When I was a boy, I remember my dad telling me about Roger Bannister. It was widely believed that no human could run a mile in under four minutes. Scientists, physicists, and all sorts of experts had explanations of why this was impossible. But then the morning of May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3:59.4. His record was broken less than two months later by John Landy, and the mile record has been broken seventeen times since. What once seemed impossible has become routine.
A similar story could be told for when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. Again, many people believed that traveling faster than sound itself was impossible, and when he first broke the sound barrier, many believed that the resulting sonic boom was his Bell X-1 exploding. Today, breaking Mach 1 is a basic requirement for many military aircraft.
In all of our lives, we have things that we dismiss as impossible – and by doing so, we deny ourselves the opportunity to explore the possibilities. This limitation can end up being more psychological than real, and can hold us back from our true potential. With the right attitude, we can sometimes make the impossible routine.
In all of our lives, we have things that we dismiss as impossible – and by doing so, we deny ourselves the opportunity to explore the possibilities.
Then in October of 2012 I not only broke 15,000, but got just over 25,000 steps while at a conference that required substantial walking. What I thought was impossible happened – in dress shoes. However, the idea of hitting this again seemed far off.
This record stood for five months until I got 30,000 steps in March of 2013. Since then, I have had over 53 days with 20,000 steps, and 167 days with at least 15,000 steps. Since that day in March, my daily average has been just under 15,000 steps a day – a number I thought would have been a stretch to achieve just once.
What I considered to be impossible became routine. I feel that what I learned in this period is a universal message that others can apply to their personal and professional lives.
1) Don’t set the goal posts too low. I had accepted that being sedentary and out-of-shape was inevitable and practically irreversible. I could not imagine a scenario where I had time to climb my way back into health. With a demanding job, a wife and a child – time was my scarcest resource. As long as I kept this psychological barrier, the idea of even trying seemed to be an exercise in folly.
Furthermore, I had set the bar for a “normal” activity level far too low. Walking 10,000 steps (five miles) is relatively easy – but at that time, this was a ceiling and not a floor. When I set the goalpost that low, I allowed myself to feel good for poor performance.
2) Track your progress. Having a system that kept metrics with no additional effort (i.e. my Fitbit) started to change my behavior. Instead of driving around Target’s parking lot for five minutes to find a close spot, I would purposely park at the rear of the lot to get some extra steps. As I started to improve, my visible progress encouraged me to keep getting better.
3) Start to self-identify as the person you wish to become. As I took up running and cycling, I started to self-identify as an athlete. After a few months, if someone were to ask me to use five words to describe myself, “athletic” would be one of those words. This ability to visualize myself as the person I wanted to become was important to me.
4) Be easy on yourself and give yourself the time and resources you need. I didn’t view this effort as accomplishing a short-term goal, but rather acclimating to a new lifestyle. I wanted to get to a point where being athletic was part of my self-identity. I have one simple goal – live longer than my parents and grandparents so I can be there for my wife and son.
This long view gave me permission to improve gradually. One challenge in the past is that I would push too hard and end up injuring myself. Realizing that it would take months before I was passably good at anything kept my impatience in check. When I first started running I was posting 13-minute miles (just slightly faster than walking) and now I can run 8 ½ minute miles. While my new speed is not competitive, it is respectable.
5) Align your values to your goals. Most importantly, I much better aligned my values to my life. As stated in #4 above, I wanted to be healthy so I could be around for my wife and son and this was not going to happen with my former routines.
In January 2013, I was laid off from my job and with the newfound time during the day, I made a deliberate effort to claw myself back into health. I started jogging, which lead to mountain and road biking and weight lifting. After losing over 50 lbs, I made a commitment to myself that I would never go back and this has since informed my career choices.
When I started to consider consulting as a new profession, income was obviously one factor. And while I didn’t have a crystal ball to see how much I would make as a consultant, my wife and I decided that my being around for the family and staying healthy had real value. And while we were prepared for me to make less money if that is what it meant, I have found that if you have the right set of skills, you can actually make a good living as a consultant.
So in the end, it was a mix of self-expectations, imagination, attitude, and values. I was able to touch the impossible once, which suddenly made it attainable. Then it was a matter of tracking my effort so I had a better understanding of what would be needed to improve and this helped create an attitude and yearning to improve. Finally, I fundamentally changed my values. I didn’t suddenly find extra hours in the day that were hiding in a closet – I traded a little bit of job “security” for the flexibility that comes with consulting to exercise and be a better husband and father.