The Paris Marathon swept through the city last Sunday, and as usual, I ambled down to the course to offer the runners my encouragement. I ran marathons once upon a time. While I no longer feel the marathon fire in my belly, I do feel a certain kinship with the runners and a warm responsibility to turn out and support them. This year, I secured a spot a couple of blocks from our apartment, just before the 25km mark (see my flickr photo set).
It’s a humbling experience to witness thousands of people realize the results of their hard work and sacrifice, fulfilling a months-long (sometimes lifelong) goal. As a spectator, it’s an opportunity to think about what makes you tick, too.
Like a lot of things lately, the marathon got me thinking about the nature of ambition and the different ways that people approach creative work and daunting projects.
What are they, masochists?
It goes without saying, but running is not the easiest way to get from point A to point B when said points are 26.2 miles apart.
For every runner, fast or slow, the marathon represents a mighty commitment. It requires not only the grit to cover the distance but months of preparation, training, mind games. Running a marathon is hard. It hurts. And there are inevitable moments where the runner is consumed by a single, thundering thought: ”What the hell am I doing here?”
It’s a thought that has likewise occurred to anyone who has started a business, penned a novel, designed software, written a symphony, built a house. All of these pursuits, like the marathon itself, come fully loaded with inner demons, self doubts and the real possibility of failure. To be sure, there are easier ways to put a book on your shelf than to actually write the damn thing.
There are inevitable moments where the runner is consumed by a single, thundering thought:
”What the hell am I doing here?”
So why bother? There are as many answers to that one as there are marathoners, entrepreneurs and creators, but Everest climber George Mallory gave the most succinct and all-encompassing answer: “Because it’s there.”
Everyone who finds themselves at the starting line of a marathon or tapping out the first few lines of code for their dream app does it for the same reason. Because it’s there. You think that you’ve got it in you, and you just have to find out if you’re right, to know if you’re up to the challenge that you set for yourself.
Whether you actually get to the finish line (and how fast, in what condition) is another matter. Suffice to say there are far more first than last chapters of The Great American Novel. Likewise, about half of new businesses evaporate in the first four years. It’s easier to start than to finish.
And that’s where the answer to the “why bother” question gets more complicated. It’s a matter of ambition, goals and, yeah, tolerance for pain.
Let’s start at the front.
A little over an hour after the start of the marathon, the leaders roared by my vantage at the 25th kilometer, clustered together in a pack. People clapped and cheered, but I doubt the runners even noticed us. They were fast, graceful, efficient, technically perfect. In the flash that they went by, they seemed to be masters of zen, totally contained within themselves, focused on the finish line 10 miles and less than an hour away.
In every human pursuit, there’s an elite group that is always (always!) at the front of the pack. They succeed, even wildly so, every time, leaving the rest of us scratching our heads and, we have to admit it, hating them maybe just a little bit. They just make it look so easy and effortless.
Of course, it’s not easy. Elite marathoners live and breathe their sport. They train relentlessly, sacrificing nearly everything else for excellence. Nothing matters except the finish line and the clock next to it. They don’t just want to do it “because it’s there.” They want to do it because they think they can quite possibly do it faster or better than anyone else. They are, quite literally, out to beat the world, and they often do.
Business, literature, music, math… every realm has its lead pack. We call them geniuses. Some magical mixture of genetics, luck, inspiration and exceptional discipline makes this crowd vaguely supernatural. They come up with world-changing ideas with alarming frequency. They anticipate events or trends way before the rest of us. They engage their craft with such finesse that it makes you weep.
I am not a genius, and so I can’t offer any insight into what makes them tick. I marvel at them, I’m inspired by them, but I know that I will never be one of them.
This has sometimes pained me. I’m a bright kid, and I’ve always been good at the things I do. Add to that a competitive streak, and you get a guy who thinks maybe, with enough sweat and work, he could join that elite group, even briefly.
So, yes, in some aspects of my life, I’ve spent time among the group that inevitably follows the pack…
On this particular Sunday, the weather was perfect for spectators, miserable for marathoners. It was warm and sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and the air was still. Several minutes earlier, the leaders had sped by expressionless, showing no pain. When the next wave of runners arrived, the grimaces appeared.
