I have two friends, Alison and Sarah, who are both marathon runners. In 2018 they trained hard to run the New York City Marathon.
Alison is a corporate executive and fitness fanatic, spending most weekends cycling or running. Alison had already already clocked up five bike rides across Thailand totalling 3300 kilometres, raising money for charity. Sarah is a business owner, mother of three primary-school-aged children and admitted that she ‘hadn’t run, except after an errant child, in around 15 years’.
Both Alison and Sarah trained hard, every week pounding the streets, upping their times, battling injury and fighting mindset struggles, all in a bid to hit the magic moment, the finish line at the marathon.
A tale of two stories
What’s interesting here are the different stories both Alison and Sarah told themselves.
On the day of the race, Alison ended up running with a knee injury that got more and more painful the more she ran. Yet she was determined to finish, even when she stopped at the first aid tent, threw up, got treatment and went on to finish in five hours and eight minutes. Alison was glad she finished but was really disappointed at not getting under her four-hour target, which would have been a breakthrough achievement, even though she battled an injury, and nearly fainted!
Sarah made it across the finish line in about 7.5 hours, in tears, after dark, with barely anyone around. What’s even more incredible is that during the last couple of kilometres, Sarah came across a fellow runner, a doctor who was on her sixth marathon. This runner was dehydrated, staggering along the course and barely able to talk. So Sarah helped her across the finish line, too!
Same race. Different stories around success and perfection. Different perceptions of progress.
One step closer matters more
It’s too easy to beat ourselves up like Alison did, when our story doesn’t play out in real life as it does in our head. We spend a lot of time and energy seeking big breakthroughs, moments that are incredibly satisfying, yet extremely hard to come by. They’re called breakthroughs because they’re rare.
Focusing only on the breakthroughs can lead to constant disappointment and frustration. A focus on the big-picture goal can cause you to lose sight of the smaller, incremental improvements that will form the building blocks of your success.
You’ve got to celebrate progress over perfection because the payoffs of a ‘small win’ are equally important. Small celebrations and high five moments fuel your own feeling of accomplishment and forward momentum, and create the same ripple effect of progress amongst your team and peers.
In the article, ‘Pieces of the leadership puzzle’ for the Institute of Managers and Leaders, Daniel Flynn, co-founder of Thankyou—the social enterprise that directs its profits from sales of water, food, body care and baby products towards ending global poverty—states that celebrating the small wins as well as the big ones is critical.
He shares the story of being challenged by his mentor on how he celebrates the small wins. Flynn recalls, ‘I had nothing. I am so driven by the future and where we need to go, the next opportunity, the impact we can make, the markets we could and should be in.’
Flynn recognised that by not celebrating the small wins—the progress being made—but rather always focusing on the big end goal and breakthrough, he was creating the same push and drive among his team. While this may seem okay, the reality, he recognised, was that he was risking team burnout.
Celebrate progress over perfection
Celebrate the small stuff. Seeking and acknowledge small improvements one day at a time fuels the feeling of forward momentum and achievement. Give yourself something to look forward to:
- a walk on the beach
- dinner with friends
- an early pass at work
- reading a good book
- a bottle of your favourite wine
- snuggling on the sofa and watching a movie.
What could you celebrate this week and how will you celebrate it?
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