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Olympian Marnie McBean on how setting reasonable goals will help you achieve remarkable results.

The Power of More, by Marnie McBean (Greystone Books).

Marnie McBean holds three gold medals and a bronze medal from Olympic rowing competitions and is Canada’s most successful Summer Olympic athlete. She is now a Specialist in Athlete Preparation and Mentoring with the Canadian Olympic Committee. She has a degree in Honors Kinesiology from the University of Western Ontario as well as three honorary doctorates. 

She is a member of Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame and an ambassador for Right to Play, Fast and Female, and Plan Canada’s "Because I am a Girl" initiative. She lives in Toronto. Follow Marnie on Twitter: @MarnieMcB and visit her website at

The Power of More shows readers how to accomplish their goals, big or small. Whether you are a novice runner who wants to run a 10k race, a sales rep who wants to increase market share, or an elite athlete trying to conquer the world stage, you can achieve your ambition by believing in the importance of doing a little bit more.


Julie Wilson: Reading your book, I'm reminded of TedTalks and In particular, I'm interested in how one person's story can operate as both a highly personalized anecdote and a universal lesson plan, as if to say, "This is how I did it. Now, over to you."

How did you come to see yourself as a mentor. Why are you drawn to addressing audiences, do you think?

Marnie McBean: In 2005, I got asked if I saw myself as a normal person by a group of Olympic athletes I’d just spoken too. I really believed that if I could help them understand that I was as normal as they were, that they would be able to tap into a similar kind of success. That’s when I really began to speak out and started to mentor. At the time I referred to myself as a Peer Performance Mentor.

As background, I learn so much about myself while answering audience questions. After returning from each Olympic Games, I’d get grilled by the media, family and friends, school kids and corporate audiences, in particular about how I (we) was able to achieve such incredible things. I always make a genuine effort listen to and respect the question so I can give an honest and fresh answer, even if I’ve been asked the same question countless times before. It’s fun to let the current answer emerge.

I loved my sport and what I did, but I didn’t feel positive every day, I didn’t like what I did every day, my favourite race/moment was different every day. I didn’t see things the same way in my first four years as I did in my second or third set of four years (an Olympic cycle). I studied how my answers had progressed, and in listening to my teammates and people in business, or other sports, I began to notice the similar foundation even among people from completely different careers. More often, I wasn’t talking about or hearing about high performance sport, but a common inner dialogue about how/why we do or don’t achieve our goals.


Marnie McBean won a silver medal in the prestigious single scull event at the 1993 World Rowing Championships.

Early in my career, I spoke at a school about believing in yourself and not being afraid to try. There was a question and answer period. Since it wasn’t a primary school, I didn’t have to worry about questions like, "What’s your favourite dinosaur?" (T-Rex. No, wait! It’s a Velociraptor!) A young girl stood up and asked me if I considered myself to be a role model. The way she asked it clearly indicated that she thought the answer would be yes even though I was thinking no. How could I be? I was just a normal person, so aware of all of my faults.

The only difference between now and then is that I’m not caught off guard by the idea anymore. I realize, now, that a to be a role model simply means that I’ve got a bit more experience— a role model is an example of achievement, not necessarily the perfect embodiment of it.

JW: What makes you unique in this role?

MMcB: What is unique about me, or maybe what gives me the confidence to speak up, is that I don’t expect others to achieve my kind of success; they will achieve their own kind of success. My message isn’t a manual; everyone has his or her own path. That it is normal people who achieve success is a message that excites me. That is what I want to share; all of the honest dialogue that comes with being normal is the most powerful thing we can do. Walking people through our successes is fun, but only serves to provide examples of goals to aim for. However, walking people through our lows teaches so much more. It teaches what to expect along the path.

JW: How important is it to remain flexible with our goals? I'm thinking in particular about a TedTalk in which Brene Brown discusses the notion of shame, the desire to fly just under the radar because it's hard to enter the arena when you don't feel 100%. Your racing career ended due to back injury, but then you created a mentorship role as a specialist in Olympic athlete preparation. Talk to us a bit about that time and the transition.

MMcB: For sure, we have to be flexible, without question. We don’t live in a vacuum: life happens. What was I going to do? Throw a tantrum because I got injured at a terrible time? What’s the line? We’ve lost the battle but not the war? I had (have) a lot of life to live. We have to reassess or redirect as our environment and/or ambition changes. But we shouldn’t expect to feel 100%, perfect, perfectly ready. That’s a myth. "I’m as ready as I can be," is about as good as it gets.

