreciate his accomplishment. Set yourself up for success—and joy—by setting a goal that will stretch but not break you.
  3. Allow yourself to be pulled by what inspires you, rather than pushed by your fear. Just as marketers use fear to motivate purchases (don’t get fat, buy these rice crackers), we naturally use fear to drive us to get stuff done. While I’m not suggesting that fear is a bad motivator, I am saying that inspiration is far more joyful. It’s fun to make progress toward the goals that inspire you.
  4. Find a coach/mentor. There is no way I could have completed even 25 meters without Marci, much less 5 miles. We all need someone to help create a plan, work out the kinks, and cheer us on. Recently, I hired a coach to help me create a plan for improving my speaking skills for this same reason. If you care deeply about improving, find someone who can help you see what you cannot.
  5. Keep going, even if you can’t see. On the swim portion of the Iron Girl (my first triathlon) in Columbia, Maryland, the sun was low on the horizon, right in our eyes, making it impossible to see where we were going, or when to turn. It was frustrating, and I found myself with plenty of excuses to stop. That’s when I heard myself say, “You don’t have to see to keep moving forward.” It became the mantra that got me through that swim. Since then, I’ve realized it’s applicable to nearly every area of our lives. Too often, we get caught up in needing all the instructions—the map, as Seth Godin often says—before we venture forth.

Big achievements start with small feats. As Zig Ziglar used to say, “You can eat an elephant, one bite at a time.”

Don’t wait to be inspired to challenge yourself. Go out and challenge yourself, and watch as you become inspired. Where will you end up after a few bites?

Here’s to Your Greatness,

Misti Burmeister