Stig Severinsen is a four-time World Champion freediver and holder of multiple Guinness World Records and the author of Breatheology – The Art of Conscious Breathing. Stig is also the founder of the health & performance optimizing concept Breatheology®
My Definition Of Success | Success to me is being able to live your dreams and do exactly what you love while at the same time realizing that you can’t have everything in life at once. I have seen plenty of people being very successful in sports or business but very unsuccessful with their kids or family. It’s all about balance and choices. Since I am very competitive and dedicated I put unlimited time and energy in a project once I set a goal. That has also meant a deliberate choice of not having a girlfriend or getting kids during these years but now after I have passed 40 of course I reflect more on these values and feel it is soon time for a change in my life.
I Am Driven By | Actually I think it is more interesting to understand what drives “people” – what makes a person “tick”? I remember being asked this same question many years ago while lecturing for a group of leaders from a large international pharmaceutical company. My answer was simply that you need to be directed by internal drivers – not by external motivational factors such as power, fame, money or sex.
And I recall the shock on their faces when I even advised them to leave the company if they did not feel happy about their work! The truth is I don´t believe in motivation – nobody can “motivate” me to train for a new world record simply by promising me a lot of money or fame. These are “short-term” goals and will not make you go that extra mile. I believe in inspiration – whether this stems from an internal source or from another person or event that has impacted your life greatly. When you are driven by passion and trying to serve a bigger purpose then you become unstoppable! So I am driven by showing other people what incredible things can be achieved on a single breath and by improving the life of thousands of people around the world – one breath at a time!
My Highlights | The fact that I have been able to create a successful career both as a scientist, athlete and businessman makes me quite proud. Always staying true to my passion of nature and sports and not being worried about how it would all work out! I have never received any real sponsorship nor borrowed money for any of my businesses. While I was doing my PHD in Medicine (doing a research doctor degree) in Denmark and Sweden, I also started my first company back in 2002, which I still own 100%. At the same time I trained hard to become the best freediver in the world and in 2003 I broke 3 World Records in less than 4 months. I made it very clear to my professor at the University that my freediving career always had first priority and he accepted this. The great thing about research is that you plan your own time so I would train early morning, then work at the university during the day, train again in the evening and finally work during the night back at the university. I know this might sound a bit crazy to some people but I had a lot of energy those days and luckily never needed too much sleep. So living a quite modest life I managed to use the money I got from my PHD scholarship to fuel both my athletic dreams and create a company.
It is important for me to emphasize that I could never have done all of this without the unlimited love and support from my family, friends and (ex) girlfriend. I still have a great relationship with my ex and she offered invaluable help during the two years I wrote my book “Breatheology”. Today that book has been translated into 10 languages and my concept of Breatheology is now helping thousands people around the world to create and live better lives. That makes me both happy and proud.
I am sure many people think I am most proud of being the first person in the world to hold my breath for more than 20 minutes under water or for being the first to dive deeper than 200 feet into the ocean but let me tell you what makes me most proud right at this moment – the fact that I have ultimate freedom in my life and can travel to any destination when I want to – which often happens to be visiting my beloved grandmother in Sweden. I am sitting right next to her in the garden as I am writing these lines – enjoying the late afternoon sun and the flowers. During Christmas I was also here for one week, when she turned 100 years in February I came straight from Los Angeles and stayed one week, and when she fell ill in May I also traveled here to stay and nurse her for one week. And now I am here again to enjoy the late Summer with her before I travel to Mexico and California to train and work during the next 3 months. My grandmother means the world to me and I am proud of being able to stay with the people I love on a regular basis.
