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26.2 Miles of Fear and Mediocrity

A marathon? Running over twenty-six miles? Heck, yeah! Sign me up.” That was my internal dialogue as I approached my 46th birthday. I was needing a big, scary challenge to knock me out of my middle age malaise and this sounded like just the thing. Entry fee sent in, I was committed with six months to get ready.

Twenty-four weeks would have been plenty of time a few years ago when I was running or mountain biking the high desert trails five or six days a week. In my excitement on the eve of my birthday it sounded plenty doable, never mind that if I lost 50 pounds I’d only need to lose 20 more to match my weight when I was training for a sprint triathlon 10 years ago.

My daughter bought me a key chain reading “26.2” for my birthday. I told her I hadn’t actually done it yet and she responded confidently, “You will!” so I left it on my keys for inspiration. My wife and son thought it was a pretty cool challenge, so with my family behind me I started training. And got nowhere.

Over four months I made little progress. Bewilderingly little progress. Frustratingly little progress. In the past, I’d routinely run six miles a day. I used to race motocross, mountain bikes, and cyclocross. Throughout my life, I’ve read bookshelves worth on nutrition, strength development, and training for endurance events. My scarce progress was simply not for lack of knowledge or fitness experience.

The longer it went, the more fearful I became. What I was doing wasn’t working, but I was scared to make changes that might help. I stuck with what I knew, persisting in the face of stagnation. I didn’t try to radically cut weight because I didn’t want a lack of calories to leave me unable to train. I stopped lifting weights because I didn’t need the extra muscle slowing me down and squats and deadlifts were leaving my calves too tight to run. I gave up trail running and mountain biking because I didn’t want to risk twisting an ankle or banging up my knees. All focus was on road running, yet I was afraid to push myself because I didn’t want to get too sore to run.

There I was. Not making progress but afraid to change approaches for fear of not making progress. That feels silly to write and read and say out loud. Worse yet, I stayed the path even when I realized what I was doing.

Yet, how often do we find ourselves or others in that exact same position in business? Old systems, processes, and ways of doing things start to crack and crumble under new demands. Rather than stepping back and rethinking, we double down and bet our results on doing more of what’s already not working.

The cosmic joke is the whole point of choosing the huge goal of running a marathon was to inspire me to eat better, exercise more, and get back into shape. The way I reacted to the pressure of the goal resulted in the opposite (there may be a lesson in there for another time).

Then something amazing happened when I gave up on the marathon. I started trail running again and enjoyed running for the first time in four months. I blew the dust off my squat rack and realized how much I’d missed lifting weights. I committed to an intense diet plan and am watching my weight drop daily. Freed of the self-inflicted pressure, I am finding pleasure and progress in fitness again.

So how can I apply this lesson at work? I have seen people struggling with this exact same paradox in their jobs. In the face of increasing demands and expectations, they focus on more of what they know even though what they know isn’t helping. How can I help my team grow, develop, and achieve outstanding results while avoiding the trap of investing in doing more of what’s not working? Where is the balance point between uninspired coasting and being crushed by expectations? How do we stay in the productive space between slack and overwhelm?

What thinks you?

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