About 15 years ago, I ran in my first organized race. It was a 6k and I felt I had a reasonable chance to win because I had been running religiously six days a week for several years and the field consisted of only six women (including me). (I lived on an island with a small population and an even smaller number of women. Long story for another day.) I dutifully loaded up on carbs the night before, got a good night’s rest, and focused on staying hydrated in the tropical climate.
Race day was beautiful, sunny, and hot, but I felt good. In fact, I felt so energized that when the race started I easily broke from the pack and started to establish what would become about a half-mile lead. I would periodically check behind me, and see my competition far behind. However something happened to me about a mile before the finish line. My muscles started to cramp and I began to feel nauseated.
I had to stop.
So, with less than a mile to go, I started to walk. I hoped I would recover quickly so that I could still win the race, but that was not in the cards. I felt so physically bad that I feared I would earn a DNF or “Did Not Finish.” As I walked along, I got to hear each woman approach from behind and pass me, which just added to the excruciating pain and discomfort I felt.
I did finish the race – in last place — and once I felt better I dissected what went wrong. First: By paying attention to the way I run on non-race days, I learned that I am a naturally slow starter. It takes me a mile or two to get warmed up. However, once the engine is running, I have a fantastic kick – especially during the last mile. Second: The adrenaline of race day unduly influenced the way that I approached that race. Did I want to be viewed as the tortoise at race start, or did I want to be the hare? Of course, I wanted to be the hare! I learned I am susceptible to race day pressures, and that I should establish a game plan before I approach the line, rather than when the race begins. Third, and most importantly: I am running against no one else but myself. I am not an Olympic athlete, nor will I ever be one. Thus, there will always be people who are faster than me. So, what I should do is run my own race without caring about how others perform.
Since that experience, I have run several half-marathons, each time beating my previous personal best by five minutes. I did this by starting slow, ignoring the pace of the jackrabbits around me, finishing fast, and by running my own race (on my terms as dictated by my strengths). Those are achievements about which I am very proud. Did I win? Nope. I triumphed, nonetheless, because I beat the younger me of the year before.
What does this have to do with Project Management? Quite a bit. First, I failed on race day 15 years ago but I learned a lot from it that helped me be successful on future, similar endeavors. Conducting a lessons learned analysis was crucial. Second, don’t be afraid of the spectacular failure. Imagine how little I would have learned about myself if I hadn’t failed so miserably. If I had won, there would have been very little introspection and no insight. Although we all learn in different ways, I have found it is the knowledge associated with public failures – for example, when I gave the wrong answer in class – that result in long-lasting learning. Venture outside of your comfort zone, go big, and don’t be afraid about what other people think. Chances are your understanding of the topic, situation, or experience will be more profound than others who just observed from the sidelines.
Finally, maybe we need to change our thinking about failure. Try not to judge the people you pass during the workplace race. As Thomas Edison once stated about the iterative development of a nickel-iron battery that involved over nine thousand experiments: “I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work” (Dyer, 1910). It’s just quite possible these coworkers are “running their own race.”