Go Bigger: Using Failure to Drive Your Success

Greg Pressler

When New Year’s resolution chit chat gives way to the topic of goal setting (a.k.a. plans, schemes, or ideas, if you will), there’s a question I like to pose:

If your next goal were so outrageous that the possibility of failure was incredibly high, would you still pursue it, or would the likelihood of failure be sufficient enough to deter you from the possibility of succeeding?

Like other goals in life, goals in the athletic realm can provide the “juice” necessary to keep pushing, keep sacrificing, and keep on… well, keeping on. As an endurance athlete for over three decades, I can attest to the power of setting goals, even if those goals are modest in nature. Simply having a carrot dangling on the end of your proverbial stick can mean the difference between just pulling the cart forward…or pulling the cart with purpose.

The esteemed running sage Dr. George Sheehan once wrote, “The difference between a jogger and a runner is an entry blank.” While the late doctor’s words highlight the 1970s syntactic struggle between two words, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to apply his advice today. Translating into terms a modern athlete can understand, getting out the door four times a week is nice (maintaining fitness, socializing, weight management), but entering a marathon or triathlon might be the fuel to keep the fire burning for an entire year — even if the prospect of running 26.2 miles or completing a swim/bike/run seem patently outrageous today.

Still, even the best sporting intentions can lead to a personal performance plateau, and even those goals that seem aggressive to most can lock an athlete in a comfort zone. Is running the same races every year really maximizing your potential as an athlete? Is it something lost when your athletic routine becomes predictable? While the pursuit of finish lines or the chase for a personal best are bold, audacious goals, they may demand reevaluation if they are sabotaging physical and mental progress.

A couple of years ago, I found myself in a bit of an athletic rut. I had completed a long list of endurance feats around the globe that most would consider completely outrageous. Yet, I felt a bit stuck in a routine, content to complete familiar ultramarathons (races longer than the standard 26.2 mile distance) and similar events where I had a high likelihood of finishing. So, I sought out a race, that given my place of residence (a mild climate) and limited access to snow (well over an hour from my home, even in winter), held a strong probability of failure.

The race, held in one of the coldest places in North America, required athletes to run, bike, or ski (your choice!) 135 miles over a snowy, desolate landscape, point-to-point, carrying or pulling a massive amount of required survival gear, food, and spare clothing. Under a 60 hour time limit. During the infamous Polar Vortex winter. Temperatures as cold as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit could be expected. Repeat: the temperature could dip to 50 degrees below zero.

Failure, for me in this event, was not only an option, but a likelihood. But instead of opting for my comfort zone, I used that possibility of failure as my motivation.

Prior to the event, I was consumed by the desire to finish the race, and finish it well. No snow in my neighborhood to practice sled pulling? I pulled a truck tire on runs up to 10 miles. No sub-zero temps during the balmy winter? I wore shorts and short sleeve shirt on cold days to help acclimate to cold discomfort. I even grew a beard to help insulate my face from the extreme cold (admittedly, not the best look for me). And, while rookies at this event don’t often fare well, I managed a strong finish despite a race dropout rate of over 60%.

My point is certainly not to have you consider a 135-mile ultramarathon. Running, or even endurance sports as a whole, are not everyone’s cup of (electrolyte-infused) tea. But given your interests, your hobbies, or your avocations, what event or accomplishment would hold for you, in the short-term, a high possibility of failure, yet at the same time, provide enough motivation for you to work toward the attainment of that goal?

Goals that are outrageous to the point of potential failure don’t need to be progressively crazier with each passing year or month. Taking a page from the endurance athlete’s training handbook, you might consider the concept of “periodization.” This is the concept of heaping progressively more difficult workouts on top of one another, within a four week or month rotation, with each of the first three weeks or months representing a higher volume or intensity of training than the previous, and the fourth period one of rest and recovery.

How might this apply to setting your own incrementally higher goal year after year? If you were to go in a 4-year rotation, perhaps your first year goal would be moderate, year two a few steps higher, year three a wild, crazy, “certain to fail” goal. Then, you might use the following year to recharge, reassess, and take stock of life, preparing yourself for another round of success.

Remember the fine line between pushing this virtual bar high enough versus too high where it will never be in reach. Finding this magical area in between is the sweetest spot in sports, where athletes can ascend to the pinnacle of their physical and mental potentials, and experience great satisfaction in knowing they have pushed to the edge of their limits.

I’ve seen people who, by outward appearances, have had no mortal reason to be competing in an epic feat of endurance, speed, or skill. Fortunately for them, it doesn’t matter a whit what I think! They were able to persevere, find sufficient motivation, and prove to themselves and everyone else they had what it took to succeed. And by doing so, they were able to experience magical moments that transcend the physical realm.

Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four-minute mile barrier, famously said, “Just because they say it’s impossible doesn’t mean you can’t do it.” Flirt with the possibility of failure, or you may never enjoy the sweet kiss of success. Seek out what might very well be impossible for yourself, and you might find yourself breaking a barrier of your own.

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