Usain Bolt is an amazing sprinter. The fastest man ever recorded.
Interestingly, he doesn’t actually sprint all that much. More than me for sure, but relative to the time available to him it is a miniscule fraction that he spends running out on the edge of his capability. I’m not familiar with the details of his training plan, but I’m guessing that he aims to give absolute maximum effort a few times per week, just to see what progress he has made. The rest of the time he moves very slowly, relaxes, sleeps a lot and has the occasional massage. He is planning and pacing to achieve a peak performance a few times per year, when it really counts.
Now imagine how things might look if Usain woke up each morning and sprinted all day. Not only that, what if – after having a bite to eat and putting any eventual baby Bolts to sleep – he headed out to do some more sprinting until bedtime, before getting up and going at it again. Day in, day out, week after week, year after year.
Ridiculous? Of course it is. In the latter scenario, Usain Bolt would never be a household name for his sprinting prowess, except perhaps in his own house.
Sports are – of course – much simpler than life, but I think the metaphor still works to highlight the challenge of managing our energy around work.
Unfortunately, if we take the imaginary scenario above and apply it to how we are working these days, it is hardly jarring at all. Many are doing exactly that, day in and day out. Why? Well, I think it is because of misattribution, and in putting our successes down to ‘hard work’. I think we get confused about where our success comes from, because we do sometimes have to work hard, and the hard work is sometimes associated with success. The mistake we make is connecting sprinting with the success, then thinking that more sprinting will equal more success.
In fact, I think that any analysis of success (yours, or anyone else’s) would show that it is very often created by the ability to bring your power and insight to bear in just a few moments per week or even per month. It isn’t about long hours or lots of effort, but being able to be bold, brilliant and confident when it counts. For this, we need to husband our energetic, intellectual and emotional resources to be able to deploy them in critical moments.
Yes, you need to be able to work hard, just like you need to run fast sometimes. But it seems to me that many of us are no longer getting enough sleep, downtime, or play to be able to run fast when we really need to. We are trying to run fast all the time, and so when we need to really run fast we just don’t have that gear any more.
In a certain sense careers are built in instants, not in great marathons of effort. Of course you need to show up with your shoes tied each day, and yes there is some work and some practice involved. But the big wins – the pitches won, the promotions, the election victories – are often down to a few moments of inspired confidence: looking the CEO in the eye in a first meeting, asking the minister confidently to support your idea, grabbing the client’s attention and taking them with you in your pitch.
In those moments – let’s call them mega-moments – your actions ‘weigh’ more than normal, are observed more than normal, and count more than normal. Like a camera that has moved in close, whatever you do in those moments is magnified.
In those moments you need to be fit and at your best, which is much more difficult when you are on a 5th night (or 5th week) of 5 hours sleep per night, running on fumes. To win big when it counts, you need to have looked after yourself in ways that seem completely unrelated to an eventual successful outcome.
In an ideal world, we want to be out there being bold, being confident, making good strategic choices about how best invest our energies in service of our companies, clients and communities. Those exhausted by incessant effort are rarely making such choices, and are more often found snacking on e-mail because it seems easier to handle.
The challenge is to know when to sprint and when to contain and preserve your energies. Everyone needs to work out for themselves what their own formula is; I can only tell you for sure what it is not: go hard, all the time, forever. Beyond that, it is up to you to know what you need to look, feel, and sound great when the next mega-moment is upon you.
I can’t give you a time and a date, but I can tell you that Mr. DeMille is coming; will you be ready for your close up?