Many of these runners — serious athletes — were already feeling the heat with 10 miles to go. Some had already flamed out, still shuffling along but with evident leg cramps. There were strong ones, too, and despite the tough conditions, you could see that they were going to finish well.
All of these runners were going for it. They had ambitious time goals for the finish line. They had no doubt made major sacrifices of time and effort to become so fast and talented. Few of them had illusions of making the top 10 or even 100 runners, but they all left the starting line with a serious determination to make their mark.
This knowledge made it that much harder to see the rueful, disappointed looks on the faces of those who were already struggling only halfway through the marathon. All that work, and they might not even finish, let alone hit their time goals.
The strivers who would go on to make their goals no doubt enjoyed a deep satisfaction, whether it was from beating a friendly rival (competition, respect) or a time they didn’t think they’d achieve just a year ago (personal growth, proof of will, raw measure of talent).
In my mid-20s, I was this kind of runner. I ran around 60 or 70 miles per week. I obsessively studied the sport and its training methods. I wasn’t exceptional, but I typically finished in the top 10 percent in 10K’s and half marathons.
My training and motivation weren’t so much about the running, but the finishing. I liked how I felt when I ran, but not nearly as much as how I felt when I finished with a fast time on my watch. I was interested in results, and I wanted to be at the top (or, y’know, near it). Run farther, run faster.
As I neared 30, running took a back seat to career, but I applied the same ambition to work. In 1999, I was given the opportunity to manage a team of producers and journalists to launch an online magazine. Eighty and 90-hour work weeks were the rule. I was paid well, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the money. I wanted to create something new and excellent, something that the world would notice. It was a great project with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and that made the personal stakes even higher for me. I wanted it to be a big, big hit.
We never made it off the ground. Like the struggling runners I saw in the marathon, we were hit by bad luck in the environment (the dot-com crash, an enterprise content management system that never worked) and, no doubt, by missteps in my preparation.
It was incredibly disappointing but still useful in the sense that it made me realize that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a striver. I wasn’t sure that the stress of the effort would ever be worth the potential success. It occurred to me that I might prefer to enjoy the journey instead of focusing so much on the destination.
After the bubble burst, I talked to a number of people who had been involved in some big internet plays (some of which worked out and some of which didn’t quite) who said: “I think I’m gonna try to come up with something next time that is smaller, maybe local in nature, that’ll throw off a couple hundred thousand in profit a year, give me a nice life, let me have more time for other things, and be with my family.”
So, the question is for those of you who are involved in or are looking at starting ventures, are you thinking about something big, a paradigm shifting play, something that the world may notice, something with the prospects of a jackpot… and that may require more funding, more people, more hours?
Or are you thinking about something smaller, something more local, and maybe more sane… and that gives a decent living and lifestyle?
Me, I knew I still wanted a creative challenge, but I also wanted a richer life outside of work. I wanted to scale things down and slow things up, to create a work life that I really loved even if it offered fewer traditional career rewards.
I joined Ellen in Paris, put out my own shingle, and set out to create software that would help other startups avoid the content-management foibles that sank my own outing.
The Exuberant Middle
The fast trickle of runners on Boulevard Henri IV gradually turned into a broad, churning river. Suddenly the street was full of noisy celebrants. The runners were cheering, clapping, talking. Not all were smiling, but by and large this was a happy-looking bunch.
The mid-packers, the exuberant middle, had arrived, on pace to clock in at the finish line around the four- or five-hour mark. Make no mistake, that’s still a tough physical challenge that takes many weeks of preparation. These were not dabblers, and most of this group no doubt had personally important time goals.
But these runners were there first and foremost for the experience, to run the marathon, not just cross its finish line. These were journey people. You couldn’t help but smile and cheer them on.
One of the great things about running is that it’s so accessible. Anybody can do it: It doesn’t require money, extensive equipment or skill to get started. And once people do it for a while, they find that it’s fun, even addictive. Even the marathon is an accessible distance with the proper discipline. The same can be said of most creative pursuits.
These were journey people. You couldn’t help but smile and cheer them on.
Among hard-core runners, particularly marathoners, there’s a large group who disdain the exuberant middle. The marathon is an event that they take extremely seriously, and to them it sullies the tradition to include people who see it as merely a fun challenge or an item on the “something to do before I’m 35” checklist. To them, that’s not serious running.
