FranklinCovey Consultant Blogs | Todd Wangsgard | June, 2009
It’s official. I’m a triathlete! Of course, that doesn’t mean that I broke any records or medaled in any category during last Saturday’s Topeka Tinman Triathlon. It does, however, mean that MS Word didn’t even recognize the word “triathlete,” and that I had to Add to Dictionary. It also means I accomplished my primary goal by finishing my first multisport event (swimming, cycling, running) with a smile on my face.
In this entry I offer six personal lessons (from countless possibilities) from this amazing experience that have broad applicability to life at large, both personally and professionally.
- Actively striving toward a goal is life itself. There is palpable energy in working daily toward the accomplishment of a significant goal. Sensing the progress I was making toward getting better and faster was both physically and psychologically gratifying. Knowing that I was doing something each day to improve was in itself extraordinarily motivating. In a much more extreme example, Victor Frankl, the late Austrian psychologist and WWII Nazi death camp survivor, realized the power of striving in his own survival. Even when all humanity and dignity had been stripped from him, he recognized that his ability to control his own thoughts, even during his unspeakable torture, is what quite possible spared him his life.
- You cannot “win” if you don’t know the score. Simply keeping track of my activity during training unleashed unknown sources of motivation to stay on course – to really take my preparations seriously. The detailed results that came from the officials about all 500+ entrants, including individual splits for each event, pace, transition times, and complete rankings for each phase, was a wealth of information. Most importantly, I learned how to use this type of information to keep score and improve for my next race. No doubt, this was an intense personal exercise in applying The 4 Disciplines of Execution.
- The greatest hurdle we have to overcome is our self. Half way into the run, I was exhausted. An internal debate ensued in my head. Loser Todd: “Go ahead and just walk for a while. No one will care.” Winner Todd: “No way! I’ve got to at least keep jogging, no matter how slow I’m going.” Loser Todd: “Come on! Your goal was just to finish with a smile. You’ll still achieve that.” Winner Todd: “Yes, but I’ll know I left something on the course – untapped effort, my integrity, a whole lot of pride.” I’m happy to report that Winner Todd won out. I kept running and achieved personal records in all three events.
- You always have more to give. The more you give, the more you get. Swimming is my weakest event. It is for most people. Especially on the open waters of a lake or ocean, most people succumb to self-imposed doubts about their abilities and unknown “forces” that may drag them down or hold them back. These are primarily mental barriers. Once out on the open water, I decided to focus on my reach and pull. I wasn’t the fastest, but I consistently passed others from beginning to end. The bike ride was by far my favorite. Sherriff’s deputies at each intersection allowed us to really dig in and focus on the race, not so much on traffic. Wish I always had that luxury during training! Again, as I focused on my cadence, what I was giving or not giving on the hills, and how I was able to get down and out of the wind on the downhill and straight-aways, I was predictably passing other racers. This became a game for me – to eye the next guy (or gal) in front of me, and make it my purpose to give whatever it took to reach and overtake him (or her). With few exceptions, I was able to dig into untapped sources of energy and drive ever closer toward the leaders.
- You’re never done, unless you say you’re done. During the final mile of the run, I began to consider whether I would ever want to enter another triathlon. The answer from my aching muscles was a resounding, “No way!” However, only a minute and a half after crossing the finish line, I was astonished by the surging rush of adrenaline and energy I was experiencing. It was a very real physical urge to want to keep running or get back on my bike and take in another 10 miles. To my own surprise, I began telling family and friends, “I can’t wait to do this again!” So, I just registered for my next Olympic distance triathlon. It takes place in 3 weeks on July 11th.
- It’s all about the relationships. This entire experience would simply be an exercise in personal fitness, if I hadn’t been connected to the dozens of people along the way (like yourself) who have inspired me, kept me on track, and allowed me to take the necessary time (thanks, Sweetheart and kids) to train for this short-term goal. It wouldn’t have been as fun! And I certainly wouldn’t be running in a July 4th 5k with my wife, immediately training for another triathlon (that I also talked my brother and a close family friend into doing), or contemplating a future marathon or even Ironman. These life-changing connections with other people are what enable us to live The 8th Habit.
Out of 155 entrants in the long-course, I finished 50th, with 2 hrs 22 min 8 sec.
I struggled to decide which of the following two ways to sum up this whole experience. So, in my ambivalence I offer both.
“Swim: 1100 yards. Ride: 20 miles. Run: 7 miles. Bragging rights: Priceless! ”
…or, perhaps a more humble quip,
“Great accomplishments aren’t so much about the limits you and your critics believe you are bound by, but rather much more about the person you and your allies are about to define and discover. ”
***Credits (My Allies)***
- Mom and Dad, for making my life’s experiment possible
- Jana, my wife, for your tireless support and patience
- Conner, my son 1, for our morning “Bike-Jogs”
- Dawson, my son 2, for our morning “Bike-Jogs”
- Jayci, my daughter, for understanding why you can’t go on our morning “Bike-Jogs”
- Bridger, my son 3, for your constant smiles and inspiration
- John, my training partner, for keeping me accountable
- Bob, my Tri mentor, for getting me hooked
- Chris, for keeping me running for the past 18 months
- Tyler, my brother, for agreeing to be tortured alongside me for Tri #2
- Courtney, my blog administrator, for forgiving me for being so verbose on this entry
I race in my first triathlon tomorrow morning. Surprisingly, I’m not terribly nervous, just concerned that I’m going to forget some important piece of equipment or preparation. You’d be surprised just how much “stuff” there is to pull this thing off.
