The similarities between starting and growing a business and training and completing a marathon are plentiful. They both require planning, discipline, and effort, and both possess a probability of failure. In 2022, there were 5,000,000 new businesses started and 1,100,000 marathons completed. While large numbers, they become quite small when you consider the world’s population is 8 billion.
Each year, a small fraction of the population launches a business or runs a marathon, and I’ve found the work and mindset to be very similar.
In 2020, when M&R faced the same adversity as the rest of the world and transitioned to remote work, I found myself needing relief from the stress of the uncertain future and someone suggested running. I had not run in over 25 years, but I gave it a shot. In 2021, I ran my first marathon, followed by a 50k run in 2022, and a 50-mile run in 2023. Throughout all the training and competing, I was taken back to the early days of starting M&R.
When Nick and I started M&R in 2008, we were entering uncharted territory, learning something new about ourselves every single day. The lessons we learned, and continue to learn, could not be replicated in another scenario, but if I had to find a close comparison, it would be my experience with running.
Obviously, running a marathon is a hobby with little at stake, whereas running a business has everything at stake for yourself, the people you employ, and your family. But, there are always similarities in life and business, and you can employ the lessons learned in one area to the other.
Here’s ten ways I’ve found them to be similar.
#1: Surround yourself with the right people
Very few things can be accomplished alone. Whether it’s people or resources, you are better or worse depending on who you surround yourself with, and the greater the achievement you are seeking, the greater the people must be around you. When you’re building a team, it’s important to have people who have accomplished what you want to accomplish, people who are supportive and encouraging, and are willing to walk alongside you and put in the work to accomplish a goal together. In running, that’s training partners and coaches; in business, that’s consultants, mentors, senior leaders, and highly capable experts within a given discipline.
#2: Be open to failure so you can find your limits
When Nick and I quit our jobs, we were seeking something that brought us joy, pushed us to discover our capabilities, and allowed us to build something that didn’t exist. To do that, we had to be open to failure. The same is true for running – in every training plan I’ve ever completed, you never run the actual mileage of your race. For my 50-mile race, my longest training run was 27 miles. How would I do in the final 23 miles? When we set goals large enough to bring about possible failure, we learn what we are capable of.
#3: Build daily habits that inch you closer to your goal
Have you heard these two famous quotes on the power of habits?
“Successful people aren’t born that way. They become successful by establishing the habit of doing things unsuccessful people don’t like to do.” William Makepeace Thackeray
“We become what we repeatedly do.” Sean Covey
It’s amazing how important habits are in our daily lives and how they allow us to prioritize what’s most important. As Thackeray points out, it’s rarely the things we want to do, but it’s always the things we need to do. That’s the power of discipline and that’s how incremental improvements start compounding. Reducing sleep time or TV time to complete your training run or to craft an extra social post or proposal requires discipline.
If you want to learn more about the power of habit, read Atomic Habits by James Clear; it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read on personal discipline.
#4: Say no so you can say yes
As an extension of our daily habits, we have to say no to good things so we can say yes to great things. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn personally, as I’m prone to fill my plate to the very top and hope it doesn’t topple. I’ve tried to focus on quality over quantity and consistently evaluate where my time is spent and question if it’s being spent as wisely and productively as possible. When my goals are outlined it’s easier to make that evaluation.
#5: Take time to fuel yourself
With all this talk about hard work, habits, and discipline, it’s easy to forget that our bodies and minds have an off button. If we don’t take a mental and physical break from our daily responsibilities, we will see a dip in our productivity and focus. On long runs, it’s vital to focus on your caloric intake and utilize the aid stations to eat, drink, and stretch. And the same is true for our work life – we must find a work-life balance and refuel through rest, hobbies, and time with friends and family. Stepping away often brings clarity to your work life.
#6: Focus on the positives, but don’t miss the learning opportunities from the negative
In my most recent race, I missed a turn while running in the dark and it added 2.5 miles to an already long run. In the end, it cost me a top-10 finish. But I was able to test my ability to push out the negative and return my thoughts and energy to the positive things happening around me. It was a true test of my mental fortitude. We are always stronger after adversity, and this has never been truer than the Covid years of 2020 and 2021, when everything was tested – our business processes, structure, communication strategy, resolve, strength of our team, faith in our Lord, faith in each other, and our ability to pivot in a market turned upside down.
While those 2 years were incredibly difficult, we truly came out stronger for it.
#7: You’re never too old to start something new
I was surprised to learn that the average age of a new entrepreneur is 42. The same study reported that “those who had at least three years of work experience before founding their company were 85% more likely to launch a successful startup.” Nick I were 28 when we started M&R, and I was 39 when I started running. The latter has taught me that you’re never too old to learn something new.
#8: Celebrate the big wins AND the small, incremental wins
It is so easy to be laser focused on a future goal, whether that’s 3 months away or 3 years away, and forget to appreciate your progress. When we only look forward, and forget to take time to look backwards, we can find ourselves focusing on the negative. Dan Sullivan calls this the gap and the gain:
Most people, especially highly ambitious people, are unhappy because of what they measure themselves against. We all have an ideal, which is like a moving target always out of reach. When we measure ourselves against our ideal, we’re in “The Gap.” However, when we measure ourselves against our previous selves—the person we were when we set our goals and ideals—we will be in “The Gain.”
His book is an incredible read and I highly recommend it; his concept had a profound effect on how I measure and celebrate success.
#9: Share gratitude, often
When we smile, say thank you, and recognize those who are part of our journey, it literally releases endorphins in our brains and creates energy, excitement, and joy. There are very few successes that are singular, and taking time to properly thank those who helped you get to where you are is another step toward building a successful mindset.
#10: There are no shortcuts
Whether it’s completing a training plan or building a business, the only way to succeed is to put in the work. There are no shortcuts, which is great news for us who have more work ethic than talent. Kevin Durant, a two-time NBA champion, four-time scoring champion, and future Hall of Famer, lives by a mantra attributed to Tim Notke: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
There are very few things that can substitute hard work; maybe luck or being in the right place at the right time gets you by a couple times, but to accomplish or build something great, there are no shortcuts. It’s called work for a reason, and it’s hard. But it’s so rewarding when you do it the right way.
What Are you Working Toward?
Whether it’s personal goals or business goals, having them written out with action plans and dates allow you to focus your time, measure progress, and become more likely to accomplish them. I’ve found so much joy in setting challenging goals, even in the times I’ve been unsuccessful, because there’s always a lesson to learn.
Nelson Mandela may have said it best: “I never lose. I either win or learn.”