The Secret of World-Class Performance

Jackson Siebert running with Bleep the Sheep

“If a man loves the labour of his trade, apart from any question of success or fame, the gods have called him."

Robert Louis Stevenson

I haven’t gone for a run since high school.

My family moved to New London (a little one-stoplight town in northern Ohio) just before I started 7th grade. To meet some friends, my mom suggested that I join the cross country team.

For such a small town, the New London High School cross country team was very good - the year before I moved, the high school boys team won the state championships. The coach, Bob Knoll, was one of the most respected high school coaches in the state.

Before joining the cross country team, my previous running experience was limited to playing recreational soccer. I was a dorky little kid (4’ 10“) with thick glasses, and as my first cross country practices started, I did my best to stomp my way down the pavement and try not to vomit all over my clunky, non-broken-in running shoes.

I was miserable.

My Short Long Distance Running Career

Bob Knoll is a man who, in private, has a heart of gold. Some of my best memories from cross country are when I had to miss a practice in the morning, and my mom would drop me off at his house in the evening for a make-up workout. He’d pedal beside me on his bike, and we’d chat as we wove our way through the Ohio countryside.

During normal practices, however, Bob Knoll was merciless. He was ultra-competitive, tough as nails, and did his best to foster a competitive attitude among the team. I knew he liked me as a person, but it was clear he didn’t think highly of me as a competitor.

Truthfully, I wasn’t competing at all - I didn’t care. I didn’t care if people were faster than me. I didn’t care if someone else won the race. I didn’t care if I had to stop to catch my breath instead of running the whole way. Running was always hard work for me - something that must be endured until it was over.

I stayed on the cross country team until 9th grade. During my last year on the team, I wanted to get better, so I started pushing myself. I still hated it, but I thought that if I could tough it out, I’d improve.

My body rebelled against me. I developed exercise-induced asthma - after running for 10 minutes, my lungs would start to close. I injured the bones in my left foot, and was out for two weeks. When I tried to get back into shape after my foot recovered, I pushed myself so hard that I passed out on the side of the road, and was eventually found unconscious by one of the members of the girls team, who was running a different route.

I quit.

Hurdles Can’t Stop Me

Track & Field was much better - I ran hurdles, which appealed to me. I was just crazy enough to think that sprinting full-speed toward a waist-high barrier was fun. I wasn’t spectacular, but I won my fair share of races. It was challenging and a little quirky, so I kept doing it, and I got better a little each day.

The day of my senior conference track meet was the last day I laced up my running shoes. I haven’t run for nine years… until this past Saturday.

Born to Run

To change things up a bit, I’ve been listening to the audio version of Born to Run , a book about ultra-marathoners. Most of the book focuses on a tribe of native Mexicans called the Tarahumara , who are arguably the world’s best long-distance runners. The author, Christopher McDougall, spent years trying to figure out how he could run without constantly hurting himself. His search led him into the middle of Copper Canyon , the remote and treacherous wilderness the Tarahumara call home.

The Tarahumara don’t train for peak performance. They don’t wear high-tech running shoes. They don’t optimize their diet - more often than not, they smoke and pound corn beer minutes before the"race" begins. They aren’t “in it to win it" - there’s a bit of friendly competitiveness, but hard-core competition is unheard of.

The Tarahumara simply start running, and by the time they stop, several hours (or days) have passed and they’re tens (or hundreds) of miles from where they started. It’s not uncommon for them to run the equivalent of several marathons back-to-back, take a break, then go for another run.

The Tarahumara don’t do a lot of things, but what they do is essential: they just relax and enjoy the feel of moving.

You’ve Got to Enjoy It

Coach Joe Vigil has been studying peak performance in distance runners for decades, and has trained several Olympians. Over the years, he’s come to the conclusion that optimizing biomechanics can only do so much. To become world-class, you’ve got to enjoy it.

One of the things that struck me while reading Born to Run was the section in which Coach Vigil talks about the influence of sponsorship money on distance running. Long distance running started as something a few crazy people did just for fun. As the sport gained attention, sponsorship dollars starting flowing, with a surprising result: performance suffered. For many people, running stopped being fun and started being work.

One of the first things Vigil does is encourage his runners to make running fun again. Here’s his perspective on how sponsorship deals stack up against enjoying yourself:

“There are two goddesses in your heart: the Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth. Everyone thinks that they need to get wealth first, and wisdom will come. So they concern themselves with chasing money. But they have it backwards. You have to give your heart to the Goddess of Wisdom, give her all your love and attention, and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous, and follow you."

Wise words from a wise man.

“I Think I’ll Go For a Run…"

This past Saturday, I ran a little over three miles - my first distance run in nine years. My only intent was to have fun - and I did!

I ran mostly barefoot (I wore a pair of fun and funky Vibram FiveFingers ), so I could actually feel the ground underneath my feet. It was a beautiful day - clear and warm, with a slight breeze - and I wove my way through Central Park, sprinted across the Great Lawn, and ran around the Jacquline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. I ran at whatever pace I felt like; when I started breathing too hard or felt a cramp coming on, I stopped and walked. There was no competition, no times to beat, nothing to accomplish, and nothing to prove. It was great.

Running was fun again. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m actually looking forward to my next run.

What Does This Have To Do With Business?

Just like distance running, the world of business is often characterized as being ultra-competitive by nature. Here’s an interesting question to consider: does it have to be? Could it be true that uber-competitiveness is a detriment instead of an asset?

Elite performers in every area of life have one thing in common: they really enjoy what they’re doing. Not in the narrow sense of liking to win, but actually enjoying the act of doing the thing they’re good at doing.

Tiger Woods enjoys hitting golf balls, and his control is legendary. Warren Buffett enjoys researching companies to invest in, and he finds them. Lance Armstrong enjoys pedaling his bike up hills, and he’s unbeatable on an incline. Steve Jobs enjoys building cool new computers, and he produces masterpieces. Audra McDonald loves performing in front of an audience, and she wows the crowds. Yo Yo Ma loves playing the cello, and his skills are world-renowned. These superstars don’t “have to" do these things - they want to and they like to, so they do - and do it well.

Think of all of the things you “have to" do right now. What would it look like if you took away the pressure and performance anxiety and maximized the fun?

May you never work another day of your life.

Read more essays by Josh Kaufman →

Published: August 3, 2009Last updated: August 3, 2009

Books by Josh Kaufman