Michael Phelps and the 98:2 Principle

By: Jim Murphy

Michael Phelps and the 98:2 Principle


  1. Self-awareness is crucial to maximizing your potential and living the life you’ve dreamed about (and the one even greater that awaits).
  2. The greatest obstacle to that life, fear, comes from self-centeredness and an inflated view of self (which often turns into self-rejection).
  3. An accurate view of self paves the way for you to be fearless.
  4. Michael Phelps, winner of 23 Olympic gold medals, can help us learn how to have an accurate view of self.

“Sometimes I get in my head that I’m somebody, and then I’m easily offended. But when I know I’m nobody, I could never be offended.” – Mike Tyson

In the Fall of 2021 I took a trip to Mesa, Arizona to attend a full-day Better Your Best workshop with Dr. Debbie Crews, LPGA Hall of Fame instructor. As part of the workshop, she invited me to put on the Oculus 3D headset in the clubhouse.

Once I put on the headset, I was in an elevator and invited to push the button to go up, way up. When the door opened, I was on the top floor of a skyscraper looking at a long, skinny plank extending about six feet out over the city. Of course, the offer is to walk the plank. Since it’s 3D, it looks very real.

In the past I had a bit of a fear of heights, so peering perilously at the plank and the tiny people and cars below, my body told me “Don’t do it!” In fact, everything in my physiology said DO NOT step forward. What overcame the fear and allowed me to walk the plank, was…. the truth.

I knew the truth was that I was on solid ground. I knew the truth was that I couldn’t trust my feelings. I knew I had to trust what I knew to be true, not the fear I felt.

Knowing the truth is so powerful and important to living an extraordinary life. One of those crucial truths is to know who you are, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Also super helpful is something you may not have thought of: how much credit you deserve for your success, or anything good in your life… which brings us to Mr. Phelps, the most extraordinary Olympian of all time.

The 98:2 Principle

Michael Phelps has won more Olympic gold medals than most countries. The question is, how much was his doing, and was he responsible for, and how much was God or the universe responsible for? Think about your answer in terms of a percentage. For example, 50:50 would mean it was 50% Michael and 50% God/universe.

In other words, for Michael to have by far more success than anyone in Olympic Games history, how much credit should he take?

He’s the one who swam the laps, who had the early mornings, was willing to suffer, sacrificed time with friends and family, who literally gave up everything and dedicated his life to training perhaps harder or more effectively than anyone else would dare.

So, does he deserve 98% of the credit? Obviously, he could have sat on the couch all day. Maybe he deserves 100%. Or does he deserve 2%?

Why this is a valid and powerful question

You might think why does it matter? I’m not religious, so… God, the universe, who cares? It matters immensely in the realm of self-awareness. And fearlessness.

When you realize that every good thing in your life was given to you, your life will change.

Think of it this way. What are the most important factors that contributed to Phelps’ success? Let’s start with his body, his training, and his mind/mental toughness. Where did he get the DNA and body type suited for long, smooth strokes? From his parents. Well, what role did he have in choosing his parents?

Now imagine he had the same parents, but he was born 400 years ago in Afghanistan. What are the chances he wins 23 gold medals? It’s 0.00%. There were no Olympic Games 400 years ago. Likely he would have been a peasant, spending his days searching for food.

How important was the body he was born with and the country and century he was born in? Well, without going 3 for 3 there, he’s got no chance. Zero point zero.

Michael Phelps, because of his hard work, and willingness to face his fears and suffer for extended periods of time, definitely deserves credit. In his free will, he chose to do the work. He chose to suffer.

But, where did he get the mind that could believe he could one day be great, and thus push himself to get there?

How many millions of people on earth, right now, would love to have, but from nothing of their own doing, do not have, a mind that can dream big dreams, a pool to swim in, or even a body that could swim?

Phelps definitely deserves credit for all that he sacrificed, and so do you. 2%. That 2% is a big deal, but it’s not 98%.

The Third Principle of Inner Excellence

One of the biggest challenges in performance and in life is fear, which is largely defined by self-concern. When we’re extremely nervous or afraid, it usually comes from a self-focused, future-based mindset. Generally, if you’re really nervous or concerned, it’s not about if you’re playing partner will make the putt or not, or whether your neighbor will get the promotion. It’s about you, your family, your career.

This is where the third principle of Inner Excellence comes in:

Selfless is Fearless. Self-mastery is mastery of the ego. Three check-ups on ego mastery: to be unembarrassable, unoffendable, and unirritable.

This principle is crucial to your life and performance because ego is the primary fire that fuels fear. Your ego, that part of your mind that is always threatened and always comparing, can never rest.

As some of you know by now, the Inner Excellence definition of humility is as an accurate view of self; to be free from self-inflation or self-rejection.

Since fear is largely a self-centered thing, if you want to be fearless (and more confident), you can do this by being selfless; then there would be no threats to defend and no need to self-protect.

Developing selflessness as a character trait is extremely hard, but with the knowledge that everything you’ve ever achieved was 98% given to you, it might make that step slightly easier for you..to let go of entitlement–I deserve to have my needs and desires met–and live with more gratitude, which is connected to inner peace and inner strength.

When you know who you are, and have an accurate view of your true self and what you’ve been given, becoming fearless is a real possibility.

What to do

  1. Recognize all the elements in your life that had to unfold for you to get where you are, and how 98% of it (or so) was not your doing.
  2. Focus on your 2%:
    1. Give 100% of what you have each day.
    2. Be fully present.
    3. Be grateful.
    4. Focus on your routines and only what you can control.
  3. Decide that you’re going to free yourself from the weight and stress of self-inflation and self-rejection.
  4. Ask yourself, “Where in my life have I gotten upset?”
    1. In each instance, ask yourself if you were offended, embarrassed or irritated. Remember you lose your power when your ego or emotions (they often go together) run your life in that moment).
  5. Ask yourself, “How do I view myself?” What is the primary role or status you think of yourself as? For me, it was as a professional athlete. Then when my career ended, I was totally lost. I was always concerned about losing it, and when I did it was devastating. If your definition of self is that you deserve (more than 2%) credit in your life, is that your ego?
  6. Practice looking for moments in life that your ego might have influenced you. Ask yourself if you really want to be fearless and live an extraordinary life, and if you’re ready to be selfless and therefore fearless (no self to protect or attachments to worry about).

The choice is up to you. You can forget what you read today and file it away among the countless articles you read. Or… you can take steps today to make life-changing decisions, about how you want to live, how you want to feel, and who you want to become. And especially… whether or not you want to be selfless so you can be fearless.

Love Jim


My schedule: I’m finishing this just before I board my flight from Seattle to Dubai, UAE. (14:35 hours!). I’ll post some pics on Instagram if you want to follow. On Monday I head to Muscat, Oman, which borders Yemen to the south, Saudi Arabia to the west, and UAE to the north. Iran is about 35 miles away, across the Straight of Hormuz.


Sorry, no audio version today. It should be in all future articles though!

PREVIOUS POST Five Skills That Will Change Your Life: Be Adaptable (Skill #5)
NEXT POST How to Talk About Your Performance in an Empowering Way

Be first in line – the VIP list

When you sign up for the VIP list, you’ll be the first to receive new articles, interviews, techniques and tools—straight to your inbox.

    Join the VIP list to get tips on how to train your mind and heart.