Sami Inkinen: 5 things ordinary people can do to do extraordinary things


Sami Inkinen is known for a couple of things. Not only did he sell a company he co-founded for US$2.5-billion in February this year, he’s also a master triathlete and holds the record for rowing across the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii (4345km) together with his wife.

Recently during his trip to South Africa’s popular Cape Epic cycling race, the co-founder of online real estate company Trulia joined a group of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts for a sharing session at New Media Labs.

Borrowing lessons from what he’s picked up during his business life as well as sport, the topic of his presentation was on how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.

1. Experimentation, not experts

“One thing that I tend to do, particularly when it comes to an area I know nothing about, is to talk to a number of people who actually know something about it,” he said. “In the case of rowing, I ended up speaking to a dozen ocean rowers.” Everyone told him the same thing: you row two hours, then sleep for two hours, and you repeat that process 24/7. The lack of a healthy sleep pattern though leads to hallucination and other symptoms of fatigue.

Inkinen ended up talking to a bunch of sleep experts who said they should limit the sleep sections to three or four per day — so rotate every six or eight hours.

Because of bad weather conditions at night, however, the two started rowing for 18 hours non-stop before calling it a day. This meant that both rowed for 12 hours together and one then hit the hay for the remaining six.

“We ended up inventing a whole new way of ocean rowing through accidental experimentation,” he found. “One of the reasons we went so fast and ended up finishing very strongly was because of the fact that we’ve invented a new way of recovering sleep and then rowing.”

He explained that this experimentation approach was a lot more valuable than what the experts told him. “If you’re looking for one, five or ever ten percent improvement, you practically almost never find that insight by talking to the experts,” the triathlete said.

“How do 23-year-olds in Silicon Valley go and disrupt massive industries? They completely ignore the experts. They experiment with a bunch of stuff and figure out something that’s ten times more efficient or better,” he argued.

2. Growth mindset

“It’s not that somehow over night I was doing an 8:24 Ironman time. The truth is something completely different, which is little practical things that I have done,” he explained. “What I have done after every single race is I never cared whether I was the sixth or first or twenty-sixth.”

He noted that every time he sat down, he wrote down three things he’s learned from the event or the preparation. “And so, after seven years, four races a year, when you write three different things down every time, you end up with 84 different things. And It sounds very simple, but if you think about the compounded returns, it’s hugely powerful.”

Always focus on improving something a tiny amount continuously. I ended up doing research on superstar athletes — people who win the gold medals. The difference between them and the ones getting sixth, is that winners apply this kind of growth mindset. They don’t focus on the gold they might get, but instead, always focus on how they can become better, because this is a continuous process and improvement.

On a business side, he explained, there’s a lot of focus on the intellect and high IQ. “I personally would take a team that has this kind of a growth mindset over a bunch of super smart people any time because the continuous improvement over a long period of time beats any kind of a high IQ team. Absolutely.”

“If you want to achieve extraordinary things, when you apply compounded interest to your learnings, it’s amazingly powerful what you can accomplish,” Inkinen said.

3. Measure everything that matters

The entrepreneur shares a story where he was training and testing to optimise the amount of fat he’s burning when rowing. Instead of burning carbohydrates, burning fat is apparently very important and efficient.

“If we can improve or increase the amount of fat we utilise, almost at 100% we’ll become what we call bone proof. Usually, under normal circumstances, people rowing will burn between 20% and 40% fat. I managed to burn up to 90% which became the key factor when I row,” he said. “We wanted to turn our bodies into fat burning machines because everyone has almost unlimited amount of fat in their bodies, no matter how lean they are.”

The point of the story is not so much about the fact that burning fat can help you do some special things for endurance courses. The point of the story, he explained, is more about how important measuring is when applying them to the previous two points of compounded interest and experimenting.

“Measuring everything matters. Once you know what are the contributors to your success, the act of measuring is extremely powerful,” he said.

4. Stop doing 90% of the things

The lunch he had for 45 days, every single day when rowing was freeze-dried vegetables, freeze-dried ground beef, some olives, salt and olive oil. He soon realised that, using the pressure cooker they had on the boat, he didn’t have to boil the water. Instead he mixed all the ingredients with lukewarm water, which also worked and was “palatable” enough.

By making this simple adjustment to his routine, Inkinen was able to save a lot of time:

I saved about 15 minutes a day which I could have been using to do one or two other key activities — sleeping or rowing. I ended up doing the same thing with my breakfasts — saving another 15 minutes. Rounded all up, you’ll get around 22-and-a-half hours, which means you get a day extra. This means you get one day more progress out of 45 days.

“While building Trulia, I took about five minutes each day and wrote down what I did. The purpose of that was to have data at the end of the week to see where my time went,” he shared. “It was amazing to see how much waste there was. When you cut that waste off, it’s like the water that didn’t have to be cooked and you save an incredible amount of time.”

He said that it’s amazing how much crap accumulates in a person’s calendar. “My point is not to become a robot who does only these two things (endurance races and work), but there’s just so much waste and junk out there.”

“If you want to accomplish extraordinary things, the most important thing you to look at is how you spend your time,” he said.

5. Embrace the process of pain

Whether you’re rowing or running a business, Inkinen found that the ultimate escape the miserable moments is to embrace the pain and process. He says that your mind needs to make peace with the fact that you’re in the “pain zone” instead of thinking about what isn’t.


Inkinen and his wife after rowing across the ocean

“We took about 1 million strokes from California to Hawaii. Probably around one million times, I felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t physically pleasurable. It’s just uncomfortable,” he recalled that it answer was not to think about the pot of gold at the end or the shower or your bed. “These are the worst kind of things you can think about, because once your brain breaks through all of that, and the pain gets through you become miserable,” he said.

While I’m a huge fan of following your passion, finding and doing something that’s meaningful to your life, I just don’t think — especially when you’re building a company from scratch — passion and purpose alone is not gonna take you to the extraordinary thing you want to get to.

“What I found is that the ultimate escape of pain and misery is to embrace the pain and process. Once you’ve done that — unless it’s true physical pain of someone cutting your arm off — it can’t break you,” he proudly said.

Images via GrindTV and Institute for Responsible Nutrition.

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter


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