Learn the key business lessons endurance running teaches about succeeding over the long term.
Like a growing number of people, I have had the honor of running a marathon. I say “honor” because it has served me in so many different ways beyond the physical benefit I received from the training. Surprisingly, I took away far more life lessons than running lessons from both my training and the actual event.
I’ve found that the crossover with business is really strong, and especially in these three key ways.
Capabilities Build Over Time
When you start training for a marathon, unless you regularly run that kind of distance (26.2 miles), you start off being unable to run it.
My training plan was 20 weeks long, and my first long run was just eight miles. But when I was done, I still had 19 weeks of successive progression and capability building ahead of me that would prepare me to run the final race distance. If I worried too much about the distance ahead and how I was not physically able to complete it yet, I might back out. Or I might push myself beyond my current capability and end up getting injured, which would force me to back out.
Worrying about your inability to do something you have to build to is likely to lead you to quit, or perhaps not even start. And pushing yourself too soon may result in failure.
Think of all the amazing start-ups out there and the task ahead of them. The idea generation, concept building, fund raising, team building, etc. The amount is huge, and too much for many. But if you look at it as a successive building of capabilities that you will get through one by one, it is less scary.
Imagine a new product launch that your company is depending on that seems too far off. You can rush the product to market, but it likely won’t be ready for prime time, or you won’t be ready to support it. And then you lose your customers.
The original Jawbone Up was a great (and very costly) example of this. The product was rushed to market, and ended up failing at such a high rate due to defect that Jawbone refunded every customer and took the product off the market, allowing Fitbit to step into a market newly warmed up for fitness trackers that Jawbone couldn’t serve.
Playing The Long Game Is the Surest Way to Success
We all know the parable of the tortoise and the hare. Ultimately, the tortoise, who goes at a slow and steady pace with the ultimate goal in mind wins while the hare, who is all about going as fast as possible to pass the competition no matter what ends up burning out early. This is at the heart of the number one advice all newbie marathoners get – don’t go out too fast! You end up burning out, and not being able to finish your race. The runners who don’t get pulled into early races with others end up enduring and hitting their target finish time much more frequently.
This idea resonated with me as I’ve worked with companies competing across the time spectrum. Some have been very focused on making their quarterly numbers, while others are thinking about where their market will end up.
The ones playing the quarterly game do better in the near term, but they do so at the cost of their ability to endure and success. They make short-term choices like not investing in people or systems because it helps their bottom line when they report their next quarterly earnings. After a few years of competing this way, though, the gas runs out of the tank. They find themselves with burnt out staff, systems woefully outdated, and no real solutions on the horizon. The companies I’ve seen that work this way end up shells of their formers selves, acquired, or out of business.
The long-game players make some decisions that may not be as good today (e.g. plunking down big bucks to rebuild their core systems), but invariably they are here tomorrow, thriving.
There are plenty of great examples here. Amazon kept investing in the future of their business despite others saying they were spending their money with no immediate results. Look how that turned out. GEICO and Progressive spent massive amounts on marketing – many multiples of what their larger competitors spent – and ended up becoming two of the top five insurers and some of the only ones to consistently be profitable.
Don’t Lose Site of the Competition without Looking Right At Them
During the race, something I did that really helped was to tune out the runners around me. This kept me focused on my own performance without getting pulled into getting pulled into mini races that just burn me out early.
I kept tabs on some key metrics like my heart rate, pace, distance covered, distance remaining and a few other things. I knew where I stood and how I was doing relative to what I had defined as success.
I also kept a general awareness of my surroundings without overly focusing on any one person or thing. That saved me from tripping over someone who fell, and to see how to safely get to the sideline to tie my shoelace without causing a pile up.
This is such a great analog for dealing with strong competition. You need to have a goal and metrics in place to watch how you’re performing or to adjust in real time. You need to be aware of market conditions.
But you can’t just look at one competitor and start racing against them. You will get pulled into being overly-focused on their actions, and end up being reactive rather than creating a winning strategy that only you can execute on successfully.
Think of it this way. Only I knew what my ideal pacing should be, not the person who challenges me mid-race to speed up. Only you know your strengths and what resources you have. Don’t let a competitor define how you use those strengths and resources by leading you around by the nose. If you end up going head to head with them, let that be your own decision based on the overall objective you want to achieve rather than because they essentially goaded you into it.
A great example here is Southwest Airlines. While all of their competitors were buying each other, Southwest just stayed the course, delivering on the strategy they had set out on. They’ve grown well, while also being one of the most profitable and highest-rated airlines in the business (that’s saying a lot since airlines often lose money and are generally not rated positively). At one point, they were more profitable than the entire US airline industry combined.
This post is inspired by my best-selling book, “Do a Day: How to Live a Better Life Every Day” available in print, eBook and audio book formats. It originally appeared in my Inc.com column on September 27th, 2017.