Triathlons, Bloody Knees and Professional Success

Survival was the motivating factor when I trained for my first triathlon last summer. For my second one this July 14 in Minneapolis, I’m fueled less by fear of complete failure and more by the thrill of being pushed beyond my comfort zone.  As I was peddling through a 17-mile ride recently, I realized how many elements of training for a race also apply to make for a more disciplined, focused professional. Here are some insights that came to mind as I huffed on my cycle.

Excuses, Excuses. I had a very legitimate excuse to not ride that day — my legs and glutes ached from a workout two days previous. More rest, maybe even a big pancake breakfast (I need carbs, right?) felt like a reasonable plan. While I overcame the temptation to strap on a feed bag, it took a good deal of mental energy to get on my bike.

As busy professionals, we have countless legitimate–even compelling–excuses just waiting to be rolled out. By limiting our effort, excuses cut short our potential. Whether a business chamber meeting (too early), an alumni event (too late) or checking in with the client (client’s probably fine, haven’t heard otherwise), excuses drag us down and undercut what we can do for ourselves, clients and business. If we are set on increasing our growth and opportunity, we must ditch the excuses, be visible, be relevant and work hard.

Portending Road Signs. “Rough Road” and “Curvy Road” were among the signs I saw that day. I feared my tire would blow on the bumpy asphalt, and I slowed way down to ward off a grisly spill when the road bent sharply. My favorite, though, was “Dangerous Intersection.” No longer just bumpy and slow, things were about to get dangerous. For me to effectively train and make it to race day, I must not only spend time on the road and in the water, but I’ve got to appreciate and negotiate the hazards that are peculiar to me: inexperience with cleated shoes, causing me to tip like fresh cut timber, leaving me with bloody, bruised knees; a vocal ACL when I run; and a seeming inability to swim longer than two minutes before I’m wishing for an oxygen tank.

When I was a second-year associate at a large Chicago law firm, I took on a project dealing with government regulators for one of the firm’s biggest clients.  My colleague’s warning to me: “There are more opportunities to screw this up then to get it right. Good luck.” Many of us work on high-stakes matters that, if handled poorly, have serious consequences. Succeeding through these challenges requires that we understand the hazards, acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations, and harness the necessary resources.  Being human, there’s a good chance that we’ll make mistakes and get scuffed up along the way. When we do, we brush off our knees, admit to the misstep and move forward.

The 3rd Cup of Coffee. I admit it — before I can even think about breaking a sweat, I need at least one cup of coffee. Preferably two. As it turns out, the longer I sit around drinking coffee, the less likely I actually get my workout done. My best bet –plan a workout with reasonable goals, drink a half a cup of coffee and get my butt out the door. The hemming and hawing that go with my third cup land me in Lethargy-ville, with all momentum lost and little accomplished.

Likewise, all our credentials, experience, connections and memberships matter not if we can’t deliver the goods. The biggest energy drains and momentum-wreckers I’ve seen in my 15 years as a professional are well-vetted plans that are revisited again and again, chewing the fat (including destructive gossip) instead of meaningful analysis and unnecessary posturing and manipulation.  These needless undertakings add little value and suck the life out of any project that once enjoyed plentiful momentum.

Swerve to Avoid Caterpillars. As I approached the “Dangerous Intersection” at a cautious 15 MPH, I saw a caterpillar making its own perilous journey across the road. My moral reflexes kicked in, and I instinctively swerved around the little guy. My riding creates hazards for other critters, and there were probably countless other caterpillar victims as a result of my ride.

As we deepen our responsibilities and influence, we have the potential to become great leaders by exercising active awareness in the ethicality and morality of our decisions. In Blind Spots, authors Max Brazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel argue that while many of us believe our actions are ethically sound, we often lack the ability to see the immorality of our actions and thereby fail to live up to our own stated ethical standards. While many difficult and complex situations often have no perfect solution, becoming aware of our own innate limitations and biases and engaging in careful analyses will help ensure that our decisions are ethically and morally informed and inspired.

Evaluate and Improve. As I finished the last two miles, the speedometer provided my average MPH. Like most times, I was disappointed by how slow I ride.  I desperately tried to push my average up at the end, but. alas, my average remained unchanged.  I recognized that the final burn, though it produced no immediate results, would mean I was a bit stronger for my next ride.

My Dolce Eilte WSD (aka Mamasita) keeps me motivated, honest

Imagine if we could all have a speedometer that provided us real-time data about our performance. Short of this, we benefit by collecting feedback from a wide variety of sources including co-workers, clients, even competitors. We improve by knowing where we have fallen short. By getting perspectives about ourselves from others, we find opportunities to push ourselves to achieve greater things. We may not see improvement immediately, but knowing where we can do better increases our chances of actually doing better.