The Power of Committing to Your Potential
One of my favorite cliche-but-its-almost-always-true is, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” When I think about my most significant accomplishments, they’ve always been marathon-like. They’re things that I set out to do, without knowing if I really could. They required a calculated boldness and iterative execution, each milestone building on the ones that came before.
This progressive approach can be hard to square in a business climate that favors disruption and hustle and bright ideas and lone geniuses. Even as we praise founders with hockey stick track records and massive empires, it’s also true that most success is iterative, built by a team and developed over time. There are moments of brilliance and flashes of genius, and those are exhilarating for sure. But those flashes must be surrounded with discipline, rigor, focus and dedication of an incredible team to sustain and grow. Most people can run a sprint or two, but sprinting is exhausting and all consuming. If we focus our time and energy on a steady plan designed to progressively reach a big goal, we build a foundation that provides sustainable energy and strong grounding for the next race.
One of my earliest mentors encouraged steady, focused, marathon execution. This was a helpful perspective for me because I’ve never been a patient person. But I didn’t really understand what it meant until I ran my first actual marathon. I signed up for my first Chicago marathon late at night at a bar with friends. At the time, I was a smoker, and definitely not a runner, but I was persuaded by one of my friends who swore we would do it together and it would be …somuchfun… I woke up the next morning to the registration confirmation in my inbox wondering what the hell I had been thinking. I was recently single, having left a relationship that defined most of my twenties. I was leading strategy for an ad agency on global business that was headed into review. If we retained the business, we would ensure job security for hundreds of folks around the world. If we lost the business, most of my global team would be looking for new work. I had thrown my whole self into my work and I didn’t think I had time to run. Still, I downloaded a beginner’s marathon schedule and started running. It was hard and it wasn’t particularly fun, but I made the decision to stick with it to see if I could pull it off.
I was religious about training because I was scared of showing up as one of the countless unprepared runners who try to run and end up physically compromised. I’ll let you do your own research if you’re interested in these outcomes. I started sleeping in my running gear so that I could stumble out the door with my headphones in the morning. For the first half of my training runs I was effectively asleep. By the time I emerged from my fuzziness, I was enveloped in the fresh air and sunrise over Lake Michigan and I was halfway done with my run. I discovered that my endorphins kick in at mile four (miles 1–3 will never not be a slog). I started to feel stronger. I decided I liked running more than smoking and traded habits. I started to actually enjoy my runs, even look forward to them. I found that on the days I ran, I was more even-tempered. I slept better. I found quiet peace in watching the sun rise. Running became part of my routine. I was nervo-cited about the race itself. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I was excited to see if I could.
About two months into my training, I traveled to Jakarta to build the creative strategy and campaign that would take center stage at the global account review. I traveled with my creative partner from the US. We gathered with colleagues from all over Asia. We spent two weeks researching, exploring and eventually developing a creative campaign that made us all proud. It was slow going at first. I learned I spoke too quickly for others to follow. Even though everyone in our group spoke English, nobody understood mine for the first six hours or so. We spent days and nights together, brainstorming, ideating, laughing, sharing bowls and bowls of snacks, telling stories, comparing market realities and immersing ourselves in the work. We had late night check-ins with the team in the US, followed by drinks followed by groggy mornings aggressively hydrating and caffeinating. It was hard fun.
Toward the middle of the second week, folks started to get sick. One by one, they were hit by a 24 hour flu. As each person took their 24 hours to be sick and recover, we picked up their work and progressed the ideas. It was like a jazz band with a player or two missing every night. It was tough but it worked.
Somehow, the flu never hit my creative partner from the US or me. I remember a very hot hotel treadmill run on our second to last day dreaming about running the marathon on a crisp Chicago October day. When we landed back in Chicago, both my creative partner and I fell extremely ill. We assumed we would be better in 24 hours like the rest of our group, but days and eventually a week went by and neither of us recovered.
I was so weak I could barely move around my apartment. I couldn’t eat crackers or drink water — nothing stuck. I remember thinking that this is what it must feel like to be old. Running was out of the question. After a number of tests, I discovered that I had a pair of parasites that were making it impossible to digest food or absorb nutrition. My colleagues jokingly named them “the twins,” and asked me how they were doing when I was strong enough to call into meetings. After a heavy duty round of medication, and a week or so away, I began to come back to life. I returned to work and I found my energy again and eventually, my strength to start running again.
We presented our campaign at the final pitch meeting. It was strong work and the meeting was a cathartic experience. I poured my heart and soul into the work and the pitch and the meeting and the presentation. Jakarta was an extended sprint, and the year-long pitch process was a true marathon. It felt amazing to share the ideas and plans we had painstakingly crafted. We celebrated after the meeting with hopeful high fives.
It took some doing but I made my way back to training, building mile by mile. I ran my 20 mile training run, the best test of the endurance gained in training. I felt strong and ready. On race day I choked up at the starting line, looking around at the crowd of 40,000 other runners all setting out to accomplish this big thing. I soaked in the cheers and encouraging signs and kindness of strangers. I loved it, even the hardest parts where I thought I couldn’t go another step in the heat of the sun. I finished faster than I thought I could.
Despite all of our efforts, we lost the business. It was a crushing defeat that impacted our offices and employees around the world. It was the end of an era and it felt like family fracturing. It was a sad, hard time. For me, it was an ending and a beginning. It felt like mile 20 in the marathon, when I thought everything was going to fall apart and there was no way in hell that I could go 6.2 more miles. But I kept on running. I doubled down on the connections that I had made working with that amazing group of people. I found a new role leading strategy at a different kind of agency. I took the discipline, rigor, focus and dedication and power gained in that marathon year, with me.
I cried a lot while running my first marathon. It wasn’t the pain — running marathons is hard and it hurts. That day, it was tears of gratitude for my body’s strength and resilience. It was the feeling of moving forward toward a goal with tens of thousands of other people, many of whom have overcome challenges greater than I ever have or likely ever will. It was the lift from the thousands of strangers who stood by the side of the road, with hopes of seeing their runner and cheering on the rest of us in the intervening hours. It was the mental montage of the training season that preceded that day — the sunrises, muscle cramps, bacon breakfasts, parasites, global flights, miles, soundtracks, high fives, personal strength and growth. It’s a powerful feeling that’s even bigger than the feeling of finishing. A powerful feeling that has stuck with me for each of the nine marathons I’ve run.
So, what’s the point? The journey is as important as the destination, yes. Hard things make us grow, yep. Don’t share snacks in a crowded room, 100%. The human body is a wonder to behold, for sure. But here’s the kicker for me: we find our power when we commit to our potential — to what’s possible, not to what we know we can do or what we’ve done before. Most of us know we can run a few sprints. But the real growth and deep impact happens when we commit to the marathon.
My most significant accomplishments are the ones where I set out without knowing if I could succeed or even finish. The ones where I decided to go with dogged determination, discipline, rigor, focus and dedication. Sometimes the outcome of these efforts is an objective win and sometimes it’s a true loss. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between, like running a marathon. I’ve always emerged from these endeavors stronger, wiser, committed to growth, and more connected. Ready to train for the next marathon.