“I don’t stop when I’m tired. I stop when I’m done.” ― David Goggins. David Goggins is a highly motivated and highly motivating individual. He has earned his stripes through the fires of life, athleticism, and leadership. I regularly look at David for inspiration and motivation because David Goggins runs races well - in so many senses of the term. He has competed in some of the most grueling races this world has to offer, and overcome more adversity in his life than most of us. But, after reading about some of the races he's completed, I started to connect a few dots.
Having run a few tough (ish) races myself, I began to look at the process of a race through the lens of an entire career of work. From the first job to retirement. From the starting line to the finish line. What I found was fascinating but not surprising. Throughout the different stages of a longer race are different decision points and mental challenges. Yes, foot races are physical, but they also take a huge amount of mental toughness and grit. Anything worth doing is usually difficult. If work life was filled with rainbows and ponies, we wouldn't have lessons to learn or people to learn them from. When I looked at the lifespan of a career and the entirety of, say, an Ironman triathlon, there are some amazing resemblances. I'll use the Ironman references because that was the HARDEST race I've ever completed. Let's walk through the early, middle, and ending parts of work and racing and see where we can gain some knowledge.
The Starting Line
Let's first look at the starting point of a race and a career. As a young human entering the workforce, you are filled with excitement, anxiety, fear, and a large amount of curiosity of the unknown. You've clawed your way through the interview process and have emerged victorious! You got a job! In the first few weeks, months, or years, you ask yourself questions like, "Will I make lifelong friends here? If I start really strong, will I get noticed right away? Who are the all-stars that I need to learn from?" As your early career progresses, these questions are usually answered quickly. You begin your career and you strive for excellence, not persuaded by the downsides of your work life (which EVERY company has). You start strong and are well on your way to potential promotion and more responsibility. It's a pretty fun place to be.
An Ironman race begins with the swim. You and 500 of your closest friends line up at the starting line. The gun goes off, and EVERYONE hits the water at the same time. You get kicked in the face, pulled under water, and downright pummeled. I don't know about you, but this can feel a lot like the interview process for a job! After you clear the water and a bit of blood out of your eyes and mouth, you finally make it to open water and hit a stride in your stroke. About 15 minutes into the swim, you are cruising. The muscles are warmed up and your pre-workout is kicking in. As you look around, you see others like you and wonder, "Will these be my pack throughout the race?". You pick out potential pacers and those you would like to chase. You look to the front of the pack and see who the really strong swimmers are with the hopes of simply seeing them in the distance as you start the run. The race is on, and you are feeling good!
In this stage of a career and the race, you should focus on learning. Learn the pace at which you feel comfortable working and then identify areas which can be push yourself outside of your comfort zone. That's where you will learn how far you can push yourself. Take on new projects, meet new people, learn new skills. All of these things are going to help accelerate you to the next level of your career. This is also where you need to identify someone in the position in which you want to be. In a race, you identify the leaders and try to emulate the way they move in order to increase your position. In work, identify those in the next stage of your career and ask questions. Through the mentorship process is where you will begin to build your "brand" and start to build your network.
The Middle Portion
You have now moved into the middle part of your career. You've likely been promoted a few times and have UNDOUBTEDLY failed at something more than once. Your mentor is now a senior executive and you are now managing people for the first time in your career. Things are getting difficult. Leading people is hard! Your people want different things, your boss is pressuring you and your team to perform, and you are second guessing whether or not this is the right career or job for you. People you started with seem to be really enjoying their roles and you just seem stuck. And then, all of a sudden, your mentor calls you into his or her office and explains to you how hard leadership is and how good of a job you are doing. Your team begins to perform as a unit based on your leadership, and things begin to click. You're second win kicks in!
Ok, you have finished the swim and are halfway through the bike. Your muscles are starting to fatigue and you have firmly questioned your sanity at this point. You have likely passed and have been passed by people you thought were going to be your pack in the beginning. You begin to doubt your ability to finish the race and your reason for being (at least that's what happened to me). Then, all of a sudden, it doesn't suck anymore! You're second wind officially kicks in and you are once again off to the literal races. You feel amazing, you are catching up with the original pack and people are beginning to notice you. This is your moment to shine!
This is the stage of career and race that most people quit. Most will try and find greener pastures at another company or in another field. I'll say this. There is nothing wrong with that. Often times, people promote out and up and find a work culture that fits their needs elsewhere. The fact is that this is the hard part. It's the beginning of your leadership journey and the beginning of your accent up the corporate ladder. Many people, at this point, choose to build their own companies, or change industries all together but the key here is to be intentional. Talk to your mentors, your teammates, and others who are in the field or job you are thinking about transitioning into. It's not too late at this point to have a fully amazing career. But, if you choose to stick with it, learn everything there is to know about leading teams. THIS is where you will separate yourself from others at this level. Begin to understand who you are as a leader and solidify your patterns and processes. This is an inevitable step, regardless of whether or not you choose to stay the course. Learn how to lead and lead well!
Legacy Building and the Finish Line:
You have been absolutely crushing it. Most days are filled with leadership and strategy meetings where you are continuing to scale your business, lead your teams, and mentor others. OR.. You are continuing to strategize and game plan the recovery of your team, company, and/or organization. Or... You are somewhere in between. Either way, you are on the home stretch of your professional career and it's time to think about how you will finish. You've worked your way into a role where your decisions have high impact, high risk, and high reward. You have worked hard either within your company or have bounced around, promoted horizontally and vertically, and have a huge network. You've built lasting relationships with other senior leaders and have a guiding coalition to lead you toward the professional finish line. This part of your career can be incredibly challenging. As you reach the top, potentially with a plan for retirement, daily tasks seem mundane and unmotivating. You continue to see the big picture, but authorizing time cards, a task that wouldn't have even been a blip on the radar, begin to frustrate you. What do you put your energy into? What tasks can you begin to hand off to the next generation of senior executives or successors?
You have hit the last few miles of the marathon, and you are smoked. Smoked but hopeful. The finish line is in the distance. You can hear people cheering as others cross the finish line. You pick up your pace just a bit and find a pacer that's likely going to be your finishing buddy. You've run your race well! You have managed your nutrition well, hydrated properly, and have built up a really great pack to finish with. As you hobble toward the finish line, you take a look back at all you have done and you feel a sense of pride. What an accomplishment... So far... As you reach the end of the race, your feet are heavy, your back hurts, and your mind is beginning to break. Small cramps or trips seem almost life ending. You look around at your pack and everyone seems to be doing fine, but you are struggling to finish this last mile, but you clench your jaw, put your head down, and push through.
The last mile of any race, professional or physical, is the absolute hardest mile you will travel. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you enter this stage of your career. You have worked hard to make the connections you have made. You have a team of peers and mentors in your corner to help you push toward the finish line. Even better, you have a team of people whom you have mentored and groomed to take on more responsibility. As you push through the final stages of a career, lean into these groups and begin to craft the next generation of executive. Throughout your career you've prioritized learning, leading with kindness, empathy, and power, you've built a business and a network that will long outlast your tenure. The BEST advice I can give to you at this point is to increase your trust in others. You've done the work to build a culture where people aren't afraid to try and fail.
So, finish this race with your head held high, with your pack fully intact, and don't leave anything on the course. You've done something incredible. Enjoy it and be ready to continue to produce and contribute. Your knowledge is invaluable - so pass it on!
Start strong and finish well!