Brene Brown speaks of vulnerability as "emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty." It’s not weakness and that is exactly on point with everything I discuss. Having fears or doubts does not mean you won’t be a champion. It more likely means you have a challenging goal that you care about and an ambition to achieve it. All successful people have fear and doubt aka vulnerability.

Brown’s thoughts on shame resonate with me. Those challenging moments in which we have three choices; quit, close our eyes and pray, or attack. I’ve quit on some things, and I’ve taken the second choice more times than I’d like. Brown calls it shame; I call it a lingering question. "What if?" What if I’d done more, done something different, tried harder, kept going? Avoiding that question is often what propels us in the future to be braver, to attack the very thing that scares us.

There is no courage without fear. The key to my mentoring is very similar to Brown’s message on shame. Embrace it. Let your vulnerability be the devil voice on one shoulder, just as your preparation and ambition is the angel voice on the other. The rest is a matter of volume control.

JW: Your goal with this book, as in your mentorships, is not to add stress to the reader's life, but to help them wear it well. Talk a bit about stress. Is it a natural partner to ambition? Why don’t we just sit on the couch and watch the world go by from a safe distance?

MMcB: Stress is the spice of life. It’s what makes our days and lives interesting. It simply means we care. We are being patronizing and naïve if we think we can help others evade stress. We can take a vacation from it. That’s kind of nice. But eventually, ambitious people will seek out goals that are accompanied by some level of discomfort. Consider Susan Cain, author of Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She’s a self-avowed, hardcore introvert who has ambition to help other introverts, but she just can’t stop taking about it. That’s ambition at work.

That said, I do think that people assign their ambition differently. Let’s say someone has a job they don’t like, or it’s a placeholder, a medical student who works as a barista in a café because she needs the money. She doesn’t have a goal to be the café manager, but if she is an ambitious person she may want to be considered a good, if not a great, barista while she’s employed by the café. Her goal, and hence her stress, would come simply from a personal desire and commitment to good job performance, no matter what she’s doing. Why? Because it makes her job and her day more interesting.

I don’t think my book (or any discussion of performance, for that matter) would resonate for someone with no ambition. If they don’t want to do/try/learn more in their life, and they are fine with their status quo lifestyle, then that’s their choice. Personally, I’d get bored, and I think the majority of people would too.

JW: In your book, you say that once you start to achieve goals, it becomes natural to be more pro-active. Would this be the difference between the person we believe was perhaps born to excel at something vs. the person who, by virtue of believing in themselves, is able succeeds via sheer will?

MMcB: You might be asking about momentum in your question. Once we start achieving goals, we develop a momentum or a rhythm (courage?) that helps bridge gaps in performance with new/harder/more nerve-wracking challenges. Some people may be born risk-takers, but being prepared is still the best way to become a "trained" risk-taker. You really don’t know anything until you try or ask. I think it was Wayne Gretzky who said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So in some vein, yes, as the adage goes, where there is a will there is a way. But can you succeed?

Stepping away from a goal or changing it can wipe out that momentum. The hardest part of reaching your goal is starting it; once I get into a rhythm, I’m comfortable. But that doesn’t always mean that starting something comes easy for me. At some point, I have to just throw myself in and try.

JW: Where do dreams fit into the reality of achieving your goal? Or do they?

MMcB: Dreams are the seeds of all of our goals, and they may be the "Miracle Grow" too. We dream in order to start a goal, and then as we progress towards it, it those dreams that encourage us to be creative and try things we hadn’t previously dared or imagined.

JW: Talk about the small steps. You suggest that to attempt anything larger than a small step is to unnecessarily put ourselves in the realm of superheroes. You make the good example of climbing the CN Tower, a big accomplishment, yet each step is just a little step.

MMcB: Every day, I just want to get a little bit better—at something. I want to feel some movement towards my goals. That might be keeping my in-box clear, or actually getting to my invoices and receipts. Big sudden jumps are hard to plan for, but little ones can be mapped out and taken methodically.

That said, if our steps are too small it can be hard to remain focused. If I wanted to lose weight, for instance, and targeted only one ounce per day, that would only amount to two pounds a month. I’d certainly be happy to lose two pounds every month—24 pounds a year! But, for me, one ounce a day is hardly something to sink my teeth into. I like a challenge; it makes it more interesting for me. Even the little steps need to be interesting to keep us engaged. To illustrate, the first 800 steps of climbing to the top of the CN Tower were easy. Yet, even though the steps didn’t change, the next 800, and the 800 after that, became challenging! I was very engaged in each little, and, by the end, grueling, step I took. It was the accumulation of little steps that lead to the achievement of one, large goal.