The Difference Between Good And Great | This is a very simple question and it all comes down to dedication and dreams. If you start out by the goal of becoming “good” at something you have already put limits on yourself. Now, please let me underline that I think it is perfectly fine if people want to become good (or better) at something – not everyone needs to become a new world champion. But if you want to become GREAT you need to start of by saying that you want to become the BEST. Remember that every action or result you create starts in your mind…it all start with a dream you want to become true in the future. This is also why I never liked the term “High Performance” which has almost become mainstream. High Performance is for losers – why not go for HIGHEST performance! You should always be curious, always ask questions, never trust “authority” – find your own way.
A Key Talent | Nothing beats persistency – doing things over and over again on a regular basis. If you are stubborn and keep struggling – even when you fail and fall – then you will become successful in the end. Never let anybody tell you something can’t be done. I have been driven by many things but rarely does anything put me more on fire than when someone says “that can’t be done”. One thing I have realized is that my mind is very childish – maybe you could even use the word “primitive”. I have tremendous faith in myself and believe I can do the most amazing things – as long as I put my heart and soul into it! So the trick is to keep your inner dialogue alive. Everyday you must think of your dream – smell it, hear it, see it, feel it. The term “visualization” is often used but a more accurate term is the one used in sports psychology “imaging”. Because you must dream with ALL your senses (not just sight!). The more senses you apply the more real your dream will become. And once you have convinced your subconscious mind that you can do something – then you can!
Whether you are a child, grown up or old person reading this please mark my words – if someone tells you “it can’t be done” then it most probably has not been done before and it most certainly will never be done by the person who thinks like this. So this leaves you with a huge chance – the opportunity to actually DO IT. I believe in YOU!
The Characteristics Of Success | Well first of all – being a biologist – I truly believe I have inherited some very nice genes (in fact I know this since we did quite intense analyses of my genes in relationship to performance for my program “The Man Who Doesn’t Breathe” for Discovery Channel). As mentioned my grandmother is 100 years old and she has always loved sports. Her father (so my great grandfather) was the best sportsman in town. My other grandmother (on my fathers Danish side) is 97 and still lives home alone on the farm with her beloved dog Sally. The ONLY thing in life you do not choose yourself is your family (and thus genes) so I truly appreciate being given a strong and healthy body.
But genes alone do not cut it – if I had not put endless hours into my training I would never have become a champion. I have always been a “winner”. This sounds like bragging to many people, but I have always aimed to win. In fact at some point it became “second nature” – nearly natural. I expected to win and succeed. This gives tremendous strength and self-confidence but can also be very dangerous. It’s all about balance – if you become too cocky or maybe even lazy – then you are doomed to crash and burn! It is the story of Hybris and Nemesis (in case you don´t know this story from mythology then look it up – it will bring you timeless wisdom – so Google it).
But – I never saw the point of going to a world championship thinking “Well, I might be lucky and place second” – why on earth limit my dreams and potential to being second-best when I have put all my life, blood, sweat and tears (and money!!) into something. I aspire for greatness – and I think everyone else should do the same. It does not matter what field you work or create in – greatness always echoes and when the energy is right you can help other people do great things, simply by showing the way and make the world a better place.
Principles I Live By | My mother pioneered the way blind and visually impaired children get help in the Nordic countries and has spent a lifetime teaching, lecturing and writing books on this subject. My younger brother Martin is a phenomenal eye-surgeon and help bringing sight back to almost blind people (cataract operations) and he is always by my side when I do my record attempts. My older sister Mariann is a nurse, so in runs in our genes to help others in the world. Helping others and feeling their gratitude is the best thing you can do.
I believe you should always be honest – that is also why I have absolutely zero “respect” for athletes who have used doping or cheated in other ways to win fame and glory. Not only cheating themselves – but also the “clean and pure” athletes they have competed against. I am disgusted to see how the world (especially of business and media) is prostituting itself around people who have cheated to become successful. Money is often ugly business and I think it’s most disgraceful that people who should simply be neglected and forgotten are often used for endorsements, as spokes-persons or even “heroes”. Dishonesty has never been a virtue of any true hero and we should pay more attention to which people we allow to be the heroes of teenagers and young children.
