Did you hear the one about the guy who got his wife to row a boat with him from San Francisco to Hawaii--and still managed to stay married?

How? He did what my buddy, Olympian Nate Carr, always tells people: "Don't GO through the experience; GROW through it."

Fat Chance Row

In 2014 Trulia co-founder Sami Inkinen and his wife, Meredith Loring, completed what they named their Fat Chance Row by manning the oars for 12 hours a day for 45 days covering over 2,750 miles in a tiny two-person boat. Before you break out Dad's old fishing boat and try this yourself (something my wife told me wouldn't be happening in our family) you should know this was a specially equipped ocean rowboat complete with electronic communication and navigational equipment.

Not that it mattered.

"About a week into our row the equipment stopped working," Sami told me. They had to navigate by compass and the stars until they could get the tech back up and running. And all this was going on while Sami and Meredith were hit with four- and five-storey high waves as they struggled to escape the California coast.

"I was very scared, and my mental state began to deteriorate," Sami said. It was Meredith, whom he originally had to talk into doing the row in the first place, who got him back on an even keel. "She pulled me out of a black hole," he said. You've got to love a partner who scrapes you up and helps get your act together.

That bad first week turned into two as Sami and Meredith fought the storms and wondered if they would ever be able to escape the mainland. Then, the weather eased up and they found themselves actually heading out to sea. Don't think it was a picnic after that. It wasn't all calm waters and communing with migrating sea turtles.

"Meredith and I rowed more than a million strokes each and it was uncomfortable all of the time," Sami said. Each rowing day was the aerobic equivalent of running two marathons.

So how did they stay healthy, mentally sharp and push through the pain?

Embrace the Pain

"I had to embrace the pain and live in the moment," said Sami. This is true for anything in life--sports, business or even a personal challenge. Sami said that dangling some sort of reward like a carrot is bad news. "If you do that, you're going to fall apart because eventually the pain is going to get through." But once Sami embraced everything he was feeling, good and bad, he had a breakthrough.

When I look at that, I see that it's all about your attitude and learning along the way so you can grow. It's something you can also apply to business because, if you're like me, you know that if something can go wrong in business, it does go wrong. I asked Sami if he thought the reason people broke down and businesses failed was because they couldn't embrace the difficulties they found along the way.

Sami agreed, but took it further--he believes the number one reason businesses fail is because the founder quit trying. It takes more than grit and determination he said. It's all about persistence. But I wondered, how do you figure out when to keep pushing through and when quitting is actually the best thing?

Finding Your True North

The answer, Sami said, is to find your True North. "It comes down to values--who do you want to be? What do you want your company to be?" Sometimes saving a company requires going into that gray area. "Are you willing to fail, comforted by the fact that you took the high road?"

For Sami during the expedition, but also in life, it boils to down to this set of priorities:

  1. Putting health and safety first and not risking their lives.
  2. Putting their marriage first and not risking their relationship.
  3. Committing to what it took to complete the expedition.

I have the same philosophy, which might be why I like Sami so much. He knows how to set priorities, but he doesn't compromise on quality. I really admire Sami's dedication to everything he does. He's a triathlon world champion in his age group, a business innovator (he received word that Trulia was sold for a crazy sum while he was rowing across the Pacific), and a veteran of the Finnish military reconnaissance forces. Whatever challenge he sets out to achieve, he takes daily notes and reviews them to see where he might improve next time. Sami said that it's this growth mindset of always moving just a little bit forward each time that is the real key to success.

Growth Mindset

His hunger to always improve also played a part in the Fat Chance Row. Despite being a top athlete with an excellent diet, a couple of years ago Sami was diagnosed as being pre-diabetic. The culprit was all those sports drinks and power bars containing sugar and simple carbohydrates we eat for endurance. He started to wonder--what would happen if he switched to a sugar-free, whole-food diet during a major endurance event?

It sounds crazy, right? The average adult eats around 2,000 calories a day and Sami was going to have to eat 9,000 calories; Meredith about 5,000. How would they do that without sugar and carbs? Could they keep their energy up? They consulted with medical experts and created a diet that was 70 percent fat and included nuts, seeds, animal protein, fruits, dehydrated vegetables, coconut butter, sugar-free dark chocolate and lots of olive oil. They never touched a sports bar, gel or drink. Not only did this diet work, Sami said their recovery time after the row was unprecedented and, of the 12 pairs who had completed this journey, they had the fastest time even though they took a 350-mile detour around stormy seas.

Fat chance this would succeed? Better believe it did. More people have traveled to the moon than have completed this feat. You could say that Sami didn't just row through this experience; he grew through it, too.