Success – Do and Stop!
We can think of achieving success as being composed of two parts – setting a goal, and going about doing the things necessary to achieve that goal. But, wait… I shall stop you there! It’s not always about doing things. Often it’s about stopping doing certain things that you’ve been doing so far – things I’d call your weakness.
Thus, often, your success so far is despite this weakness not because of it. But you may not know it! A simple example might be a loud and obnoxious CEO of a startup company who badgers his employees into submission. Any success of the startup initially will be for a host of reasons despite his behaviour with his staff. The CEO sees the early success of the firm as representing his own set of actions, which include the unnecessarily bossy manner of dealing with his team – a form of weakness. This weakness will remain a bottleneck to future growth.
We have such weaknesses in every aspect of our lives – as individuals or as organizations, or as systems we set up. These weaknesses are both things we need to do, and things we need to stop doing. In our activities, in our attitudes, in our beliefs. For our professional goals, our fitness goals, or our relationships.
Why is clearing a bottleneck difficult?
A wise woman once said “if you can identify the problem, that’s half the problem solved”. Unfortunately, the identification of weaknesses is not something that we are naturally inclined to do. It is in our basic human nature to be willfully blind to what causes us pain.
Recognizing a weakness involves admitting some form of failure, and recognizing some failure in oneself causes some amount of mental anguish. And it is not in our basic nature to cause ourselves pain – thus making the self-identification of weaknesses a challenge. The problem is compounded even when we are fortunate enough to have someone, who cares about us, identify a weakness – but our ego gets in the way – we dig our heels in and hold on stubbornly to the weakness. Ultimately, however, being self-aware and recognizing a failure is often what is necessary to redirect our journey from ordinary to exceptional.
The Shailja Files
Many of my life coaching clients are seeking better physical health. Some of them are what I call recreational endurance athletes. One of these is Shailja Singh Sridhar, a wonderful lady who lives in Gurgaon – a 34 year old mother of two who took up cycling and then running after her second child was relatively independent. She requested me to train her to complete her “first full marathon in less than 4 hours”. In my recollection, no other urban Indian mother of 2 had done this before so it was an interesting challenge for both of us. In the process of her training, as a mentor, it became evident to me that she was extremely impulsive. This can be a virtue – for instance, when action not just words and thoughts are important e.g. when emergency relief needs to be provided to people. In her case, as someone who worked really hard at her fitness goals, her impulsive nature increased the risk of her overtraining (which leads to underperformance). These impulsive acts were usually revealed to me through apologetic messages like “I know today was meant to be a rest day, but I went out for a 40km cycle ride”.
She acknowledged that this was a recurring problem and we worked on trying to alleviate the problems around this weakness throughout the course of her training. On the flip side, as someone who was dedicated to her self-selected goal, she executed the various components of her training with high quality throughout.
Race Day – Exam Day – Showtime!
What was a bigger concern for us was exam day – in her case, race day in Berlin on 28 Sep 2014. The typical recreational marathoner almost always starts a race off too fast. Often their first half is as much as twenty minutes faster than their second half even for a “sub 4 hour finish”. This effect called “race day fervour” is such as to create a feeling of self-confidence, excitement and joy in the mind of the runner around the start of a race – much like when one arrives at a party where people are clearly having fun.
The physiological impact of starting off one’s race too fast as a result of this is felt in the latter stages of the race with a significantly slower second half, often resulting in a race time that is longer than if the psychological aspect of racing was under control throughout.
All I could do, as a mentor, was guide her through subtle and explicit messaging about the importance of not being impulsive on race day and to stick to a racing strategy that would ensure success. The rest was left to her – the final test.
Looking at her race time splits, anyone who has even limited experience in marathons will tell you that her intelligence and maturity as a runner shone through and she overcame any impulses that might reduce her probability of success. To race a full marathon with negative splits (second half faster than the first) is a sign of a well-prepared runner with a superbly executed race strategy. With a finish time of 3:51:52 in her first full marathon she has also written her lines in the Indian amateur marathon history books.
Shailja’s set of strengths, physiological and psychological, far overshadows the set of weaknesses. An impulsive nature did not prove to be a weakness on race day. It is definitely not her only weakness, not least in running. But identifying and overcoming this specific weakness places her in an even better position for overcoming other obstacles in future challenges in life.
Stop focusing on the Ferrari
A Ferrari on a jam packed highway goes no faster than a jalopy! We all have multiple weaknesses in each and every one of our endeavours that provide bottlenecks to significant progress. The process of identifying these and then overcoming them systematically is what takes us closer to being truly exceptional versions of ourselves. Removing bottlenecks allows us to flow through life with exceptional grace!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.