Theseus' Boat: Maintaining Your Culture And Replacing Yourself

After conquering Crete, Theseus and the young warriors of Athens journeyed home on a boat with 30 oars. Upon arrival, the boat was lifted up as a display of their triumph for hundreds of years.
Obviously, a wooden boat eventually rots. Over the years, each board was taken out and replaced as necessary, until eventually none of the original boards remained. But the boat was still on display.
Plutarch asked, “Is it still Theseus’ boat?”

How does your business survive change?

As you move to higher-value roles, you’ll have to replace yourself in each area of your business. First, you’ll stop mopping; then you might cut back on coaching, or posting pictures from your workouts. Members will eventually notice.

I remember one of my favorite members, Kath, asking me, “Why do you run and hide in your office all day instead of standing on the floor and chatting with people like you used to?”

The answer, of course, was that my business wasn’t growing while I was standing around for 12 hours talking to people. But I couldn’t share that with a client, because they wouldn’t understand it (from her perspective, everything was great; from mine, I was dead-broke, exhausted and barely containing my constant anger. I was ready to fold the business.)

People notice when you replace the planks. Does that mean you should let the boat rot to preserve its authenticity? Of course not.

Here’s another (more recent) example of the Theseus’ Boat exercise:

A young Canadian boy inherits his grandfather’s axe. He’s inspired to become a lumberjack like his grandfather, so he starts chopping down a tree.
Halfway through the tree, the handle of the axe breaks. So the boy replaces the handle and continues to chop.
The axe head soon becomes dull. So the boy sharpens the head, and notices there’s not much edge left. So he buys a new head and finishes cutting down the tree.
His father congratulates him for cutting down the tree with his grandfather’s axe. But did he?

To the boy (and his father), he DID cut down the tree with grandfather’s axe, even though both parts of the axe (the handle and the head) were new. In a literal sense, it wasn’t grandfather’s axe at all: grandpa had never touched that handle or sharpened that blade. But in a subjective sense, it was “grandfather’s axe” the boy used, because the STORY made it so.

Your brand isn’t your logo. Your brand is the feeling people get in your gym, and the story they tell about it.

When clients are welcomed to class, are they welcomed warmly by every coach–as you would do?

If a client’s bill isn’t paid on time, are they treated kindly, as YOU would treat them?

The story binds the boat together. Your policies, your pictures and your posts are all part of your story.

Do you replace yourself with systems that maintain your story, or with people who change the story?

If your staff don’t know how to tell your story, they’ll tell THEIR story. Give them a system–here’s how you greet people, here’s how you start the class, here’s how you lead the warmup–or the story will change.

John Maxwell wrote that you “can’t reach the next level until you’ve completely replaced yourself at this level.” He was talking about replacing planks in boats. But not every boat is Theseus’ boat, worthy of celebration and display. For your legend to endure beyond its basic parts, make sure your story is consistent.


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.