When I got my first big promotion while working for a major Wall Street firm, one of the first things I did was ask my assistant to order me personalized sticky notes. By doing this, I could constantly reinforce a message I had come to use so often in my management career. The printed message on the sticky note read: “Do The Right Thing.”
By repeating those four simple yet precious words to my employees, I wanted to remind them to keep in mind what was at stake. We needed to do the right thing for the benefit of our clients’ financial well-being. We needed to do the right thing to enrich the experience of our co-workers. We needed to do the right thing to manage risk and be compliant for the regulators. We needed to do the right thing for the protection of the company’s reputation. I went through thousands of those sticky notes. And the message began to haunt me.
How ironic that as powerful and healthy an axiom as that was, especially in the financial services profession, when viewed from a slightly different perspective, those four words were also the source of my own greatest weakness and pain. “Do The Right Thing.” For whom? Not for myself, certainly. That’s rarely what I did. I had been programmed – and had programmed myself – to think of the things that I should or should not do based on how they may affect others, not me. I never took the liberty to adjust my view of those four words to try and answer the question for myself.
Certainly as a business management concept and as a guideline for setting a moral compass, “Do The Right Thing” is pure and complete in its message. But it wasn’t so clean and neat to put into practice. “Do The Right Thing” caused me to focus on such things as how I should manage my business in order to make the boss happy – and the bosses came and went and each had different ideas of what “The Right Thing” was. It caused me to focus on how I should do things to keep some of the office’s million-dollar producers happy – and that invariably created a tug-of-war between doing things to benefit them and doing things to benefit the company, the client or the other employees. It caused me to do things to keep my spouse happy – which most of the time would result in me compromising the right thing for others, including waiters I felt she was rude to, friends I saw her alienating and doctors I believe she lied to in order to obtain pain pills when I had injuries.
“Doing The Right Thing” was causing me to focus on everybody else and their needs over my own. I was bouncing from person to person, situation to situation, reacting in order to make peace, trying to please others, or attempting to squeeze myself into the molds that my life had created. I was making decisions that inevitably trapped me in those words. This was simply not the right way to live my life – and it’s not the right way to live yours.
The truth is, if we make all of our decisions based on other people’s needs and desires, we can never know what we are fully capable of achieving. We may obtain all kinds of successes, but we will never find our own personal, self-fulfilling limits. By accomplishing things according to the prescriptions written by others, we are forced to live in denial about our true abilities and what we can accomplish. This causes us to strengthen our own self-developed handicaps, to find comfort in our bad habits, and ignore the effects they have on us – on our minds, our bodies, and our abilities.
Over time, this settling allows for varying forms of self-delusion, until we reach a point where we believe we are too old, too busy, too accustomed to our own ways to do anything other than what we have always done. Without even realizing what we are doing, we avoid taking actions, we accept our self-imposed limitations, and we deny ourselves the chance to see what we are truly capable of achieving.
In order to break the self-limiting cycle of “Do The Right Thing (for Everyone But Myself),” I had to start doing things differently. I needed to change my style of management. I needed to take control of my personal life. I needed to focus on myself for once. I needed to change my views so I could see what “Doing The Right Thing” for me was. There are many powerful, life-changing, and effective vehicles for personal growth, but the one I used for this transformation was endurance athletics.
Just so there’s no misunderstanding, I have never won an event. I have never stood on the podium. I have never carried a trophy home. I am what is known as a “middle of the pack” athlete. I am the nameless, faceless, unsung guy who doesn’t come in first and who doesn’t come in last, but who starts and who – most of the time – finishes. But although I’m that guy, I have countless wins that are larger than any trophy or first-place medal. From that first start line in Georgia that had me inline-skating 87 miles from Athens to Atlanta; to the many hometown 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons, and ultra-marathons I’ve run; to the 12th Ironman triathlon I finished; to the exhilarating, mind-bending tribute race I ran for my beloved sister, I have stood on my own private podium many times. Through dozens of remarkably difficult circumstances and challenges, I have won a thousand mental and physical battles against myself and the boundaries that I had previously known. And it has been sweet.
In the beginning, however, it was just me and my self-imposed limitations. I immediately saw that if I was going to do anything meaningful in life, for me, there were going to be some huge barriers to overcome and some really big changes to make. I can be methodical about things if I have to be, but I am much more comfortable taking on more than I can chew and then figuring out how to get through it. Anything important that I have ever taken on, whether at work or in life, seemed to be slightly, and sometimes substantially, over my head. I love big challenges. Overcoming big challenges helped me counteract continually feeling like I was not achieving enough. Taking on extreme physical challenges – although a perfectly humbling undertaking – was just the right amount of big and unpredictable.
