When your goal seems impossible, take a pause and look back
I’ve always been interested in endurance events and lifting weights. When I was in high school, I was on the crew team and played soccer. I was one of the heavier players and rowers, not necessarily built for those sports. As an adult, I had done some runs and triathlons in my 20s and every year I do a long-distance charity bike ride with my wife and some friends. I still did some lifting and various classes at my gym.
At one point a few years ago my feet were bothering me and I didn’t want to run or do any of the classes I had usually taken —so my wife suggested I try swimming. I hadn’t swam in years, so the first time was awful. I did about twenty laps and could barely breathe afterward. But it didn’t hurt my feet and it felt like I got a good workout, so I did it again the next day. I slowly got better at it, and a couple of months later I realized on my longer days I was swimming 160 laps—enough to do an IRONMAN Triathlon.
I had always dreamed of doing an IRONMAN and my wife says on the day we met I told her I was going to do one. I don’t remember that, but it sounds like something I’d say.
At the time, I was a 51-year-old old fat guy. An IRONMAN consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles), in that order. You have 17 hours to complete it, or you get a DNF—Did Not Finish. I’d never biked more than 65 miles before, and the only time I had run a marathon was in 1997, but now I knew at least I could do the swim in the required time.
I took a careful look at the race and broke down the 17 hours I had to do it. You have two hours and twenty minutes to finish the swim leg, and I felt reasonably confident about that based on my recent swimming. Then you have another 8 hours and 10 minutes for the bike ride. The 112 miles is about 45 more miles than the farthest I had ever ridden but I figured it was doable. It’s just riding a bike, right? That would leave me six and a half hours to do a marathon.
Certainly not easy, but possible.
And that’s pretty much how my first IRONMAN played out. I didn’t have much time to spare—the whole thing took me 16 hours, 53 minutes, and 9 seconds. Some officials and volunteers were concerned the whole day—rightly so—that I wasn’t going to finish in time. My poor family was very stressed out about it. I was concerned the whole day that I wasn’t going to finish in time and the last half hour I was really afraid it wasn’t going to work out.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that I didn’t win the IRONMAN. I came in second to last. (It might have been last, actually.)
But I did it.
And it was incredible.
Why am I telling you all of this? I didn’t exactly follow a typical race strategy. I’m not a professional athlete, if you haven’t figured that out already. There are hundreds of men and women who can still run a marathon in under three hours after finishing that swim and bike ride, and I’ll never be one of them. I learned how to swim from reading a book in my 50s!
But one thing I’ve learned is that anyone can achieve a difficult goal if they put in the work—practice, planning, and consistency. That applies to other goals, too. You can be a perfectly ordinary person and still accomplish incredible things if you’re willing to commit time and energy.
Major goals are a little bit like triathlons. Sometimes you have to make a few sacrifices. Training isn’t always very fun. And it can take a while to get where you want to go, so you have to practice patience and dedication. But the feeling of achieving your goal is pretty incredible, whether it’s finishing your first IRONMAN or launching a new product or acquiring your first company.
You can think about leading your company the same way. If you just look at a big goal—completing a triathlon, say, or taking your company public—it can seem like an impossible challenge. But you wouldn’t expect to be able to get off the couch tomorrow and do an IRONMAN without training for it, and other big goals are no different.
If you have something you want to tackle, the first step is to break it down into achievable tasks. That means you have to take an honest look at the big picture and what you need to accomplish before you can get there. (I could hardly finish an IRONMAN if I didn’t know how to swim.) Just like you might talk to a coach or sign up for an online training program to achieve a fitness goal, you might want to sit down with advisors or mentors to split your goals into their component parts.
And remember, none of this will happen overnight—and that’s totally normal. Like I said, if you’ve been pretty sedentary for a year, you wouldn’t beat yourself up if you couldn’t run a marathon tomorrow. If you want to launch a new line or open 25 stores, don’t stress out if you can’t do that overnight, either.
We’re all human, and it’s easy for us to compare ourselves to other people whose successes look effortless or who seem to have it all. But that’s not fair to yourself and your own situation. Everybody’s different, and everybody has their own way of getting where they need to go. I’m never going to be an Olympic medalist, but I can still push myself to do some pretty impressive things on my own terms. And so can you.
Don’t forget to celebrate your successes along the way, too. Each small goalpost you pass brings you closer to your big one, and that’s a big deal. Each week and month that passes, track your progress. Maybe in your workouts you are celebrating shaving a few seconds off your mile, or swimming one more lap than you could do the week before. The same principle applies to your professional goals. Be realistic about your timeline and keep track of what you accomplish.
The secret of overnight success is usually the years of invisible work that preceded it. Often, we’re able to extend that knowledge to other people without applying it to ourselves. We get frustrated or beat ourselves up when it feels like we’re going nowhere.
That’s where planning and tracking your mileage comes in. When your goal seems impossible, take a pause and look back at where you started. You might not be at the finish line yet, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t come a long way.
Written by Michael J. Garry.
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