Items to bring:
- Swim cap
- Swim goggles
- Bike shoes
- Bike gloves
- Running shoes
- Energy gels
- Water bottles
- Helium balloon
Yes – One inflated helium balloon, preferably of a bright and obnoxious color.
I made a special acquaintance in Detroit last month who got me into this adrenaline-induced fervor. Bob, my triathlon Jedi master, has shared his own race stories and offered some rather practical racing tips to help me prepare. The oddest tip he offered was to attach a helium balloon to the rack where my bike, helmet, glasses, shoes and socks will be waiting after the swim. When hundreds of dripping wet racers arrive on shore, they’re all attempting the same goal – to make a complete and speedy transition from the swim to the bike. Unfortunately, some triathletes spend several seconds – even minutes – just trying to find their own bicycle. A helium balloon attached near my bike will serve as an instant visual bearing, thus allowing me to sprint directly to my equipment.
Life is much more than a triathlon.
Think of the various “events” or “stages” in one’s life. Formal education. First job. Marriage. Children. Unemployment. Continuing education. Career changes. Disability. Unlike a triathlon, these events are not always distinct and separate from one another. They often overlap. They don’t all happen in the sequence we planned. Some are harder to train for than others. And we don’t always know whether we’re “winning.”
However, all of life’s stages can benefit from a clear and visual bearing that has the potential to keep us moving forward and ultimately on track. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we choose our values and goals. Each time we look up to take a breath, each time we gaze across the horizon of our life, we should recognize those values and know that we’re headed in the right direction. They are our instant visual bearing.
Stephen R. Covey has often said, “No one wants to climb the ladder of success, arriving at the top only to find out the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
If you haven’t already done so, carve out a few minutes in the next couple days to define and refine your own values. Anchor those visual bearings into your routine by sharing them with a loved one, making them visual and accessible. Use them in your weekly and daily planning routine to evaluate how things are going. There will be little doubt, as you look up now and again from the chaos of life, that you are fervently moving in the direction of your life’s mission. You’ll have the peace of mind and satisfaction of knowing that you are indeed winning the race!
I’m not exactly sure where I first heard that phrase. It is often attributed to well-known leadership guru, Ken Blanchard. One of my previous managers in the field of organizational development used it often to describe exaclty how valuable feedback is to successful leaders. Dr. Stephen R. Covey has said, “Leaders, beware! The higher you go in an organization, the less likely people are to give you straight feedback. Feedback is your life-support system. Without it, you will eventually fail. Do everything you can to create a culture where it is safe to give you feedback.”
In my own research of the most salient topics for leadership development within a variety of organizations, the ability and propensity to give constructive feedback always ranks in the top five most important leadership skills. When you think of your own best boss experience, chances are he or she was deft at delivering difficult news about your own performance in a way that didn’t hurt, but rather enlightened you. You knew the person giving the feedback had your best interest at heart.
Some feedback is certainly more difficult to deliver than other feedback. For example, it would be less painstaking to tell someone their presentation slides are too crowded than to tell that person he or she has bad breath.
About five years ago I was serving in a corporate position with responsibility for management development across an enterprise with a presence in roughly 23 different states. Mine was the privilege of working with leadership from around the company to develop management and leadership bench strength through a variety of activities, including one-on-one coaching, classroom training, trainer certification, and performance management, among others. One day, a senior vice president of a business group brought to my attention that a general manager in a remote manufacturing center needed some feedback. He suggested I might be the right person to deliver it. To make matters even more challenging, the nature of the feedback would be to help this mid-level leader see how his sub-standard dress and grooming habits were having a negative impact on his personal credibility and the credibility of the business unit. No one in the local facility among his own leadership team had been brave enough to tell him what was obvious to everyone else.
This champion had been skipping breakfast.
Recognizing the delicate nature of this task, I started with the simple, yet profound question – “What is the right way to do this?” I had memorized a simple yet effective formula for giving constructive feedback that I had taught dozens of times in the classroom. I had used it in practice a few times, too. So, this was a natural starting place. How can I ensure that the recipient knew I had his best interest at heart? How could I be specific, yet objective about what was being observed in his dress and grooming? If he had no solution to offer, how would I frame the expected change?
Then it occurred to me. Without the new expectations being delivered by someone whose opinion has teeth, he is not likely to act on the feedback. Part of my strategy then became to tell the senior vice president who had charged me with this challenging assignment that he should be the person to offer this critical insight to the general manager. I was now poised to give the executive feedback on his request for feedback! The whole proposition was feeling more and more career-limiting by the minute.
In the end, this senior leader was very receptive to my idea that he be the one to deliver the feedback. Together we strategized the best way to frame the message, ensuring that the general manager would recognize we cared about him and that his success was our ultimate objective.
The senior leader gave the feedback. The GM’s behavior improved immediately. He also went on to lead even bigger business units with this enhanced self-awareness. Part of his new leadership strategy was to create more open channels of feedback around him and his leadership team, to ensure something like this never happens again.