When the Chicago Marathon fell on 10/10 this year, I was thankful that running a real marathon was not on my bucket list, and not just because it was my birthday…but because it sounds really hard, really long and not very enjoyable.
Despite never having run a marathon, as I was going through my cancer recovery journey 10 years ago, I called it “a marathon, not a sprint.” I thought both situations shared these common qualities:
- Needing to show up rain or shine, whether you felt like it or not.
- Experiencing fear and uncertainty, and needing to act anyway
- Knowing the finish line was really far away with no guarantees of reaching it
Of course, this list may resonate with any leader who has pivoted through the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic and navigated continual change and challenge in running their business.
All of us willingly take on really hard, really long endeavors that aren’t always enjoyable too. In my life now, I want to publish my book, speak in front of thousands of people, do a TED talk! We all choose our own marathons aligned with our desires and values (e.g. career, family, passion pursuits) – or marathons choose us (e.g. health crises, personal loss, the global pandemic).
Real Life Marathons Are LONGER than 26 miles…
Our marathons from leadership in life are MUCH LONGER than the Chicago marathon’s 26 miles…they can be measured in weeks, months, years, even decades. I’ve exceeded 26 years in my corporate career, my marriage, and I’m nearly there in parenting too, although there is no finish line on that one! Work projects can last years, like new product launches or technological transformations.
How do we sustain our motivation through our marathons – whether we’re willing participants or not?
The 4 P’s
High Achievers love sprinting to the finish line, yet that finish line is often harder to reach in the complex and uncertain world in which we live and work. If that weren’t challenging enough, high performers are also notorious for constantly raising the bar on themselves, which also makes the “finish line feeling” more elusive.
Building mental fitness can be an invaluable tool for bolstering the resilience and motivation needed to prevail in ever longer, more challenging races. These 4 P’s – Perspective, People, Purpose and Pacing – will help you go beyond enduring your leadership in life marathons to gaining more satisfaction from each step.
P1. Perspective: Zoom Out and Celebrate!
I asked my friend, Mike Chu, a marathon runner who’s completed 19 marathons so far, how he keeps his motivation going until the finish line. He said, “I keep telling myself how far I’ve come already.”
Find Interim Milestones
Perspective is really helpful to keep motivation momentum across our leadership in life marathons, especially when there aren’t clear interim milestones. Research shows that celebrating along the way will keep you more motivated for the long haul and help fuel you and your team, so you don’t burn out in the middle of the proverbial race. We can zoom out and see how far we’ve come and celebrate what we’ve achieved thus far.
More Ways to Celebrate
We celebrate the big promotion, but do we celebrate how far we’ve come? Or how we show up for ourselves when we face our fear, like voicing to your boss that you are ready for the big promotion or overlooked raise, even if you haven’t gotten it yet? Do we celebrate when you say “no” to a new client or project because you know you and/or your team are too overworked and overstressed to take on more work right now? One of my clients is the head of a consulting firm who has learned to say ‘no’ to clients who aren’t ideal, which gives her more time to spend on the clients and work that lights her up. This is cause for celebration! When we learn to say ‘no’ to what isn’t good for us, we can say ‘yes’ to that which is more energizing.
So find and celebrate the interim milestones. You’ll add significant deposits to your resilience and motivation banks.
I was one of those people who wasn’t good at celebrating the “small stuff”, but I now realize what a big difference it makes. Instead of saying “I can’t celebrate until I reach the finish line”, I now tell myself “I celebrate what I’m learning along the way.” Since learning is a big value of mine, I find ways to celebrate my growth, such as facing my fear or reframing failure as learning what NOT to do next time (lots of opportunity to do this, just like Edison!]. Growth only happens when we’re learning, and learning happens in those moments when we fail and begin again. This perspective allows me to not only celebrate more but to also hold failure more lightly, because everything is fodder for learning. Tying your celebration to what you value is key to feeling a true sense of accomplishment and pride, inside and out.
Pro-Tip #1 to Fire up your Mind:
Ask yourself: What do I value – and how do those values show up in my life?
P2. People – Power through Community
To prepare for a marathon, you must have a proven training process, show up each day and track your progress, and maintain momentum and mindset through the race. Marathon runners create a community of support – e.g. expert guidance to inspire and train well, running buddies to keep them accountable, understanding of family and friends. Even during the race, my friend Marathon Mike said that the other runners gave him energy to keep going. While many of us haven’t run 19 marathons, I can relate to the energy I would get in a workout class to push myself harder than if I were to work out alone. Or the feeling of camaraderie and perseverance that comes from pulling together with colleagues through crises, like with the financial crisis of 2008 or the more recent Global pandemic.
Communities of Accountability & Trust
Communities of support are key. Research shows that your likelihood of success in establishing new, positive habits increases by 500% when you partner with an accountability group, compared to going it alone. What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team was that “psychological safety” which feeds trust, is what differentiates the best from the rest. So think of building relationships like a marathon of building trust. This “Building Trust” mindset can create communities of support and drive innovation. People power is real: the combination of energy, trust and accountability (not wanting to fail the tribe) all help us more successfully reach o0ur ever longer finish lines.
And when you celebrate those interim milestones (which, again, help you keep going!), amplify your celebration with your communities of trust too.
Pro-Tip #2 to Fire up your Mind:
If you are stuck and feeling the dip in motivation, talk to someone with vulnerability. Share your feelings with a friend or colleague, get advice from a mentor, find an accountability buddy, or hire a coach to support you moving forward productively. Vulnerability takes courage and leads to more growth for you and your relationships.
