I was always one of the last kids to get picked to be on sports teams in P.E. when I was younger. And when I use the word “picked”, I’m being extremely generous. Most of the time I was the last one left who hadn’t been chosen yet and whatever team was the next in line got stuck with me. I got to be a little more athletic by the time I got to high school and even played on a couple sports teams, but at the end of my junior year, one of my coaches pulled me aside to tell me that there were going to be some incoming freshmen with enough talent to make the varsity team the following year and that there probably wouldn’t be a spot for me. So when my senior year rolled around, I didn’t bother to try out for any sports. I think you get my point that the word “athlete” was not something that would have been used to describe me when I was growing up.
Fast forward a few years though and at the time of this writing, I’ve completed 6 marathons and 38 half marathons in 29 US states, 3 countries, and 2 continents along with a few other things I did to try and push my own limits like running back to back half marathons in two different states in the same day. These days, most people who meet me for the first time assume that I’ve always been a runner and if I happen to mention any of the stories from when I was growing up, I get a lot of “wow, that’s amazing” types of comments.
But the thing is that the way that I went from barely being able to run at all to where I am now really isn’t that amazing, and in fact it actually involves a pretty straightforward process that anyone can follow. It also has an added benefit in that if you follow it, it’ll change the way you approach complex problems at work and in other areas of your life; it’ll increase your chances of being successful in achieving goals that you set for yourself; and it’ll eventually open up new opportunities for you that you may have never thought about. So if you’re interested in learning more, read on –
Small improvements compound over time.
When I first decided that I wanted to start running, it was just because I wanted to improve my health (I was in my mid 20’s and realized that getting winded from walking around the block and having to hold my breath to bend over and tie my shoes was not the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life). I wasn’t trying to become a marathon runner at that point, especially because in the beginning, I couldn’t make it more than half a mile without having to stop and walk so I could catch my breath. I figured that marathons were for people who were far better runners than I would ever be. The only thing I really cared about back then was being able to run further than I could at the time. So that’s exactly what I did – every day I would go for a run and try to make it a little bit further than I had the day before. I kept doing this again and again and over the course of several months, I started to see a noticeable difference in how far and fast I could run, and it wasn’t very long before I started to realize that not only were goals that didn’t seem like they would ever be attainable even a few months earlier suddenly starting to feel like they were a lot more realistic, but I was even starting to think about new goals which had never crossed my mind before.
I wasn’t expecting those changes to happen as quickly as they did, but what I was expecting even less was that after a while, I started to look at other things besides running the same way. The thing about training yourself to run this way is that every time you go for a run, if your only goal is to do a little bit better than you did yesterday, then even if you can only make it a few extra steps or run to the next tree that’s ten feet further down the road than the one you stopped at the day before, it’s still an accomplishment that makes you feel good about yourself…. and that good feeling that you get when you do something like that is actually a physical reaction that causes your brain to release a number of different chemicals associated with rewarding itself. All of those small improvements each day start to compound into exponentially bigger improvements as time goes on until you get to a point a few months later where you realize that those few extra feet here and there have suddenly added up to several miles. After months of rewarding itself repeatedly for small improvements that continually build on each other, your brain will actually start to rewire itself to make you think about other problems that you need to solve in a similar way until eventually you start to realize that by following this method, you can accomplish pretty much anything you want:
- Want to be a best selling author but you’re not a good writer? Sit down and write 300 words every day and eventually you will be.
- Want to develop mobile apps but you’re not a programmer? Find some online instructions for how to write a small hello world application and then keep writing code to add new features to it every day for a few months.
- Want to build your professional network to increase the number of economic opportunities that are available to you? Find one new person every day to reach out to and ask them to meet you for lunch or coffee.
Those are just a few examples. You can replace any of the bullet points above with anything you want and as long as you follow the same pattern that I described above of working on them every day and trying to make small incremental improvements, it won’t be long before you start to see real results. Eventually you’ll get to a point where the possibilities of what you’ll be able to accomplish will be almost endless.
Learning to deal with setbacks.
