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Alex Thomson Embodies Resiliency

Long distance open ocean racers are an odd lot.

They spend weeks or months out on the water, getting very little sleep, flying across the surface of the water at terrifying speeds, and sailing into storms that send most boats scurrying for harbor. Of those, there is an even crazier subset, solo long-distance racers.

For these brave few the premier race is the Vendee Globe, a once-every-four-years race around the world.

Nonstop.

With no help.

And with that race kicking off a few weeks ago from Les Sables-d’Olonne now is as good a time as any to talk about one of the biggest figures in the sport, Alex Thomson.

Alex is one of the most accomplished sailors in the world. He certainly might be the most famous, owing to some pretty wild stunts he’s pulled off. He’s competed in the Vendee every year since 2004 finishing twice and suffering catastrophic or near-catastrophic failures three times:

  • 2004: Retired due to damage on his boat
  • 2008: Retired due to a crack in his hull
  • 2012: Third place
  • 2016: Second place despite breaking off one of his foils (His boat was also completely knocked over by a rogue wave during a training sail. The damage was so severe that Alex had to be taken off the boat in a helicopter)

Yet, despite all these setbacks, Alex remains an incredibly optimistic person. Nothing demonstrates that more than his 2016 second place finish.

The 2016 Race

The 2016 race featured 20 skippers who departed France on November 6, 2016. In the face of tricky sailing conditions, the fleet worked its way south, passing by the Azores en route to eventually rounding the Cape of Good Hope and entering the fearsome Southern Ocean.

Near the Cape Verde Islands Alex, who was in the middle of the pack, took a chance. Instead of following the fleet west of the islands he sailed through them, usually something skippers avoid because the islands break up the wind. This year, though, Alex found wind and catapulted himself into first place in the race.

Up on its foils and slicing through the water Alex’s black and yellow Hugo Boss carbon fiber sailing machine was flying. He wasn’t just making good time, he was making great time. Record-breaking time. He was on pace to set a new 24 hour speed record when the unthinkable happened — one of Alex’s carbon fiber foils snapped off in the middle of the night. He went from almost setting a world record to sailing a crippled boat in the span of a few short seconds.

The foils are a critical part of Alex’s boat. When deployed with sufficient speed, they actually lift most of the hull out of the water. This lift reduces the drag generated by the water and dramatically increases sailing speed. Without one of his foils, Alex would be forced to sail 10 – 20% slower than his competitors about half the time.

Calling this a massive disadvantage is an understatement. The Hugo Boss boat was designed to sail on her foils so continuing the race not only meant facing stacked odds, but also relearning to sail a 65 foot boat in some of the most challenging sailing conditions on earth.

It’s clear that Alex was devastated, but watch his reaction in the following clip (you only have to watch a few minutes).

Instead of giving up and going home or resigning himself to just finishing, Alex reframed a devastating setback into a challenge. “What if I won this thing with a broken foil? Wouldn’t that be something?” He took a complete disaster and turned it into an opportunity.

The craziest part of this entire story is that it worked. Alex didn’t just finish the race, he finished second in a field of 20 of the best long distance solo sailors on earth.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the challenges we face as product managers is anything like the challenge that Alex faced (and faces again this year), but there’s still so much to learn here from his attitude in the face of setbacks because even though we aren’t racing sailboats across the ocean the life of a product manager is full of ups and downs.

Takeaways

My biggest takeaways from Alex are the following:

  1. Step Back: When you find yourself in a challenging situation, take a step backward and look at the situation objectively. The advice his coach gives in that video is priceless: “If you were 1,000 feet in the air watching what you were doing, what advice would you give yourself?”
  2. Reframe: Instead of treating a setback like a setback, treat it like a challenge. This, to me, was the most powerful message from his 2016 race — he almost immediately stopped feeling bad for himself and got back to the business of racing. He reframed the entire race not into “can I win on a level playing field?” but rather to “how can I still win despite being at a huge disadvantage?”
  3. Find Joy: When challenging situations arise, take stock of what is going right for you. Maybe it’s just appreciating where you are in life — after all, not many people get the chance to influence the product design decisions of a company — maybe it’s being thankful for your career, your family, or your friends. There’s always something bigger out there than the problem you face

Building a strong mental game is so critical to being successful as a product manager. Between customers, stakeholders, setbacks, reprioritizations, and the typical career concerns (“am I going to get the credit I deserve?” “what if everyone finds out I’m a fraud?”), there are so many opportunities to get derailed, but the next time you do maybe you can step back and think:

“At least I’m not sailing in a broken boat in the middle of the ocean”

PS – if anyone wants to learn more about Alex’s 2016 Vendee globe race the video I linked above is excellent, as is this article

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