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When was the last time you met a recreational marathoner? Running a marathon is neither easy nor is it especially fun — it’s hours and hours of training, feet hitting the pavement, blisters, cramps and fatigue. But athletes don’t run marathons looking for an easy win or simple recreation. They make a commitment to themselves and run for the challenge. To succeed, the runner must put themselves in the right mindset: focused on their goals, patient enough to endure long middle miles and motivated enough to see the race through to the finish line.
In many ways, entrepreneurship is the same. Running your own business is not as easy as working a 9-to-5 job for someone else — it requires resilience and perseverance. There will be periods of doubt, financial struggles and seemingly overwhelming setbacks. If you don’t have the mental fortitude to push past these challenges, you risk becoming your own worst enemy and giving up.
When the process gets tough and it looks like there isn’t an end in sight, that’s when having a marathon mindset will save you. It will not only help you keep your cool, but it will also give you the focus you need to see your project through to the end.
Don’t Just Set Your Finish Line, Look Beyond It
What exactly is a marathon mindset?
It’s a mindset shared by many endurance athletes and what I call “corporate athletes.” At its core lies an intense focus on reaching the proverbial or literal finish line. I’ve adopted this mindset over years of training for and running marathons, Ironman Triathlons and other races, as well as from spending my career in a field with notoriously long and unpredictable product cycles during drug development.
Having one foot each in both the athletic and entrepreneurial worlds, I can say that in many aspects, entrepreneurship is like running a marathon. But in business, instead of seeing a predetermined finish line and getting a medal when you cross it, you must create your own milestones. This might be the end of a project, the launch of a product or the achievement of a key business objective.
Runners divide marathons into shorter segments, and you’ll want to do the same. From the start of your current project, break your process down into smaller mile markers. The goal is to make each part of the process more digestible instead of facing a complex project as a whole. Break it down, and then tackle each section one at a time.
As important as it is that you set these milestones, it’s just as critical that you move beyond your finish line and set new goals for yourself. You want to always be thinking: What’s next? This commitment to continual improvement will ensure that you level up your skills and achieve long-term growth.
Navigate the Uneven Road of Entrepreneurship
Coming from a background in biotechnology, many of the parallels between entrepreneurship and marathon running that I’ve seen firsthand are from the world of drug development. That said, these parallels exist in practically every lane of entrepreneurship.
Whether we’re talking about developing a new smartphone, a piece of fintech software or the next hot social media platform, entrepreneurship requires patience. Entrepreneurs have to walk an often long and winding path full of unpredictable stop-and-go periods and obstacles before reaching their finish lines.
For example, in drug development, companies need to first identify an unmet medical need. Then, there’s developing the drug, testing the drug and establishing that the drug is safe before they can eventually test on humans. The Covid-19 vaccine had an unprecedented short development time, but under normal circumstances, drug and vaccine development takes years.
However, there’s a key difference between mile markers in a marathon and those you might face as an entrepreneur: In business, each phase of a project is not necessarily the same length as the others.
For example, taking a drug from conceptualization through animal testing might take only two years. Once you reach human testing, you could face a much longer timeline. In other fields, like technology, your company might struggle for years to create a minimum viable product or successfully beta test an early version of your product. It’s during these longer, drawn-out phases of a project that your patience, motivation and focus are tested most.
The parallel in marathon running is a plateau in your performance when, despite training hard, you don’t improve your run time for weeks or months on end. It could also be the latter half of a race, when you feel the burn of lactic acid in your muscles and exhaustion starts to set in.
Part of thinking like a marathon runner is knowing that you can get through these long, difficult development periods and plateaus. You must not give up, but rather keep pushing yourself toward the finish line.
Develop Your Inner Corporate Athlete
Fortunately, you don’t have to be an endurance runner to become a corporate athlete. You can develop a marathon mindset by conditioning yourself to draw on your experiences, no matter what market your business operates in.
Just as the second half of a marathon becomes more taxing, your career path will also undoubtedly become more complicated as the years pass. Your responsibilities rise, but your capabilities improve as well. As you hit obstacles or plateaus, you can increase your resilience by focusing on difficulties you’ve overcome before.
Call on your training and experience to get through to the finish line. Remind yourself that you’ve achieved your goals and conquered challenges in the past, and you can do it again now. Keep in mind that uneven periods of progress are normal, but you’ll get past plateaus if you keep moving.
Remember, people don’t run marathons for pleasure, and you’re not an entrepreneur because it’s easy. Leading a business is a major undertaking. It requires a personal drive, and if you push through the slogs, the satisfaction of reaching your current finish line and moving beyond it will make the blisters — mental or physical — worth the effort.