A Career Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

May 30, 2018 11 Min Read
career progression

It was a rookie mistake. Amidst the buildup and excitement in the morning of race day, the crowds and the ocean of eager runners waited for the start gun like a New Year’s Eve countdown. My heart skipped a beat as the gun went off.

The stampede of runners charged through the start line. Supporters cheered, runners let out their war cry, and before I knew it I was already one km into a 42km foot race. The marathon had begun.

I got to the 24km mark a little faster than expected. But that was ok because I felt great. Very quickly though, it all changed. After the runner’s high and euphoria settled, I began to feel light headed, and struggled to run a small hill.

The marathon metaphor holds true and applies to our careers and livelihood – a career is a marathon, not a sprint.

At that point I wasn’t sure what state I would be in at the finish line, or even if I could finish at all. I was certainly in trouble and had well and truly “hit the wall”. I started the race too quickly. I didn’t pace myself.

The marathon metaphor holds true and applies to our careers and livelihood – a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Unless you can snap your fingers to conjure your dream career, it’s safe to say your career outlook should be long-term, include clear planning, and be open to adjustments from many lessons in your journey.

In the past, I, like many young professionals, have made the mistake of running my career like a sprint – trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, unaware that this is not a sustainable way. The following is a holistic guide to making smarter career choices, so you can run the distance.

Commit to running the marathon

Set your goal – “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare” – Juma Ikangaa, NYC Marathon Winner.

Most people think they can’t run a marathon, so they don’t try. No one was born a marathon runner, and it doesn’t magically happen overnight (with the exception of babies born into Kenyan running camps). It takes conscious and consistent effort to make it happen, and the same applies to landing your dream job.

After you’re clear on your marathon goal it might be a good idea to take stock of the situation – make an honest assessment of yourself.

Getting that dream job without doing a single thing, is likened to completing a marathon without doing any training. With this attitude you’re hoping for a fluke, and chances are, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you really want to make it happen, it’s time to commit to the task and get ready to sweat.

After you’re clear on your marathon goal it might be a good idea to take stock of the situation – make an honest assessment of yourself – what level of fitness do I need to be in to complete the marathon? How fit am I now? What realistic time frame do I need to prepare for the race of my life? What kind of training programme will get me there so that I am challenged, getting fitter, and injury free?

A training plan is an integral part of getting you to the start line. You need smaller goals and tasks to work towards. If you have the good fortune of currently working in the type of company that supports your career aspirations, you’re halfway there. Even with this, you still need to apply yourself – to work hard and work smart.

Know what key performance index is required of you to progress to a specific performance level. Also, what intangibles are required for you to get that promotion? Commit to the steps to bridge the gap.

Common mistake

We work so hard and for such long hours that we run out of energy. I’m sure we’ve all known that guy in the office that often stays back late, comes to work the next day looking weary, and repeats this process. Some people do this day in day out – burning a candle from both ends.

Why do we do this? Perhaps it’s the enthusiasm we have after graduating from our degrees. We want to take on the world after being equipped with “all the tools”. Perhaps when you joined the company it was the career progression path your hiring manager enticed you with, and maybe the promise of that nice bonus at the end of the year.

We think the harder and longer we work, the faster that promotion and pay rise is going to come. This might be true for some, but how long can you sustain such an intense pace?

Work life balance

Finding that sweet spot between work and life can sometimes feel like a juggling act, but with some practice it can be easy. Like forming any new habit, first there is awareness, then practice until the habit becomes second nature.

If we don’t embrace work-life balance, running out of energy is the least of our concerns, because it could lead to the detriment of our family and our physical and mental wellbeing. The habit of living out of balance leads to a battery that rarely gets fully recharged, and slowly diminishes in capacity over time. In other words, burnout.

Start by drawing a line between work and home. This distinction is particularly handy so you can be focused when you are delivering that project at work, and of course when you’re at home, enjoying quality time with your family.

Many of us are “working” away from the office – not being able to 'switch off' from tasks and deadlines, answering business calls during family meals and emailing from our smartphones at bedtime – yes, I’m guilty of this.

Balancing your career with life is likened to marathon training and recovery. Both sides are equally important. The running part is of course what it’s all about, but what enables you to run is nutrition and rest. Without adequate food, sleep, and the occasional massage session, there is no way we can sustain the marathon journey.

In work life balance, if you place too much emphasis on work, you become out of touch with important relationships with family and friends. Even worse, if you don’t value health, the money you have stockpiled over the years will inevitably be used to pay for medical bills.

Enjoy your time off. The downtime from work will allow you to recharge your batteries and give you vigour to tackle life’s challenges, including putting enthusiasm into your work and career.

Sometimes solutions to work problems come to you at unlikely moments – just like ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, who excitedly shouted “Eureka!” when he discovered the physics of water volume and displacement – all while having a bath!

Corporate culture

I once spoke to a headhunter that advised me against working for company ABC. He said it treats employees like 'light bulbs'. “People are plugged in, worked to the bone, and then replaced when they inevitably blow.”

It was what he called a purely bottom-line-driven company that offered excellent incentives, only concerned with high performance, and that didn’t care for excuses. In all fairness, that could be a dream job for a top performer who was hungry to make a name for himself quickly – it was just not for me, at least not at that juncture of my career.

