By Christopher Gergen
I am a runner. Like many competitive runners, I am committed to qualifying for the Boston Marathon. So for the past two years, I have trained with that goal in mind but in two concurrent marathons have missed the mark. The results have offered some important leadership lessons.
A colleague of mine at Duke, Sim Sitkin, introduced me a while ago to different types of failure. Lazy or undisciplined failure transpires largely because we aren’t adequately prepared and haven’t put the necessary preparation or work into success. “Intelligent failure” is when we fall short of our intended goal even though we have taken a strategic, disciplined, data-driven approach to succeeding. In trying to qualify for Boston, I experienced both.
When I first set my sights on Boston, I immediately looked to the Chicago Marathon. Known for being a flat fast course with a passionate crowd, it is a great qualifier. But life got busy, I took my eye off the ball and, before I knew it, registration was full. Strike one.
Still determined to qualify I signed up for the Richmond Marathon. It’s hillier, hotter and is known as the nation’s “friendliest marathon” (not exactly a million+ people screaming encouragement). My training was good but sporadic. The week before the race, I participated in a local half-marathon designed as an easy “taper” run. My competitive spirit got the best of me and I ran a 1:31 on a relatively hilly course. I felt awesome during the race and crushed my personal record. But I was only six days away from the marathon and my legs didn’t recover in time. Strike two.
On race day, I ran with a buddy who was aiming to break three hours. Based on my half-marathon time the week before, I felt I could keep pace and we went out way too fast. I had also poorly prepared my nutrition so by the time I saw my wife at mile 17, I had a glazed look in my eyes. At mile 20 I staggered into the water station and had to stop. Eventually I stumbled the last six miles to the finish line — finishing in four hours though I had hit mile 20 two hours earlier. Strike three and an important lesson in “lazy failure” — when a disappointing result could be avoided by better decision-making.
The following year, I was determined to learn from my poor decisions in Richmond. I persisted through an arduous registration process for Chicago. I trained hard and put the necessary miles in both on the trails and track, training side-by-side with a good friend to push harder. Leading up to the race I rested, ate well, hydrated and by race day I was primed. Race morning was spectacular. Cool weather and blue skies set the stage for a record-setting day. Though my horses were ready to run, I tucked myself into the 3:15 group (the time I needed to qualify). By 13 miles I was on a true runner’s high. The crowds were awesome; I had hit stride, and the pace felt great. I blew by my previous stumbling block at mile 20 feeling strong.
Slowing down for water at mile 24, I fell off the pace group and had to work to catch up but the end was in sight and so was Boston. At mile 25, I collapsed. I don’t remember stopping. I do remember throwing up, almost passing out, not being able to move, and calling my wife to let her know that I had hit the wall again. An ambulance took me to the medical tent. Not my intended way to arrive at the finish line and enormously disappointing. Boston would have to wait.
So what happened? Persistence was not a problem. In fact, this was definitely the case of body over mind. I had also adapted from my mistakes in the past race. Because of my commitment to learn from “lazy” mistakes I could also start to narrow down potential culprits contributing to my crash-and-burn in Chicago. This was a case study for “intelligent failure.” Training and prep were solid as was pacing and hydration so I could rule all of those out. I am now focusing on better nutritional strategies (more protein?) as well as getting myself checked out medically.
While a painful process, the two races provide vivid leadership development lessons. Persisting and adapting are critical to achieving our goals. So is disciplined decision-making so that if and when failure happens, we can respond intelligently based on feedback loops and take a smarter approach to our goals. Building on lessons learned, I have Boston back in my sights. But right now all I am thinking about is a nice mellow run this weekend.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Follow him on Twitter @cgergen.