So be honest, work hard and be kind!
Critical Skills I Develop | One skill that I have benefited greatly from in my freediving career is my ability to relax completely – in my body, mind and spirit. Not many people think about this, but relaxation can certainly be learned. I am often asked how I can lower my heart rate so quickly and people seem puzzled by this (I use my mind, trained neurophysiological reflexes and special breathing techniques). But I always simply say; “I bet you can increase your heart rate by will” and of course everyone can (and has) because that is exactly what happens when adrenalin is shot into the bloodstream and you feel stressed. So train the opposite – it is very important to understand that relaxation is highly trainable. The more you do it – the better you become at it…as with anything in life! There are many ways to relax and many layers in relaxation and this is something I make people pay attention to during my lectures and workshops around the world. The great thing about relaxation is that it counteracts stress, so not only will your mind be more focused – your entire health status will benefit (lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, lower respiratory rate etc.). If you read these lines and don’t really believe me, then simply try to inhale slowly through your nose and exhale very slowly through your mouth. You can even purse your lips and make a slight hissing sound on the exhalation. This will activate your vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve which connects your breathing and heart rate center in your brain stem to your lungs, heart and visceral organs). So when you “flick that switch” the result is instant. Your brain will even start to produce hormones than make you feel happy and peaceful which will reinforce the state of relaxation. Why not do it for a few seconds? You might even start to yawn – if you do this you are on the right track. I yawn like crazy just before the start at any world record attempt. Not because I am sleepy, lazy or don’t care – but simply because I am getting in the zone.
I also have the ability to reach the state of “flow” quickly. This is a mental state where you become what you do and the notion of time disappears. When you challenge yourself doing something you love the chance of reaching flow is high. An interesting fact about flow is that it cannot be experienced rationally. If you reach the state of flow but then suddenly “realize” it and tell yourself “wauw – I am in flow” – then it is already over. There is no reflection in flow – no ego. Only the sense of perfection and feeling you are doing exactly what you love.
Finally it goes without saying that I have put a lot of time and energy into perfecting my breathing skills. I have travelled to India, trained under the guidance of personal gurus and read huge amounts of literature on historical and medical aspects on the breathing process. During the last 15 years I have also been involved in all sorts of breathing research and trained people ranging from Olympian Athletes, Multimillionaire CEO’s and patients with COPD (Smoker’s lungs), lung cancer, asthma etc. When I was at my peak shape my total lung volume was 14,01 litres. It is very important for me to explain to people that lung volume and breathing capacity is highly trainable. Medical books will tell you this is not so but as mentioned earlier do not always trust authority. Trust your instincts.
Lessons I Have Learnt | That you should never worry about tomorrow – stay positive and believe the best will always happen in your favour.
Also I have realized that people connect much stronger with individuals who dream big, try their hardest but fail. Then people share your sadness, feel empathetic about your loss or failure. Most people want you to succeed. But there is an interesting paradox. If you succeed every single time, always win and create “superhuman” results – then people might not “like” you as much – simply because life is often tough and nobody wins all the time. So when you talk openly about your failures, share your fears and big dreams then people feel you are more “human” and can relate to you in a stronger way.
Dealing With Doubt | In 2004 I was travelling around the world with a TV-crew to document my journey to set a new freediving world record. This was a big production (4 part series) for Danish National Television which took around 4 months (I had taken “leave” from my PHD-research). To make a long story short I was simply overloaded with responsibilities and ended up super stressed. I lost around 10 pounds, couldn’t sleep nor eat. To be very direct I felt like shit! Needless to say this is not the best way to prepare for a world record and I was under unbelievable pressure – mostly created by myself. My first attempt failed. I would have blown my eardrum if I had not aborted. Then I actually made the dive (67 meters in the abyss and back – all by my own power on a single breath of air) but when I surfaced I exploded in joy and forgot to breathe properly. So I lost consciousness for a brief moment and was disqualified. For a few seconds I was the deepest man on the planet – only to loose it all because of this inner volcano of exhilaration which erupted. To top things off I actually made a third (and final) attempt. I knew I would most likely black-out (loose consciousness) before reaching the surface even before I started that dive because I had no energy reserves left – so I felt fear and self-doubt like never before in my life. My body, mind and spirit were broken and I had a nasty black-out quite deep. Blood spilling from my lungs and running bright orange into the clear blue Caribbean waters in Venezuela.