Marnie McBean, author of The Power of More (Greystone Books) (Photo credit: Catherine Farquharson)

JW: What new goals are you currently pursuing?

MMcB: I just wrote this book, a completely foreign task! I had to put an outline together, then figure out how I needed to reformat my day in order to get it done. It required being still and indoors. I set myself a daily word goal, but allowed myself to be flexible because from day to day the word total wasn’t based on perfect execution. I loved the editing process! It was like being coached!

I’m also part of the support unit getting another Olympic team ready to achieve their own goals. I need to understand what they are going through—because it’s not about what I went through—and help them accept or navigate their own way to their success.

I’ve also launched new web site at and have developed some new presentations to deliver to corporate and event audiences.

And I have my personal life and relationships with friends that I’m constantly working on. We’re creating a goal of getting a dog. The debate rages on. I had a Bernese Mountain dog, so I'm also drawn to Great Pyrenees and Leonbergers. There's been some discussion about the various poodle crosses, but they're just not Berners. For now, the new dog date is post 2012 Summer Olympic Games (July 27 - August 12).

There are places in the world I dream of traveling to. I’m constantly open to learning, and I love that I can never predict where those lessons are going to come from.

JW: Thank you for your time, and thoughtful responses, Marnie!

Read an excerpt from The Power of More, by Marnie McBean.


As part of the goal-setting process, it’s wise to give yourself a range of expectations. It’s like going to a car wash where there is a range of services to choose from—do you want the Basic, the BasicPlus, or the Super wash? As a young rower my Basic goal during selection was to make the team; I’d be okay with that. The BasicPlus goal that I would have been happy with was to be a leader in the eight. My Super goal, the great one, was to be the top starboard and in the pair with Kathleen.

You don’t perform in a vacuum, and your abilities vary from day to day. The point of preparation and training is to minimize the variation, but there will always be standout great days, when giving more seems easy; average to good days; and bad days. This is also true of your competitors or teammates. Understanding that your performance can be any combination of these variations will help you perform at your optimal level for that day. Someone else may have the best result, or worst, of his or her career, and there is nothing you can do about that.

Before every race, to give us a realistic idea of what to expect, my coach, my rowing partner, and I would use the real data of our skills and speed versus those of the competition to create a race profile prediction. We did not assume that this prediction would play out exactly, but we assumed that it could. At the 1989 World Championships in Bled, Yugoslavia, I was excited about racing at the senior level for the first time. Past data would have indicated to European countries that Canadian rowers shouldn’t be a threat, but we were a new team and hoped to change this perception.

Based on our racing before getting to Bled, beating East Germany and Romania was improbable. Even our greatest race wouldn’t be enough to challenge them. They would have to have a really bad day for us to beat them. We could hope for that, but it was extremely unlikely.

Our data told us that we could be competitive with the West Germans, Bulgarians, and Russians. This meant that a bronze medal was possible for us. Knowing this allowed us to race smart. When the race started, we didn’t panic when East Germany and Romania pulled quickly ahead. To have matched their speed and raced their type of race would have put us outside of our capabilities. It wasn’t that we let them go, but we knew to keep to our race plan, which was designed to beat all the others. We knew we could do that.

We didn’t win a medal, but we realized a breakthrough. We had beaten the Russians and the Bulgarians, and for the first time in many years, Canada was beating some of the "big" nations. Our fourth-place position, just 0.96 seconds off West Germany’s time, proved we were becoming a legitimate threat. It was a good race and I was very proud of it, but I cannot tell you how many times I sat in my university classes the following year tapping out 0.96 on the chronograph of my Timex watch. Daydreaming and distracted from school, I went over and over everything I thought I could have done better the previous summer. Just one second faster—argh! I was left so hungry for more; I felt its power.

If we had tried to keep up with the East Germans, it’s very likely that we would have ended up fifth or sixth. Keeping our expectations in a realistic range let us make the most of our capabilities.

A realistic range of expectations can be very high, if you’re very confident. When I meet someone who doesn’t know that I raced at the Olympics, my favourite response to the inevitable the power of more question "How did you do?" is a modest-sounding "I did as well as I could have expected." Most people then assume that I came tenth, or worse. They say that they still think it’s pretty cool that at least I had the experience of going to the Olympics, and then they change the subject. On one occasion, someone followed up with me after doing some research: "You lied to me. You won at the Olympics!" With a big grin I replied, "I didn’t lie. I expected to win."

From the book The Power of More: How Small Steps Can Help You Achieve Big Goals, © 2012, by Marnie McBean. Published by Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

May 2, 2012
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