Our story begins, not with success, but with failure. Since graduating from Brown in 2015, Anders Weiss has been rowing with the U.S. national team. One day, back in May, he was training in Princeton, New Jersey — hoping for a spot on the men's eight -- when his coach walked up to him.
"He's like, 'Can I speak to you in the office,' and I was like, 'Oh, no.' I don’t want to hear that ever," Weiss recalls. "And he said, 'Yeah, you know, unfortunately I don’t think you’re gonna be — you’re not gonna be in the eight. This is the end of the road for you.' That was sort of a shocker, but it actually worked out very well."
By some measures, things had already worked out well for Anders Weiss. Rowers don't usually peak until their late 20s or early 30s. Anders is only 23, so when he first started training with the team, he was really seen as a prospect for 2020.
Still, Anders was devastated. His coach told him he had one last shot to make it to Rio. He needed to qualify to row pairs at the trials in June. But before starting over again — new boat, new tactics, new teammate — Anders decided to take a few days off and drive from New Jersey to Rhode Island to see his family and his girlfriend.
"I was not in the best of mindsets, and I said, 'I cannot listen to music for four hours on a good trip — and coming through Connecticut usually adds another hour or two.' And I said. 'I can’t listen to music anymore. I need something else to distract me,'" he recalls. "A friend in college said, 'You know, I always listen to podcasts.' So I said, 'All right, I’ll check this out,' so opened up the podcast app on my phone and I said, 'All right, this one looks like it would be entertaining.'"
No, the podcast wasn't National Public Radio's award winning sports program.
It's called Freakonomics, and it's produced by our friends down at WNYC. Freakonomics explores what it calls "the riddles of everyday life and the weird wrinkles of human nature." And the riddle Freakonomics took on in the episode that just happened to pop up on Anders' podcast app? How to be more productive.
"How to be more productive is something I want to do, so I said, 'All right, I'll listen to that one,'" Anders says.
Anders just happened to discover Freakonomics in time for "self-improvement month." Listeners to the program had shared their personal goals — things like learning to knit a scarf, improving their guitar playing skills, and spending more time with their family. One caller wanted "to become a better American."
None of the Freakonomics listeners — not a single one — said they'd like to row for the U.S. Olympic team.
But it wasn't talk about goal setting that would put Anders Weiss on the road to Rio. It was when Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner paused briefly to ask his guest, author Charles Duhigg, about motivation.
Duhigg explained that there are two types of motivation: internal and external. Let's imagine two students are studying for the same test. Both might spend the same amount of time studying. But the first student believes the test is primarily a measure of how smart he is. So he studies, because that's what you do, but his studying is not very productive. That's external motivation — the belief that his success isn't entirely in his control.
The other student believes that her test score will be a result of how hard she studies — not how smart she is. And that is entirely in her control. So when she studies, she really studies.
Duhigg explained that this kind of internal motivation leads to much better results. That's something 23-year-old Anders Weiss just hadn't figured out yet.
"I put a lot of work in in athletics. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’m so talented. I’m going to just lie on the couch.' I still did all the work," Anders says. "But that work to me wasn’t work to win, it was work to showcase my talent."
This is really a small distinction, but it's important. Anders was working hard. He was talented. But so was everyone else. And this podcast — and the science behind it — was telling him that if he believed he was in control of how quickly he could move the boat — if he didn't give in to the idea that his top speed was limited by his genetics — he could work even harder, and the work he put in would be more productive.
This idea might have been new to Anders, but Charles Duhigg told Freakonomics that it's something that the U.S. Marine Corps figured out a while ago:
The Corps, as a whole, never tells anyone that there’s such a thing as natural-born leaders. Because that implies that you don’t have any control over whether you’re a leader or not. Instead, what they do is they complement shy people who take a leadership role. And they say to them, “Look, I know it was hard for you to do that, but you did a great job.”
And that's it. Three minutes and 41 seconds. And the podcast moved on to discussing "how to make to-do lists that really work."
"I was thinking the entire car ride, 'Wow, I really genuinely thought that talent was all I needed, and it’s not.'”
"It’s a really small part of it, yeah," Anders admits. "Once that segment came up, that was sort of all I thought about for the rest of the car ride. I was thinking the entire car ride, 'Wow, I really genuinely thought that talent was all I needed, and it’s not.' I was just like, 'Wow, I’m an absolute idiot for thinking that my entire life.'"
So, what did Anders do with this new-found knowledge? Did he rush back to Princeton and tell his new rowing partner, Nareg Guregian, what he had learned?
"No," he says, laughing. "I didn’t want to tell him that. That makes me look like a bum to him. You know, it was a new partnership. I said, 'I am not gonna mention this one bit. I’m gonna see if this mindset actually works and if this mindset actually helps.'"
And did it help?
"Boy, oh God, did it help," he says. "It made the steady state actually, it makes it meaningful. When you’re spending so much time doing the same thing over and over again (because that’s what rowing is — you’re taking the same stroke over and over and over again for you know three, four hours a day) it helps pass the time, because you’re saying to yourself, 'This is why we’re going to win.' We got so much faster. It was shocking how much faster we got."
Anders says that in the six weeks he and Nareg trained for the trails together, they made more gains in speed than Anders had made in the previous eight months. And by the time the trials came around in June, the pair was ready.
"Nareg and I, I mean, I don’t even think we were in anyone’s top-three or top-four or top-five even," he says. "But we knew how fast the other teams were and we knew how fast we had gotten. And we said to ourselves, you know, let’s win every race."
Anders and Nareg didn't win every race. They won almost every race. And, most importantly, they won the race that counts — the final.
"After we finished, I let out a scream and sorta just laid down in the boat and passed out a little," he says. "That was every little thing I had in me. And I’m very glad I had every little thing, because that boat that we beat was not too far behind us."
So Anders and Nareg are on their way to Rio. When races begin next weekend, Anders says their efforts — and not their talent — will determine their fate.
Oh, and one more thing. That day back in May was the very first time Anders Weiss had ever listened to a podcast. And now?
"Oh, I’m a podcast listener now. Yeah," he says. "Yes I am. I’m going to keep listening to them 'til I die."
This segment aired on July 30, 2016.