It’s a marathon, not a sprint

On May 30, 2012 by Andy Bandy Man

1 mile down, 25.2 to go… (photo credit: me, in new zealand)

 

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“At the age of 26, unemployed and completely lost, he decided to become an artist.”

- Biography of Vincent Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

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How old do you think the average founder of a successful engineering or technology company is? Does a 20-year old Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg come to mind?

In reality, the average founder of a revenue generating start-up is closer to 40-41 years old. Henry Ford was 45 years old when the Model T was released. Andy Grove joined Intel as the third employee at the age of 32, but did not rise to the position of CEO until age 51. These entrepreneurs needed time to hone their skills, build up a network of contacts, and in some cases put up their own capital to build their business ventures.

I bring this up because I believe many 20-somethings feel pressure to have a big success by an unreasonably young age. Focusing too much on short-term outcomes, however, can significantly damage long-term achievement. Why? The strategy for running a marathon is very different from a running a sprint.

 

WHY WE MUSTN’T OBSESS OVER SHORT-TERM OUTCOMES 

Excessive focus on short-term outcomes is detrimental in several ways:

1. Envying others’ success: It is easy to compare outcomes (in terms of money, prestige, influence, etc). When we hear about billionaire Internet entrepreneurs that are barely older than us, or see friends posting pictures all over Facebook showing off their new jet setting jobs, it’s natural to compare their outcomes to our own and feel some jealousy. This is a terrible distraction, and can quickly become damaging when:

  • You start feeling frustration that you aren’t achieving “successful” outcomes quickly enough
  • You prematurely abandon your long-term plans to try to replicate other people’s outcomes

2. Avoiding risks and challenges: In order to achieve short-term success, you may sacrifice growth opportunities, choosing to display your strengths rather than try to improve your weaknesses. For example:

  • Avoiding tough classes to preserve high GPA: Many college students shy away from courses that will push them out of their comfort zone and may harm their GPA (e.g, computer science, math). Many later regret not having exposure to these topics, and not challenging themselves enough – without stretching, how else to brain muscles grow?
  • Avoiding challenging work assignments in order to get good reviews: Similarly, a young worker with a weakness (e.g., public speaking) may shy away from these situations because they want the boss to only see their strong side. They may get a short-term promotion, but the weakness will catch up eventually – and as their career advances, much more may be at stake.
  • Avoiding social situations that may end in failure: Fear of short-term rejection could cause you to miss important opportunities. Not sharing your business idea with others because you think they will dismiss it might mean you never give your idea a fair shot. Not asking the cool guy / girl you just met on the train for their phone number because they might say “no” could cause you to miss out on an important friendship or a relationship simply because you were scared to ask.

 

INSTEAD, WE SHOULD FOCUS ON LEARNING AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE – FOR LONG TERM BENEFIT

I have met people that have made their way through a competitive college, competitive analyst job, competitive grad school, competitive corporate manager job - and at age 40 they still don’t have a clue of what they are good at or what they REALLY want to do. By constantly running around chasing short-term outcome after outcome, trying to keep up with their peers on money and on prestige, they completely neglected the opportunity to patiently learn skills that would serve them well in the long term (and lead them to the career they really wanted).

If you are still in your 20′s, imagine how much can you learn and truly become an expert at by the time you reach 40!

Learning skills obviously doesn’t happen overnight; instead, it requires you to develop a routine and stick to it over a long period of time. However, once you’ve developed the skills you want, it’s much easier to excel at the work you enjoy, and find happiness / satisfaction. Let’s look at some examples of how to shift our thinking from short-term outcomes to routines that will promote long-term learning:

 

 

YOUR 20′s ARE THE PERFECT TIME TO LEARN, TAKE RISKS, AND MAKE MISTAKES

The 20′s are an awesome time for learning, and preparing for when things really count – like when you are running a business, or running a family. It is the perfect time to step up to challenges, improve your weaknesses, and be completely unafraid of rejection or failure. In fact, you should be failing constantly - failure shows that you’ve pushed your limits and stepped out of your comfort zone. If you aren’t experiencing any failures – in work, in life, or in love – then you probably aren’t trying hard enough and you certainly aren’t learning enough.

At your retirement party 40 years from now, you can look back on all you’ve accomplished and if you like, compare how you’ve done with your peers. My guess is that you probably won’t be keeping score anymore.

Until then, I think it’s best to not think too much about short-term outcomes. It’s a marathon, not a sprint – and we are just at the beginning.

 

 

 

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Please follow on Twitter @andybandyman20, or leave comments below. Thanks for reading! Also, Sean Harris has demanded credit for the phrase “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” so I will give him credit here. Mainly because he is my friend.

4 Responses to “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”

  • I read about this stuff all the time – the idea of the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset (Carol Dweck) and about positive psychology and happiness. One of my friends in business also has a lot of recommendations.Thanks for putting this up, Andy!

    Actualy just came across this essay the other day. Don’t agree with all of it (esp. it’s attack on english major dissertations), but I like what it says about being in the habit of doing things well and always producing: http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html

    • Hey Bonnie, thanks for reading! Paul Graham has really great insights (I actually quoted the same essay here). I think a lot of people fantasize about being a novelist, or musician, or chef, without understanding what it takes to make it happen – I actually wrote a post on it (tentatively titled “Calculated Risk versus Foolishness) but haven’t yet quite pulled all my thoughts together in a coherent way. Look out for it in the future though.

      Positive psychology is quite interesting because it does seem to have an appreciable impact on performance!

  • good stuff Andy man :)

  • It’s the journey, not the destination.

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