There is a strong correlation between productivity excellence and happy employees. In a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management, over one third of managers commented they wanted to stop spending excessive hours in the office and spend more time with family, enjoying hobbies and fitness activities.

According to CEO of ILM, Charles Elvin, “This suggests that organisations with flexible working practices to provide greater balance will find it easier to retain and attract talented staff”. What this means for a job seeker, is that it’s critical to do your research about company ABC. To find out if employees stay long enough to grow with the company.

The tortoise and the hare

In this classic tale of speed versus a consistent-slower-pace, we all learnt that just like the tortoise – 'slow and steady wins the race'. I don’t believe this lesson to be completely true, especially when we transpose this lesson to running your marathon.

You see, at times we need to push the pace, and other times we have to regulate our pace – go a little slower as we’re climbing a hill (challenge) and enjoy the momentum as we’re riding a nice slope (good times).

During your marathon you might pick a target in the distance – a person you’d like to overtake (competition), or there might be a time where you’re not concerned about your pace because you’re soaking in the splendor of the scenery and simply enjoying the moment (experience).

Whatever it is, running your race is a personal quest that involves different speeds – implies adjustment to different conditions, with enthusiasm for the challenges, and appreciation of the journey.

Going back to the lesson of the tortoise, there is still value in how he ran his race. Even if you’re progressing slowly in your career, keep going, just like the tortoise. As you continue running you create your own opportunities, and sometimes opportunities present themselves when you’re “not forcing it”.

Maintain a steady and consistent pace without being overconfident, and set your gaze steadily in front of you. Don’t worry about the annoying hare or how much faster others are moving. Remember, you are running your own race.

Hitting the wall

Ask any runner and they will tell you, 'hitting the wall' can be one of the most uncomfortable and demoralising experiences. It inevitably happens in the second half of a marathon. It’s when your 'systems' tell you to quit. You feel drained of energy, your legs become heavy, and your brain is telling you “you’ve done pretty well to get this far, it’s ok to quit now.”

This internal voice is encouraging you to accept mediocrity – to settle for less. You can shift your distracted mind, control your breathing and regroup your focus. The moment will pass and you will soon continue to run your marathon. Just keep going.

In your career, you might hit the wall after a period of burnout, or perhaps if you have not respected the marathon distance and treated it like a sprint. It could be a combination of reasons why your career has hit a rough patch – the economy is not in a good state, your employer might be going through a period of transition, or you have simply lost your drive.

Whatever it is, this is a good time to breathe and get some perspective. You should consider – am I responsible for this wall? Can I move around it? Or simply, does this wall actually exist? (The Matrix movie type of question).

Moving forward, literally moving forward, is the sure fire way to move through this uncomfortable period. Become aligned with your career goal, and reach forward by placing one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you will gain momentum and move to the next phase called 'second wind'.

As life happens and as you aspire to experience more, you will inevitably be confronted by more walls. With experience and maturity there are ways to manage hitting the wall, sometimes even avoiding it altogether. The following will make the wall less significant:

1. Don’t go out too fast – conserve your energy and pace yourself. Know when to speed up and when to slow down.

2. Understand that good things take some time to materialise – choose to make things happen, but also understand that experience, maturity, and depth go hand in hand.

3. There is no substitute for putting in the training hours to develop your craft – shortcuts provide short term benefit, therefore lasting benefit comes from working with integrity.

4. Work hard and work smart – stick to your development plan, and find ways to efficiently get work done.

5. Consistent training and progressive overload over time, will give you the best chance of success – keep working towards your career goal, and you will certainly grow with your challenges and experience.

In the zone

In sports psychology, being in the zone refers to a state of being when there is effortless movement towards achievement, or simply a pleasurable state of centeredness. It’s a sense of control, where skills and performance are matched perfectly.

This trance like state is sometimes referred to as 'flow'. In the book titled Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposes that humans are fulfilled and happiest when they are in this state.

He says “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

This concept can be applied to all areas of your life, including your career and your marathon.

Picture this: It’s moments in your day, your job, your career when you seamlessly move through tasks, managing hurdles, enjoying conversations, creating, and collaborating with others in a flowing manner.

When you’re in the zone in your marathon, there is a single track of efficient decision making, your effort is matched with the task appropriately and you’re adjusting your pace with ease.

The finish line

Let’s go back to my marathon story. The good news is, I did run the distance, albeit grinding my way through every painful km until the finish line. It was a great feeling to finish, to get the result, but it was not the way I wanted to do it. The lesson in this is to plan effectively, monitor your performance, and above all, enjoy the experience.

The days of grinding it out are gone. Determination and digging deep should not be the default spirit of 'running your marathon', in your career. We don’t have to leave much to circumstance.

There are many ways to be prepared. Run your marathon, happily. Be disciplined, stick to your plan, and yes – enjoy the journey, otherwise what’s the point? Marathons are about endurance and pacing yourself is critical to your success.

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Shahran is a regional strategic manager with the Learning and Acceleration division at Leaderonomics. and formerly the Talent Acceleration Manager at Leaderonomics.

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