P3. Purpose: BIG WHY builds Resilience
As Freidrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Whether it’s our career, partnerships, parenting, overcoming crisis, these big marathons of life take courage and perseverance, so it’s imperative we know our BIG WHY.
Align WHY with Specific Marathon
When I was getting poked and prodded with needles during my cancer recovery, I could handle it because I knew it was all part of my road to recovery. And while I wanted to be healthy again for me, I had an even BIGGER WHY: to be part of my daughter’s lives – and their children’s lives – for years to come. When I worked 24/7 through the financial crisis, my WHY was creating peace of mind for our clients whose livelihoods were in our hands. As I’ve been reinventing my career as a coach and leadership trainer, I have been on such a steep learning curve that I often feel like I’m climbing up the side of a mountain without a rope. When I fall, and I’ve fallen many times, I keep coming back to my BIG WHY for what I do now: to inspire myself and others to live to our optimal potential.
Anchor to Values
Knowing our big WHY, and anchoring it to our values, keeps us afloat even when it gets really volatile out there. I lean into my big purpose tied to my values of learning, love and meaningful connection to foster my resilience and keep me going in this new chapter. When I remind myself that everything is an opportunity to learn, it allows me to move forward past my fear. Fear is there to protect us, but it more often keeps us from moving forward. As we build mental resilience anchored to our purpose, we can adapt and fail forward, no matter what happens.
Pro-tip #3 to Fire up your Mind:
What are your top 3-5 values? How are you aligned with those values in the choices and challenges you face now?
P4. Pacing: Makes it Sustainable!
When you’re in a sprint, like a new product launch, or a big meeting, you don’t necessarily need to pace yourself to get to the finish line. But when you’re in a never ending “sprint”, like many Executives felt as they led their teams during the pandemic, you may not realize that you’ve shifted to the marathon lane and now need serious pacing!
Dangers of Sprinting too Long
When we don’t pace ourselves, and we work harder and longer, and skip that workout and cut back or lose out on sleep, and feel more and more stress, we wear ourselves out and burnout ensues. I’ve experienced burnout from ongoing crises during my Corporate tenure, but I’ve also gotten burned out from my passion too. Two years ago, I was working on my first book manuscript and I was under a ton of stress to meet the deadline. I felt like I was sprinting, and I told myself I could do anything for a short period of time (which is often true). In this case, I pushed myself to the limit, and it took me weeks to recover. Worse, I didn’t spend quality time with my daughters during the holidays.
When Sprint Turns Into Marathon
Later, I realized that while I met the imminent deadline, I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to publish, so this sprint turned into a marathon of 2+ years. I keep my motivation going by realizing I’m writing the book I’m meant to write now, which is aligned with my big why and my values. My pacing involved setting SMART goals and blocking off time and honoring that time (which is easier said than done). I also keep the perspective that it’s a true marathon, so I can live my life at the same time.
Creating Sustainable Habits
Pacing can also mean creating new habits that better serve your mind, body and spirit. After I completed my cancer recovery marathon, I wanted to create a healthier work/life balance. I vowed to make time to take care of my body every day of my life, with good workouts at least 3 days per week (vs. physical fitness being my lowest priority). At first, I hired a trainer to help me create a routine until the new habits took root. Now, I make this non-negotiable. Even during my busiest periods, I walk at least 30 minutes/day, since I know research shows how valuable even that amount can be for health and wellbeing.
Realizing More Productivity
Over time, I even realized that taking a walk or bike ride actually makes me even more productive, especially when I’m stressed. That’s because I shift into flow, which allows my mind to find solutions that I can’t see when I’m anxious and tired. Try it! Pace yourself by nourishing yourself, finding flow with something you enjoy – like a walk in nature – and see what magic happens. Chances are that you’ll be more productive and creative when you do.
Pro-Tip #4 to Fire up your Mind:
When you are overwhelmed, reframe your mindset from “This is a sprint” to “This is part of my marathon.” Put yourself in the shoes of your wiser, elder self who is looking back on this situation at the end of your life, and ask: “what is most important in this situation?” It may be taking a break outside or watching an episode of Ted Lasso to get a much needed laugh (and subtle mindfulness tips, like “Be A Goldfish”)!
Winning before the Finish Line
High achievers often use big, final accomplishments – like crossing the finish line of the marathon – as the key measure of success. Unfortunately, those really big milestones are few and far between and the last few miles can feel the longest. And most marathon runners I’ve met set their sights on the next marathon, just as most leaders reach for the next milestone as they are completing the current one. Whether you are in the beginning, middle or end of your marathon, keep your perspective, ask for support from people you value in your community, anchor to your big purpose and keep pacing yourself in sustainable ways – with plenty of celebration to keep you going. When you do, you’ll find more happiness, resilience and motivation each day – and experience more satisfaction when you do cross the big finish lines.
Mind your Fire,
Stephanie Klein is a keynote speaker, author, executive coach and certified teacher of the Search Inside Yourself (SIY), mindful based emotional intelligence program. She is passionate about igniting leaders’ untapped potential to propel beyond functional to optimal in a complex, changing world. In 2020, Stephanie founded Mindfire Mastery to support overstressed professionals navigating change – helping them “fire up minds” to build mental strength and resilience, so they can shift from burnout to balance, igniting greater productivity, relationships and wellbeing. She is the author of “Waking Up on the Right Side of Wrong”, to be published in 2022, about how challenging, disruptive experiences can transform our life trajectories in positive ways. To stay connected and learn more about how she can support you, contact Stephanie@mindfiremastery.com.