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Defining Success Through the Story of Gertrude Ederle

By Miranda Lindsey, Volunteer.

Source: Edge | History Channel

Gertrude Ederle was born in 1905 in New York City, where she learned to swim in her local public pool. Gertrude’s love of swimming inspired her to drop out of school as a teenager and pursue her dream of swimming competitively. When she was 16, she won her first local competition, and two years later she won a gold medal in a team swimming event at the 1924 Olympics. Determined and focused on continuing her achievements in the sport of swimming, she developed a new goal to work toward, something that no woman had ever done before: swimming across the English Channel.

The “English Channel Swim” is a swim from France to England (or vice versa) at a part of the English Channel that is approximately 21 miles long. At the time that Gertrude decided to make her attempt, only five other people had successfully swum across the channel before her, and all of them were men.

In 1925, when Gertrude was about 19 years old, she decided that she had trained well enough to accomplish her goal of swimming across the English Channel. Soon into her attempt, it was obvious that despite her best efforts, Gertrude had not trained enough for the shifting tides, six-foot waves, and frigid temperatures, and she failed in her first attempt. But Gertrude was not deterred. In fact, she was even more determined to return and attempt the swim again about a year later, better trained and better equipped after having learned from her first attempt. Gertrude successfully completed the “English Channel Swim” in 1926 at age 20, becoming the first woman to ever successfully do so, and beating the previous record by two hours.

What is success to you?

Everyone has a different answer, and it’s likely that you have a different definition of success from your friends, family, and even Gertrude Ederle.

Success, in its simplest definition, is achieving a goal which leads to an internal happiness or satisfaction within yourself. Success is believing in your ability to accomplish your goals and setting the path to their achievement.

People who see themselves as successful—like Gertrude—learned how to set their minds toward their goals and to believe that setbacks and failures were not the final words on their success. They developed a growth mindset that allowed them to take risks learn from their failures and believe in their abilities.

How does someone achieve success?

No matter what your definition of success, a proven path to achieving it is by believing in your abilities and setting a plan to achieve your goals. You need to update your mindset—the way you think—to believe that you can grow and develop through effort and practice. You need to become your own leader and take control of your life, thoughts, behaviors, and attitude. This is called self-leadership. Through self-leadership, you will be able to lead yourself and your life into situations that will help you grow and thrive.

The opposite of self-leadership is leading from the outside, where you let the world around you dictate how you feel and what you do. If you are not leading yourself and taking responsibility for the things in your life that you can control, you are focusing excessively on the negative aspects of your life and the things you cannot change or have little control over. The best self-leaders always focus on the inside first and use that to change their outside circumstances.

For example, when Gertrude Ederle failed her first English Channel Swim attempt, she chose not to solely focus on the negative aspects of her situation. She could not control the size of the waves or the shifting of the tides. But there were things that she could control: the way she trained, who she trained with, the places she trained, and even the type of swimsuit she wore. During her first attempt, Gertrude wore a heavy one-piece swimsuit that was standard for women at the time. For her second attempt, she designed her own, lighter, two-piece swimsuit which improved her ability to swim through the water with ease. Had Gertrude focused solely on the things she could not control or been too discouraged in the fact that she had failed, she would never have been able to focus on making the practical adjustments that helped her succeed in her goal later.

Successful self-leaders realize that there will be challenges in life, but that these struggles must be faced and overcome in order to succeed.

How we think can impact how we act and what we achieve. Our mindset—the way we think—frames how we look at life and our challenges. Dr. Carol Dweck discovered that there are two ways of thinking: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset believe that you cannot learn new things or change. They often become set in their ways even if they are unhappy with the way that things are going, and that failure is a limitation on your abilities.

Those with a growth mindset believe the opposite; that people can learn new things and can improve with hard work and with help from others.

A growths mindset helps you believe that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. A fixed mindset will ultimately not allow you to fulfill your dreams or achieve success in life, because it will leave you feeling unmotivated and defensive rather than willing to take risks to achieve what you want. If Gertrude had been stuck in a fixed mindset and believed that there was no way for her to improve, she would not have continued training and trying to make improvements and would not have been able to succeed in her second attempt.

People who are successful must set goals to improve armed with a growth mindset that will help them believe in themselves.

A growth mindset and self-leadership will not solve all of life’s problems, but they do help you work through challenges positively and achieve your goals. Gertrude Ederle’s success not only led to her personal pride and satisfaction, but also paved the way for other female swimmers and athletes to pursue their dreams. You, too, can make a lasting impact on yourself and others by defining what success means to you, creating goals that will lead you on the path to success, and maintaining a growth mindset and self-leadership to achieve that success.

The information about Gertrude Ederle in this blog post was derived from the History Channel’s article “The First Woman to Swim the English Channel Beat the Men’s Record by Two Hours,” by Becky Little. The information on defining success, growth and fixed mindsets, and self-leadership are sourced from the “Defining Success” course available to all Suited for Change clients through SFC’s partnership with Edge.

Did you know that clients of Suited for Change are able to access the Edge platform and its various courses in Leadership and Professional Development (including this one) at no cost?

Following completion of each module, clients are provided a professional certificate of completion which they can share with companies on their resume to demonstrate their knowledge of these skills and techniques.

Source: Little, Becky. 2018. “The First Woman to Swim the English Channel Beat the Men’s Record by Two Hours.” The History Channel.


Miranda Lindsey

About Miranda Lindsey:

Miranda Lindsey is a SFC volunteer and a recent graduate of the Master of International Affairs program at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. She is passionate about service, and excited about the positive impact she can make in her community through her work with SFC.

Stay connected with us by following us on social media @suitedforchange, and signing up for our Monthly Newsletter for additional updates.


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