This is one time where I failed and did not reach my dream and I appreciate this lesson more than any successful world record I have done after that time. Because it taught me that even if you fail the world still keeps spinning. And if you have done your best there is nothing more to say – as long as you know in your heart you gave it your all. Then you don’t really fail – you learn a lesson for life. How you deal with “failure” will define your future – as a champion or as a looser. But of course I felt devastated right after and it took a lot of work to get back on track. I also experienced “true” stress (that horrible unhealthy type where your mind becomes infected, your body collapses and self-belief crumbles). Now I know what stress feels like and what the signs are – so I can avoid repeating this and also support and advice people who are in a similar (high stress-load) situation.
Performing At My Peak | Well, obviously a lot of preparation is necessary to perform at your peak. But one “trick” I use is to simply smile – both before and during my dives. A smile puts your body and mind in a great state. Pain dissolves, fear and self-doubt disappear – happiness and love prevail.
My Future Dreams And Ambitions | I am very thankful since I am living my dream now. Combining my childhood interest for nature, science and sports and helping thousands of people around the planet to enjoy better health and performance through Breatheology. Setting new records is not important to me anymore but I want to continue producing TV-documentaries on nature and science to show how amazing our Planet is and why we need to protect it even better. I also have a dream of creating rehabilitation centers around the world where half the training is done in warm water. During these last years I have created and refined rehabilitation programs and seen amazing results. So when I include an instructor certification in my Breatheology program it would be obvious to focus also on people working with rehabilitation. There are so many individuals and “hands” around the world who would love to help other people and I want to offer the right training and “tools” to them. As of now I work together with WHO (World Health Organization) and we will continue our collaboration. Regarding my work with companies around the world related to stress and energy management I also want it to be part of any business to employ what I have coined “Phase II”. This is when nursing and training physical, mental and spiritual aspects of personal health and performance becomes a natural integrated part of a working day environment. I want to redefine and change the world’s health status – one breath at a time.
Finally I also dream of having kids. The journey to success in sport and business can be very long and tiring – and even if I travel and socialize a lot I often feel quite lonely.
Advice On Building Wealth | First of all let me emphasize that I believe the most rich and wealthy person in the world is the one who feels gratitude and true happiness inside. But if we talk on how to make a lot of money (dollars) then there are some obvious advice I would like to share that fit this day and age. Never before in history has it been easier to connect with the rest of the world and share your message, story or idea. This is all because of the Internet combined with social media. Anybody – in South Africa, South America or Australia – can open their own TV-channel in one minute. It is completely free and is named Youtube – another one is called Vimeo. Facebook and other social platforms are also completely free and give you a strong and functional “website” – with potentially millions or even billions of connections.
If I were to give ONE big simple piece of advice it is this: NEVER share your time for money. It does not matter if you make $10 or even $100 dollars per hour – if you do the math even a lifetime of hard work will not be able to bring you monetary wealth. You will be a slave of time and a slave of your work.
In order to gain TRUE wealth and win ultimate freedom you need to be able to SCALE your business (videos, messages, ideas, products) and to LEVERAGE it. The Internet is perfect because this is a world without restrictions from time or space. Finally you need to add AUTOMATION. This means that once you have done some work one time (writing a blog, making a video, created a product etc), then you can share it an infinite number of times – on “autopilot”!