Given the level of personal sacrifice that hard-core runners make, I get their irritation. But I think that it too easily dismisses the genuine passion and effort that mid-packers bring to the sport.
There’s a similar tendency in business, where high-fliers sometimes sniff at so-called lifestyle businesses, as though they somehow require less passion or smarts. A “lifestyle business” is typically a small business whose financial goal is essentially to sustain its principals. I have all the respect in the world for people who can spin a business into a globe-spanning behemoth, but a determination to stay small tends to reflect an interest in staying close to customers, in having a rich life outside of work, in staying engaged in all creative aspects of the business. Those are chief motivators for me and Big Medium. Running this type of business may require less sweat and hours than a big fast-scaling company, but it engages the mind and spirit as much as any big business.
Can you tell that I’m sold on the exuberant middle? It’s happened in my running, too. Once obsessed with my times, I don’t even run with a watch anymore. At last, I’m enjoying the run itself, not just the finish.
Like everyone else in the exuberant middle, though, I do care about the finish. I’m in it to see my venture through to the end, and I understand the effort and sacrifice that are required to make it, even at the sane pace that I’ve settled into.
Not everyone who starts a marathon goes into it so open-eyed.
Somewhere around the middle of the mid-pack swell, I started seeing runners who didn’t seem to realize what they had gotten themselves into. Many of them were not wearing numbers, indicating that they were “bandits,” runners who had jumped in at at the start without registering (and, typically, without adequate training).
Bandits are almost always young men who are in good shape but have never run this distance. They figure they’ll tough it out. How hard can it be? Many were finding out. By midway through the marathon, many of these bandits were already walking wounded, their cotton t-shirts marked by two bloody streaks down the front. (It’s a rookie mistake: Cotton chafes when it’s wet, causing the nipples to bleed. Not pleasant.)
The bandits were learning what the rest of the runners had already uncovered through discipline and preparation: respect for the distance.
I frequently see the same naive approach to business in the tech sector. People with a clever feature or product hustle to get it out to the public, launching their product or site to the public expecting that the launch is the finish line. It’s all cake from here, right? Friends, I’m here to tell you that the launch is just the beginning of a long-term commitment to your creation and your audience.
Several months ago, shortly after the New York City Marathon, Anil Dash likewise plied the marathon metaphor for tech startups in an essay titled, “The Starting Line is not the Finish Line”:
Launching something meaningful is about every day, every minute, that happens after that start. Honestly, it makes me feel a lot like when I was talking about getting married: “If you tell people you’re engaged, they start talking to you about that one day, and almost never about the other half century you’re signing up for.”
I am, frankly, tired of reading reviews of new technology that omit the commitment of the team, that don’t mention how the success of the product almost feels like life-or-death to the people making it, or ones that ignore the people who make the damn thing happen. I’d settle for one product review that said, “we’re not sure which direction this service is going, but the people behind it have a history of making magic happen.”
Success, in other words, is helped not only by your ability to go the distance but by the faith and support of the outside world.
«Allez! Allez! Bravo!» we shouted from the sidelines.
I called out to runners with their names on their singlets: «Bravo, Sabine! Allez, Jean-Pierre!» When I could tell from the logo of someone’s shirt that they were anglophone, I gave ‘em a holler in English, “Way to go, Garden City, looking strong!” (The English-language encouragement always surprised them.)
These runners were out there giving it their all with a long road still ahead. The least I could do was tell them I believed in them. With the expected exception of the all-business lead pack, the cheering section always had a visible effect, a quickened pace, a smile, a thumbs up.
It’s important to remember that people in the middle of daunting projects need encouragement. The long road occasionally gets lonely and uncertain, and it’s always welcome to get reminders that you’re in the company of people who believe in you. When people are doing good work, it’s important to tell them, to remind them that they’re strong. It means more than you think.
Somewhere in the middle of the pack, a middle-aged man was fighting his marathon demons and had slowed to a walk a few feet from me.
«Bravo, monsieur,» I said to him quietly.
«C’est dur…» He shook his head.
«Oui, je sais, mais vous… vous êtes fort.»
«C’est sûr,» he nodded and started running again, moving toward the finish line, still some ten miles away. I’m sure he made it.