Three Lessons From My Great Race

I blame my parents for my competitive nature.  While not the most athletic lad growing up, I certainly was taught to “strive for excellence”, “do my best” and to “never give up”, which fuels this competitive fire inside of me.  While I wasn’t great at sports, I most certainly learned some valuable life lessons from sports, of which I will use this post to share three.

When I was a teenager, two friends of mine convinced me that I should take up long distance running.  There was a 5k race approaching and they talked me into training for it.  My friends were on the cross-country team at school and had much more experience than I.  I trained hard and prepared for race day, but was still nervous about the race.  I didn’t know what to expect or how I would perform.  I just knew that I would do my best and try not to embarrass myself too badly.

Before the race, as most young men do, we ribbed each other and I remember one of them saying, “Just try to keep up.”  Of course, I responded in kind.

As the race was getting ready to start, my parents reminded me to “do my best”.

As we lined up with the crowd of racers at the starting line, I looked at the other racers in admiration, hoping and believing that my mind and body were ready and they would not fail me. I reminded myself to just do my best.  The announcer started the count and at a gunshot, we were all off and running.

I was excited in the beginning because I was keeping pace with my friends.  I think I was full of adrenaline, because I felt great and wasn’t winded!

At about the one-mile mark, one of my friends started stumbling and slowing.  He complained of side pains and started breathing heavily.  Because he was slowing, my other friend and I started to outpace him.  He started yelling that we needed to stay together (which meant that we would have to slow down to stick with him).  The faster friend and I decided that we needed to “run the race” and not slow down.

We told him what we were going to do and started pulling away.  Our friend was clearly not happy with our decision.  His curses grew softer and softer as he faded into the distance behind us.

The two of us were moving at a pretty brisk pace when, at mile two, my friend (the more experienced runner) started to slow. For a moment I didn’t know what I was to do, but was comforted when my friend told me that I needed to go on and do my best.  I nodded and started to pull away from him, but this time I didn’t hear curses.  I heard him cheering me on saying, “GO! GO! GO!  You can do it!”  This fueled my pace.  And I heard his encouraging words grow softer as he faded into the distance as well.

Now I was by myself.  I had outlasted my two experienced friends.  I was moving at a good pace, but didn’t really have a gauge for whether I was doing good or bad. The only thing I could do was increase my own speed and focus on what was in front of me.  So, I ran faster.

I started to pass other runners, which quickly gave me new purpose.  After I would pass a runner, I would set my sights on a new target in front of me and try to run past them.  I did this over and over.  So, I ran faster.

Finally, before I knew it, I was in the home stretch and I could see a crowd of people.  I could hear them cheering.  So, I ran faster.

Before long, I was sprinting as hard as I could almost to the point of hyper-ventilating.  Yet, I kept the sprint up until I passed the finish line.

My parents were probably more surprised than excited at my achievement.  My mom didn’t get any pictures at the finish because they didn’t think I would finish that quickly.  I definitely surpassed everyone’s expectations.

I finished third in my age bracket with a time of around 20 minutes.  Not a super fast 5k race time, but not to shabby for my first race.  It was a very proud moment for the Jackson household.

I share this story with you not to relive a glory day (although some great memories came back while writing this), but rather because sports always seem to provide great life lessons and this parable had some for me that I’ve applied in both my personal and professional life.

So what did I learn from My Great Race?  Here are three lessons:

PLAY TO WIN

When you’re in the ‘game’, you have several choices.  Among others you can choose not to play, play not to lose, or play to win.

Each choice has a different mindset behind  it and each elicits different results.

My personal opinion is that if you are in the game, ‘choosing not to play’ really isn’t an option.  Although, I can think of countless stories where I have watched people sit on the sidelines and/or give up along the way.  Not playing is simply not acceptable.

‘Playing not to lose’ is an example of what I would call an incremental (and sometimes mediocre) effort.  It falls in line with other choices where you set a specific limit or goal and then play only to that goal and then stop.  For example, if I set the goal of doing 30 pushups in my morning workout.  I will almost always hit 30, but rarely go beyond that.  In business, it may mean performing to match or stay slightly ahead of a competitor’s performance.  Or performing to a specific number (e.g., comp sale, volume number), but not blowing it away.

We often have to set incremental goals in our mind or on paper, but how we truly view that goal is what will determine our level of success.  There is a time and place for setting these types of performance goals, but if you constantly ‘play not to lose’ you will rarely meet your FULL potential.

Playing to win means that you ‘show up’ and strive for the greatest result possible (doing your best) regardless of the goal.  Doing so will propel you towards meeting your potential and surpassing everyone’s expectations – even your own (as happened with me)..

In the race, had I stayed with either of my friends as they slowed, I would have met my goals of finishing the race and not embarrassing myself, but I never would have met my true potential that day.  So, ALWAYS do your best!

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF

Believing in yourself is something that I am sure you have heard many times before.  Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of the Power of Postive Thinking, captured it well when he wrote, “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”

This is often easier said than done.  There are many factors that contribute to whether or not you believe in yourself.  A major factor is what those around you say.  Depending upon your sensitivity to others’ comments, they can lift you up to the highest of highs or bring you down to the lowest of lows.

Few roles open you up to more scrutiny than the role of a leader.  People always have opinions and comments about your performance.  Sometimes good, sometimes bad.  As I have told many, you can’t control what someone says, but you can control how you react to it.

Part of being a leader is learning to listen to others, determine the value of the information and then choose a course of action and drive forward.  You can ignore it, ask for more information, change your behavior, or let it fuel you.  Regardless, you have to learn to accept the cheers and the jeers.

Thinking back to the race, my first friend (perhaps out of frustration) cursed us for outpacing him.  He tried to hold us back and guilt us in to staying with him, which would have hindered our performance.  My second friend, cheered me on when I outpaced him and encouraged me until I couldn’t hear him anymore.  Two very different reactions to my performance, but because I believed in myself it was easy to process the information; one I ignored and one I let fuel my efforts.

SET YOUR SIGHTS FORWARD

There was an interesting point during the race that I found myself without a benchmark.  When I was in the last mile by myself, I entered the “okay…what now?” phase.  I didn’t know how I was performing, but instead of just running down the road aimlessly, I decided to set my sights forward on beating the next racer, then the next, then the next.  This helped me go faster and achieve greater results.

This definitely has application to how we function in the business world.  While we need to be aware of our surroundings, we should constantly be looking forward at how to achieve even greater results and higher heights.  Don’t be satisfied with the status quo.  Don’t run the race at the same pace as others.  Run faster.

I hope that you’ve found these three life lessons to be valuable.  I know that I have and practice them regularly in my career, leadership, and life.

What life lessons have you learned?

Enjoy!

~Jason

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