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How often are you a non-conformist?

Today is September 23 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you a non-conformist?” Those who navigate the chaos, who pioneer a movement, or who become the first to do something, often demonstrate the necessity of being a non-conformist.

American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, has penned perhaps one of the more recognizable quotes about non-conformity: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

The theme of non-conformity found its way in literature, popular culture, and even advertising campaigns. For example, advertising executive Rob Siltanen wrote the following script for one of Apple Computer’s early campaigns in 1997: “Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

The one-minute ad featured black-and-white footage of 17 iconic 20th-century personalities, in this order of appearance: Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Branson, John Lennon, Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson (with Kermit the Frog), Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pablo Picasso.

As Emerson noted, each person ‘absolved themselves to themselves.’ They navigated the chaos and resolved to translate their dreams into reality even if few understood, supported, or recognized their efforts. A non-conformist understands they will be misunderstood, unsupported, and unrecognized but they march forward and figure out a way. One such woman who was a non-conformist was Gertrude Caroline Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel.

Following several years as a successful amateur swimmer, Ederle turned professional in 1925. The Women's Swimming Association sponsored Helen Wainwright and Ederle for an attempt at swimming the Channel. Unfortunately, Helen Wainwright pulled out at the last minute because of an injury, so Ederle decided to go to France on her own.

She trained with Jabez Wolffe, a swimmer who had attempted to swim the Channel 22 times. During the training, Wolffe continually tried to slow her pace, saying that she would never last at that speed and doubted a woman could complete the swim. The training with Wolffe did not go well.

In her first attempt at the Channel on August 18, 1925, she was disqualified when Wolffe ordered another swimmer (who was keeping her company in the water), Ishak Helmy, to recover her from the water. According to her and other witnesses, she was not "drowning" but resting, floating face-down. She bitterly disagreed with Wolffe's decision.

Her successful Channel swim – this time training with coach Bill Burgess who had successfully swum the Channel in 1911 – began approximately one year later at Cape Gris-Nez in France at 07:08 on the morning of August 6, 1926.

During her twelfth hour at sea, Burgess, her trainer, had become so concerned by unfavorable winds that he called to her 'Gertie, you must come out!' The swimmer lifted her head from the choppy waters and replied, 'What for?' She came ashore at Kingsdown, Kent, 14 hours and 34 minutes later. Her record stood until Florence Chadwick swam the Channel in 1950 in 13 hours and 20 minutes.

Only five men had been able to swim the English Channel before Ederle. The best time had been 16 hours, 33 minutes by Enrique Tiraboschi. When Ederle returned home, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. More than two million people lined the streets of the parade route to cheer her.

While Ederle exemplified non-conformity for the women of her time, Sarah Thomas did so for today’s generation. On August 10, 2017, she swam 104.6 miles (168.3 km) in Lake Champlain, the first current-neutral open water swim of over 100 miles, and as of 2019 the world record for longest unassisted open-water swim. Her route was a loop starting and finishing at Rouses Point, New York at the north of the lake and swimming south to and around Gardiner Island, Addison County, Vermont.

In November 2017 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, swimming as much as possible during her treatment. On September 17, 2019, she became the first swimmer to swim four consecutive crossings of the English Channel, in a time of 54 hours 10 minutes.

As the BBC reported “Thomas swam from England to France and back - twice - in just over 54 hours. It should have been a total distance of about 80 miles (129 km) but the tidal pulls in the Channel increased the distance by more than 60%, meaning she ended up swimming nearly 130 miles (209 km). Only four swimmers have previously crossed the Channel three times without stopping. Before Thomas no-one had ever completed a fourth leg.”

Author and broadcaster Charlie Connelly described her achievement as "one of the greatest feats of mental and physical endurance in human history", while official observer Kevin Murphy said she had "tested the limits of endurance.”

  • How often are you using the strategy of being a nonconformist to navigate the chaos?

  • How often do you recognize ‘nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind?’

  • How often are you willing to do what needs to be done, even if it means no one has done it before?

  • How often have you conformed to someone else’s wishes at the expense of your own desire?


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