As much as I’d like to say that becoming a good runner was a nice linear pattern where every single day was consistently better than the previous one, the truth is that my progress varied. Some days I would do better than I expected and other days I would do a little worse…. sometimes this was because of factors that I could control myself (staying out too late the night before, not eating right, etc…) and other times it was because of external factors that were out of my control (the weather, getting the flu, other demands on my time, etc…). And this is fine. I made adjustments to fix the things I could control and learned to deal with the ones I couldn’t. Anyone who’s run a marathon will tell you that when you cross the finish line and get your race medal, the medal isn’t really just for completing the race itself. It’s for all of the training and hard work that went into preparing for it. It’s for running through wind and rain on days when it’s hot and muggy, or through snow and ice on days when the temperature doesn’t rise above zero. It’s for waking up early to go for a run no matter how tired you are from whatever it was that you did the night before or how sore your legs still are from yesterday’s run. It’s for waking up earlier on weekends than you do during the week so you can get your long runs in and still have time to finish all of the errands you had planned for the day. It’s for spending day after day pushing your body to the absolute limit of what you think it’s capable of doing and then proving to yourself that you can go just a little bit further. When you do these things, your brain will reward itself for getting past tough obstacles and eventually rewire itself in such a way that you start to anticipate them and come up with strategies for how to handle them.
Think of the biggest project you’ve ever been part of at work. Did it go nice and smoothly every day where everyone on the entire project team was always happy and cooperative with each other and all of the team members made linear progress on their tasks until everything was finished? Or were there setbacks, arguments, things that didn’t work the way people expected them to, trips back to the drawing board, budget issues, and political battles over the way people responsible for different areas thought that certain things should look when they were completed? Obstacles like this are part of any normal project (and the bigger and more valuable the project is, the more there will be) and the people who are the most sought after and successful in their careers tend to be the ones who can help their teams navigate through them.
If you apply the strategy I described above of making adjustments to fix issues that you’re able to control directly, while learning to deal with the ones you can’t, then even if your progress is slower than you might like at times, you’re still going to continue moving forward and in the end you’ll ultimately be successful. The only way you truly fail at something is if you decide to give up. This is another thing that training for a marathon will rewire your brain to help you see: when you finally cross the finish line and get to celebrate making it through all of the hardships you endured over the last several months of training, it’s essentially the same thing as getting together with your team to celebrate making it through all of the hardships you endured while you were working on a project after it gets successfully rolled out (or as a side note here, you can define success in a number of ways – even if there are factors beyond your control that prevent a project from getting completed, as long as you learned something valuable during the experience, you can still think of it as a personal success). The other benefit of training yourself to think about things this way is that over time, you’ll also develop confidence to know that you can succeed at anything regardless of what kinds of obstacles get thrown in your path and how bad things might seem at certain points along the way.
Leveling the playing field.
After I had been running for a while, I learned something interesting about the method that I described earlier of making small improvements every day. I stumbled onto this method by accident, but it turns out that if you want to train for a marathon, that’s really the only way to do it. There is no other way that will work for anyone. If you’re the most naturally talented runner in the world and broke every speed record on your high school track team, all that really does is give you a small advantage over someone who isn’t as good of a runner in the beginning. But in the end, you’re still not going to be able to run a full 26.2 miles without training every day and continually adding additional distance to your runs over time. If you don’t train like that, then the people who do will eventually pass you by. So not only does this method pay off when it comes to reaching your goals, but over time it actually levels the playing field and gives anyone who follows it the same odds of being successful.
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of people who were smarter than me and had a lot more raw talent than I could ever dream of, but when I look back at some of the things I’ve accomplished during my career, I have just as good of a track record as a lot of those same people when it comes to being able to deliver projects that provide value to the companies that I’ve done work for. This isn’t because I magically became talented overnight as much as that I’ve just spent each day trying to learn new things and then using what I learned to make small improvements to whatever it was that I was working on. Over time, the results started to add up. Like I said – there’s really nothing special or amazing about any of this.
If you’ve made it this far, then obviously you thought this post was interesting enough to read all the way through. Hopefully you learned a little bit from it… and I’d also like to issue a challenge to you – 2014 is going to be coming to an end in a few weeks, so in 2015, make it your goal to find some way to challenge yourself to do something that you can’t do today. You don’t have to run a marathon, and whatever your goal is doesn’t even necessarily have to be related to running – just pick something that requires training and pushing yourself further than what you’re capable of doing right now either physically or mentally. Then spend every day working on making small improvements towards whatever your goal is and watch how other aspects of your life start to change in the process. If you decide to take me up on this (or if you already have done something like it), I’d be interested in hearing your story.