Ultramarathon runner Brandon Falls is moments away from victory. This is mile 49 of 50 and he has been running nonstop for over six hours fueled on candy bars and snotty sports gels. He comes around a turn on the road and sees the finish line, less than 200 feet away.
Fans cheer him on with pumped fists in the air, shouting “You got this, B-dawg!” Just a few feet before crossing the line, his legs buckle from underneath him and the crowd watches his sad and dramatic slow-motion tumble towards the ground.
He doesn’t finish the race by himself and has to be carried to the finish by two staff.
After the brutal beating on his entire body and completely emptying the tank, it’s clear that he collapsed from pure physical exhaustion. Hell, have you ever done something to hit your physical limits? But after hours, why couldn’t he push himself just a little further and cross the finish line and then collapse in a heap of pain and tears, like most runners do?
This is not an isolated anecdote. It happens quite a lot. Look at this cringe-worthy video of marathon runners who are just feet away from the finish line. Some collapse, but muster a tiny bit of energy from the Cliff bar they ate 2 hours ago and crawl (or roll) to the white line. Others are carried away in a stretcher or on the shoulders of some selfless runner. These runners weren’t out of shape and it’s not like they quit half-way — they almost had it.
Have you ever noticed that right when you’re finally about to finish a paper you’ve been working on all night, your pace actually slows when you’re on the last page? Our brain, who has been investing massive resources into physical restraint because it knows fully how difficult the challenge is, finally sees there is a break. ‘200 feet left? Piece of cake! Finally, let’s relax a bit.’ In a marathon, this could result in your legs relaxing a little too early. But I’ve found from my personal experience that this self-sabotage plays out in all areas of life, again and again, causing us to fall short when we’re on the cusp of greatness.
At school, you work hard on the bulk of an essay until the conclusion, which you whip together willy-nilly at the last minute. At work, all is well until you get sloppy at the end of the quarter and botch your 6-figure sales deal. Or even at the end of the week – who works hard on Friday? As a movie producer, you make a film called Lucy with a promising plot line, but then get lazy and give it a deus-ex machina-esque garbage ending where the protagonist becomes some sort of god just because they ate a bag of blue synthetic cocaine. I mean why would using 100% of your brain mean you can telepathically read how traffic lights are programmed? Anyways, the point is that when approaching the finish line, it’s as if we’ve told ourselves that because we’ve done most of the work, we can relax.
One antidote is to take the advice from my former boss. When I was asked about the prospects of closing a deal, I’d use dangerous words like ‘definitely’ or ‘The deal is 100% closed,’ when it wasn’t. His response would be: “Don’t pop the champagne too early!” When you’re close to finishing a big project or hitting a big goal, this is worth reminding yourself. It will also save you from falling into an embarrassing misstep like Zoolander, who jumps the gun and thinks that he won the Male Model of the Year Award and makes an ass of himself.
Besides, nobody likes it when you pop the champagne too early. You have a great conversation with that special someone whose skin is as silky smooth as the fabric of her black dress, the conversation flows smoothly as you bond over each other’s perfect meme humor sense, and then just minutes after she’s unbuttoned your jeans…
Blatant innuendos aside, a simple reminder to hold the champagne corks of life won’t always suffice, in which case we might need to further train our minds.
When I was on the rowing team, our coach used a technique to reduce the chances of us giving up at the last minute. After a grueling 2,000 meter practice race at what felt like 110% capacity — and despite the burning agony of our forearms and quadriceps and being on the verge of puking — none of the 8 rowers on the boat were allowed to stop rowing at the finish line. We had to keep going a whole ‘nother 1,000 meters! This training not only built stronger endurance, but since we became accustomed to rowing further distances it ensured that when it was game time, we wouldn’t let go of our oars prematurely.
The lesson is clear: practice going the extra mile. In physical activity, this can be taken literally. When training for the marathon, continue an extra 200 meters past your practice run. But in the rest of our lives, going the extra mile has more to do with the intensity and focus of our mental energy — and the quality of our work.
Practice over-delivering in small areas of your life. Over time, weeks, months or years, this muscle will build up and spill over into other parts. The next time your friend has a birthday, don’t just pick up something at the store. Think deeply about what they like and buy a gift that is at least a little better than last year. Taking it a step further, throw a surprise party for them (obviously you can’t do this for every birthday, but you get the point). In your next project at work, spend a few extra hours on the weekend brainstorming how you can take it to the next level. Ask a mentor, coach or manager: “What can I do to make this excellent?” In all of these actions, you want the response to be: “Whoa! That’s great!” As Steve Martin says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
An important caveat: Taking an extreme outlook that everything has to be great can lead to perfectionism, anxiety and contribute to burnout. It’s possible to keep high standards for what’s important in your life, but still take an 80/20 or 70/30 approach to other activities and live much freer. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who by most definitions is wildly successful, holds this dual approach of high standards and accepting “good enough” when it comes to certain things. On one hand he says, “high standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back.” At the same time, while he could work endlessly to improve and grow Amazon, exerting effort has diminishing returns. Everyday he has breakfast (up until his recent divorce) with his family and clocks out at 5pm — without fail.
The areas you choose to over-deliver in should align with what you find valuable in life — work, relationships, hobbies. The technique above can help raise your baseline standards for hitting your goals — going from almost finishing to finishing consistently. But if you find yourself spending two hours looking for the perfect smoothie recipe, take a step back and ask yourself: “Is this really important in my life?”
Training ourselves to push further is nice and all, but our sabotage can take different forms, nested deep into our psyches and habits, that can be hard to spot, let alone uproot, and it’s not always apparent. To get to the bottom of it, let’s turn to the Biblical story of Jonah.
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