I am not saying this is easy – but I am saying it is possible. Even if you are very poor…all you need is an internet connection and maybe a smartphone. If you don’t have this ask if you can visit your friend and borrow his computer, go to the public library or stay after hours in school.
The above method is how I try to share my message of Breatheology with the world while at the same time creating a solid business platform and reach ultimate freedom. Believe me – I still struggle very hard – and have done so for years…but I see the light at the end of the tunnel – and I know you will too!
On Inspiring Others | This is an interesting question and as I reflect on it I realize how much has changed in my life during the last 10 years or so. I always want to learn from the best so when I trained to set a world record for the longest underwater swim with a monofin (a merman tail – much like a dolphin tail) I reached out to my old friend Bo Jacobsen. We know each other from the time we played Underwater Rugby on the Danish National Team and he is a brilliant athlete – a 4 times world record holder in Finswimming. So I trained at his pool and stayed at his home. In return, I helped train his swimmers (Bo is also a world famous swim coach and now in charge of the Finnish National Swim Team). We made up a lot of new exercises, under water swimming, sprints without breathing etc. As an interesting side-note I have just witnessed the Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström win the European Championship (Long Course) in a new World Record time below 25 seconds for 50 meters butterfly. She did not take a single breathe during that race – in a way she was freediving the entire way! So what Bo and I started experimenting with more than 10 years ago finally seems to catch on in modern swimming.
When you approach people because you need their help then always be ready to do a favor in return. Or even better – offer something of high value to them first. Then they will most likely ask if they may help you with something also.
Always respect people’s time. Talented people are usually quite busy – both because they work hard and have success. So don´t just expect they want to help you because you offer money – or even worse – just take for granted they will help you for free.
I love to help people but since I have been exposed so much in different media (mainly from my shows on History Channel, Discovery Channel, 60 MINUTES etc) I receive thousands of requests from people each year. It is impossible to reply to all people (even if I have a Business manager who handles this) and I must admit many people are just flat out lazy. That is the backside of the medal of being “famous” (or known) – especially these days since people can easily find you on Facebook or other social media and do not have to face you when asking their questions. So be very careful when you ask other people for help – respect their time and always think about what YOU can offer in return!
Because I want to develop my online platform for Breatheology I also join a lot of seminars and workshops about Internet Marketing and Speaking Performance. And I often pay thousands of dollars to be at these events and I am sure many people don´t think about this. In fact I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on all this because it is my dream and I prefer investing in my dreams rather than keeping my money in the bank.
Finally I have the privilege of many extraordinary people reaching out to me to ask for my help – or to offer their help. I guess this is because what I do resonates with them somehow – not because they want to dive under the ice in speedos or hold their breath for 20 minutes – but because they see that there is a higher purpose to my record dives. It should never just be about the records – or ego. It should be about what else you can achieve from your records and how that can inspire other people.
I Am Inspired By | My beloved grandmother is my biggest inspiration. She is kind, funny, smart, humble, thankful and very generous. She has taught me a lot about life…always helped with my homework, asked about my dreams, shared my happiness and joy when setting new records or travelling to new countries. She loves sport and has done sport all her life – still now when she has passed 100 years she loves to do gymnastics and breathing exercises. In freediving I have been very inspired by the Italian legend Umberto Pelizzari who has been my mentor and is now a dear friend. Another hero is my old trainer from Underwater Rugby Jørgen Villadsen. Both Umberto and Jørgen are extremely talented, have great humor and are always busy. Yet, they always find time to help, give advice and share their wisdom.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | The one thing on this planet that connects us all is our breath – we live together, we breathe together and we die together. So I want to put much more focus on all the health benefits breathing (and even breath holding) brings. This applies to prevention, rehabilitation and performance. And breathing works on all aspects – body, mind and spirit. Just think about the word INSPIRE…to bring something into your soul – your “spiritus”. I want to change the world to the better – one breath at a time.
* Photo Credit – Casper Tybjerg & Morten Bjorn Larsen