Today’s post is by bestselling author Paul Smith. It’s from his newest book Parenting with a Story: Real-life lessons in character for parents and children to share (CLICK HERE to get your copy). He’s also the author of Lead with a Story – the basis of our course on Influencing through Storytelling.
When Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, he famously burned his ships. With no way home, his men were more motivated to accomplish their goal, which was to conquer and colonize the interior of Mexico. Cortez knew that with such a dangerous mission, his odds of success were much greater with the complete commitment that comes from knowing that neither failure, nor retreat, was a viable option.
There’s a lesson in Cortez’ wisdom even for smaller and less gruesome objectives. I put that wisdom to the test myself as a 16-year-old high school junior. And it taught me a lesson that’s served me well ever since. Here’s what happened.
A high school track team typically fields their best two runners in each event. If you’re not one of the best two, you don’t make the team. I had the number 2 position for the mile run. By my junior year I’d been to several meets, but hadn’t finished in the top three in any of them. Only the top three finishers earn a ribbon and points for their team. And the only way to earn a letter jacket was to score at least one point in a sanctioned meet. Halfway through the season, I was ribbonless, pointless, and still wanted desperately to earn my letter jacket.
I decided my best odds of scoring in a meet was to compete in a shorter race. I told my coach I wanted to switch places with Matt Copper so I could run the 880-yard event—a half-mile race. He agreed, but explained the risk: if Matt ran a better time than my best in the mile, and I failed to beat his best time in the 880, then Matt would hold the number 2 spot in both events. And I would essentially be off the team. I’d never run a better time than Matt in an 880-yard race. But I really wanted that letter jacket.
I decided to take the risk.
In the next meet, Matt and I switched events. The mile race was first, so I stood near the finish line and watched as Matt crossed it a good 10 seconds better than my best time. Cortez was burning my ship. And Matt Cooper had just put me out of a job. Now I wasn’t just fighting to earn a ribbon, but to keep a place on the team.
When it was my turn to race, I knew exactly what I had to do. Since Matt wouldn’t be running beside me, the only way to know if I was running fast enough was by keeping up with our #1 half miler, Keith Gatewood. Matt usually finished 1-2 seconds behind Keith. So in order to be certain I’d stay on the team, I needed to beat Keith Gatewood.
I started my race with high hopes. But two thirds of the way through, Keith was 20 yards ahead of me, and I was in about 10th place out of 16 runners. I knew I would have to start my final sprint sooner than everyone else—on the curve before the last straightaway. But even a high school geometry student knows trying to pass anyone on the outside of a curve means you’ll be running farther than everyone else. So passing on the curve is a high-risk strategy. But I was already in a high-risk game, so it didn’t matter.
I passed four runners from the third lane around the curve. And coming into the straightaway, Keith was just a few paces in front of me.
It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never run a race like this what it feels like to sprint all out for the final 200 yards of a half mile race. Your heart is racing at over 200 beats per minute, at the very edge of your cardiovascular limit. Your legs start to feel numb and rubbery as they near complete muscle failure. Every second you struggle with the decision to keep this excruciating pace, or break stride just enough to relieve the strain on your heart, lungs, and legs.
With 100 yards left to go, most of the runners were just starting their final kick that I was already 100 yards into. Maintaining that pace was a battle of will between my mind and my body. But I wasn’t just fighting for a ribbon. I was fighting to stay on the team! So I pressed on. And it worked.
I passed Keith at around 50 yards to go, plus two other runners just before the finish line, placing third in the race. A good friend and teammate ran onto the track to meet me with a huge smile on his face. “You ran a 2:03! Coach Wilson almost choked on his whistle when he saw you passing in the third lane!”
I left that meet with my spot on the team in tact, having earned my first ribbon, scored 1 point for my team, and earned my letter jacket—everything I wanted to achieve over the rest of the season, all in one race.
Both Matt and Keith were better athletes than me in high school, earning letters in both track and football. Twenty-five years later they still are. Matt is a recently retired Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corp. Keith lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and by the looks of his buff pictures on Facebook, is in the best shape of his life. But despite being outclassed by better athletes, I accomplished my mission that junior year, and learned a valuable lesson about motivation. Removing your retreat option is definitely a risky strategy. But it’s also a highly effective one. If you want to motivate yourself to achieve something great, even if it’s just great to you, consider ways you can follow Cortez’ wisdom in your situation. And then burn your ships.
– Paul Smith is a bestselling author who’s newest book, Parenting with a Story, documents 101 inspiring lessons like this one to help you, and your kids, build the kind of character anyone would be proud of. He’s a former director of consumer research and 20-year-veteran of The Procter & Gamble Company. Today he is a thoughtLEADERS instructor on leadership through storytelling based on his bestselling book Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. You can ﬁnd Paul on Twitter as @LeadWithAStory.
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