Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive

"Most sales manuals will tell you that the most important thing you are selling is yourself. This book won’t. In my opinion, selling yourself can sometimes be a very bad idea… because very often, my friend, you and I are lousy products. Our challenge, whether we are salespeople, or negotiators, or managers, or entrepreneurs, is to make others see the advantage to themselves in responding to our proposal. Understanding our subjects’ personalities is vital. Let them shine. Our own personalities are subordinate."

- Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, page 36

The punchy and engaging Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive published in 2005 is an update to Swim with the Sharks first published in 1988 which went on to sell 4 million copies. Harvey Mackay lives up to his reputation with this solid advice on salesmanship, negotiation, and management. It is broken down into 69 Concise Lessons, 19 Quickies and special chapters in the back with advice on helping your children succeed and ensuring your success. This is a 100% actionable book and your performance will improve immediately by putting into practice any of the more than 88 ideas.

The central theme is you can achieve your goals by taking a genuine interest in understanding other people. Build on a foundation of knowing your customer. Understand the needs and motivation of people who work for you. Learn how to negotiate effectively to get the best deal from people who sell to you. This book is mildly reminiscent of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People but much more pertinent and accessible to the modern reader.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Determination + Goal-setting + Concentration = Success

"Determination? Goal-setting? Concentration? We all think we have them. But the truth is, we don’t."
- Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, page 244

Mackay describes trying to speak to professional golfer Gary Player while he was practicing. “He didn’t break stride. He didn’t turn his head. His eyes stayed focused on the horizon. He had blinders on. His response could be etched in stone.” This is what it looks like to be determined and to concentrate on a goal. Player was a South African who won dozens of championships over three decades in spite of formidable obstacles. He needed to play with four bodyguards in the 1960’s because of racial bias, and he battled major health problems.

Mackay said most people think they are as single minded and committed as Player but nine out of ten are not. You can develop it with practice and perseverance and become unstoppable. He also points out that people who singularly focus on success are not pleasant to be around and may find themselves often looking for (and finding) new opportunities. A measure of balance is prudent here. The The Big Idea is that when we find ourselves failing to turn that into success the first step is to evaluate honestly if we are 100% engaged.

How do you know? If you are earnestly setting goals and not reaching them, Mackay’s formula for success says you need to increase your concentration and determination. To find out how read on to the Insights.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Activity ≠ Efficiency

"Don’t equate activity with efficiency… They are probably doing the company a lot more good than anything else they could be doing. They’re thinking. It’s the hardest, most valuable task any person performs. It’s what helped get you where you are. THINK: that’s the one-word motto that Thomas J. Watson brought to IBM decades ago… THINK! Don’t stifle it. Encourage it."
- Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, page 141

It does not take any skill to snap a whip and point at a goal board. It does take skill to distinguish between wasting time and productive thought. This quote is about employee engagement and about what makes an activity useful. Doing the work the right way often requires some thought. Putting thought into a project or endeavor can be the difference between a success and a failure.

Mackay uses Einstein as an example of someone intensely centered on productive thought. “Let me add that Einstein couldn’t remember his own phone number. ‘Why should I bother,’ he said, ‘when I can look it up?’ The things he did remember, nobody could look up unless Einstein himself wrote them down.” That is real concentration. Although your goal might not be to be to become that focused, it is a great example of how possibilities open up with focused thought.

We have a human need to feel important and a cultural obsession with keeping busy. The time that we invest in social fanfare showing our busy work far from proves we are important and valuable. Busyness is not an accurate measure of employee engagement either. Unfortunately, just working does not translate into meeting meaningful goals. Success comes from the hard work that no one sees because it goes on in your head. It is the prerequisite to quality successful activity. If you are determined to reach your goals, take the time to think and learn before you plan and do.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life


"I saw it in my mind’s eye a thousand times. And, of course, I finally did it… I came to realize that fantasizing, projecting yourself into successful situations, is one of the most powerful means there is to achieve personal goals."
- Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, page 63

Mackay is describing reaching his goal of building a much-needed new stadium and being the one to throw out the first ball. He set his goal and planned to build it in one year. It actually took seven years and everything went wrong, but he did it. He kept that image in his mind the entire time. I like this example, visualizing a simple symbol of success to reach a goal. The actual goal is a large complex project. The simple image could be conjured at any point when he might feel like giving up.

Planning and setting goals is a logical activity that takes effort. Carrying out those plans takes emotional effort. Thinking is logical but doing is emotional. When extensive logical planning drains energy often, the doing is undone. Your brain does not have enough energy left to override the default easy action that undermines the most difficult action that helps you reach the goal. Simply visualizing doing something you could not do without reaching your goal is like getting an advance on the emotional payoff of your accomplishment. It provides the needed energy to keep going when you want to give up. Fantasizing is like pressing the determination button instead of the easy button.

This summary is only a taste of what this book has to offer. I chose to summarize Mackay’s formula for success because it was the most important thing for me to put into action this month. I took on the challenge of making some career changes so that I could take advantage of opportunities that interested me. As it often is with new challenges, I have a very large amount of information to learn and many new ideas to explore plus all the things I am doing differently. It is easy to become overwhelmed but putting into practice these ideas helped me a lot. I look forward to using more of the information in this book.

Do you have any great ideas to share about reaching goals?

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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