In order to make significant progress toward your personal successes, you need to begin from a place of humility – facing the reality of the harm you might have done yourself – to engage in a battle against what you know and who you thought you were, and decide that you want to be more than what you have ever been. That is the ultimate transformation point. Once honestly and truly humbled, enlightened as to who you are, and then engaged and committed and driven to accomplish and overcome great challenges (no matter how you define that for yourself), you actually learn that you can be more than what you thought you could, and more than what others said you should or could be. You can accomplish great physical, intellectual, and mental feats, no matter how they might be measured by anybody else, and learn through these personal accomplishments how to apply what you discover to all aspects of your life. If your desire to do so is stronger than the self-imposed forces that prevented you from breaking free of yourself, then you can start creating a new, wonderful reality.
The Athens to Atlanta race I mentioned marked a specific point on the timeline of my evolution. On that day – a day I stumbled into mostly by accident – I began to consciously attack the barriers that I encountered, and from then on my reality changed. Using endurance sports as my guide, I navigated the private and unknown space between the past me and the present me and came out fully immersed in a new life, living a new lifestyle, accomplishing things for myself that I had never even dreamed of doing. I became so much more in tune with what the world had to offer and what I wanted to get out of life. I began to walk my own path toward success and personal accomplishment. As a result, I became a better leader at work. I became a better father. I took charge of my personal life. I became more comfortable with who I was. I became more confident, more focused, more at peace.
Why endurance sports? As a vehicle for growth, it was my way to take a chance and begin to finally “Do The Right Thing” for myself. Endurance sports forced me to take a real, honest assessment of who I had become – and mostly who I hadn’t become. Endurance sports allowed me to discover the wonderful challenges and hardships and victories found in the middle of the pack. The previously unknown, wonderful, middle of the pack. That’s the place where nobody else is watching, the place where the opportunity for meaningful, profound growth is found. In endurance sports, the middle of the pack gives you the opportunity to find out who you can really become in life, for yourself, and is, therefore, both the most beautiful and most painful place.
You see, there is no gratification for the successful completion of most of life’s struggles, because they don’t often present us with a finish line. But a 5K, a marathon, an Ironman triathlon, a 24-hour run – they do have finish lines. You can measure your struggle from beginning to end. And because middle-of-the-packers are not elite athletes, winning is taken out of the equation. Unlike the athletes at the front of the race, middle-of-the-packers lack the need to battle other people for prizes or livelihood. The result is more of a pure and lonely self-reliance. There is no glory at the end of a race. No crowd cheering your name. No headlines the next day. No legacy to build. There is only a finish line and the desire to find it. The middle-of-the-packer has only himself to overcome.
The nameless and countless majority doing endurance events aren’t trying to take away each other’s paychecks or sponsorships or age-group trophies. The middle-of-the-packer is only trying to overcome their own personal obstacles and the cut-off time so their finish can be official. Nobody else will care what happens. Nobody else will impose their thoughts on what you should or shouldn’t have done. Nobody but you will have a say in things. That’s where the beauty resides. You get the opportunity to beat the person inside who is always trying to tell you to quit – and in most endurance events, you will want to quit a thousand times over.
We quietly tell ourselves to give up by not striving to become more in life than we have the ability to become. We say this for years and years until we become resigned to who we are. But from the middle of the pack, we can reverse this trend by not quitting until we cross the finish line. Once we go through extreme struggle – self-imposed struggle – and overcome it, we can carry that concept over to life and business. Along the way, we also learn so much about ourselves and about what we can accomplish. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
So beauty, yes – and true, pure, life-changing beauty. But pain? Chasing pain in the middle of the pack is at once one of the greatest and most difficult things about doing long-distance events. You face constant lessons about what to do better to limit the damage, the incessant suffering, and the sheer agony that you encounter. Attempting to master the physiological demands of endurance athletics is a humbling and inspiring undertaking. It was a perfect source to provide the framework for my most powerful growth because I got to determine how much I could handle, how far I could take things, and how much I could accomplish – according solely to me.
There’s no question that we cannot “master” life. We can’t master endurance sports, either. No matter how many events I do, how many variables I take into consideration, or how much experience I get, mastery is ultimately elusive. But by pushing myself, I can attempt to become the best I can be. By pushing myself as far past the breaking point as possible, I increasingly learn how to better control my environment, understand my limits, observe the world around me, adapt to the circumstances that present themselves, and use my imagination to overcome obstacles. Those things are possible; mastery is not. Change in ourselves and in the world around us is too constant and too unpredictable for mastery. But by constantly growing and becoming more than you thought you could be, and by figuring things out for yourself in the middle of the pack, you will, at long last, truly be doing the right thing.
My hope is that by reading about the lessons I learned along my journey in the middle of the pack in endurance athletics, you will be encouraged to get out there and break down a few of your own physical and mental barriers. My hope is that you will find a path toward growth and change where you can test yourself, increase your perspective, and live a fuller, more successful life as a result. Perhaps it won’t be by running four consecutive marathons along the California coast. But somewhere out there is your own middle of the pack. Go out there and find it.