Lessons in discipline from long distance running

Watching the Olympic trials for long distance running events, I was again struck by how little margin there is for error in making the U.S. Olympic team.  Athletes who had trained for years lost by fractions of seconds.  The winners go to Rio for the Summer Olympics, and the losers go home heartbroken.

Individual sports like long distance running are especially tough because runners are on their own.  They are not playing as a team.  They must have tremendous desire, determination, dedication and discipline, notwithstanding commitment, enthusiasm, and mental toughness.  They have to set goals and prepare.  It’s the same in business.

To become a winning athlete or business person, you must be a hungry fighter – hungry for success, hungry for victory and hungry to simply be the best you can be.  A coach can show you what to do, how to practice and how often, and offer motivational tips.  But the bottom line is that it is up to you.  Sometimes desire is more important than talent.  You must want to succeed more than anything.  And sometimes even that is not enough, as the Olympic trials proved.

I’m as competitive as anyone.  Close friends might even say more.  But I’ve always approached life with the desire to do the best I can.  If I do that, I’m usually satisfied.


I ran my first marathon after my fiftieth birthday.  I’ve run nine more since then, for a total of five New York Marathons, four Twin Cities Marathons and the 100th Boston Marathon.  I’ve also completed three half marathons the last three years.  I’m proud of these accomplishments, not because I ever came close to earning a spot on the Olympic team or even winning the race.  I was just happy that I finished, did the best that I could do and left it all out on the course.

For amateur runners like me, the key to running a marathon is that it is not so much a physical challenge as it is mental.  Your body does not want you to run a marathon.  Your mind must make you do it.  Therefore, you have to develop a rationale so powerful, a determination so strong, that it will enable your mind to overcome the vigorous protests of your body.

The important thing is that you start off on the right foot.  Preparation is the difference between dropping out of the race and finishing it.

Bill Rodgers, winner of four Boston and four New York Marathons, said, “To be a consistent winner means preparing not just one day, one month, or even one year – but for a lifetime.”

To run a marathon is to practice a form of self-discipline based entirely on visualization.  You must imagine yourself doing the impossible. And that enables you to do it.  Time?  It’s not always important.  Anyone who finishes has won.  They have beaten the competition – themselves.

There is only one thing runners really compete against:  it is the little voice inside us that grows louder and says, “Stop.”  It is, unfortunately, a familiar sound.  We hear it all our lives – at work, at school, in all areas of our lives.  It tells us we cannot succeed.  We cannot finish.  The boss expects too much.  The company is too demanding.  The homework assignment takes too long.  My family is too unappreciative.

The truth is that many successful people are no more talented than unsuccessful people.  The difference between them lies in the old axiom that successful people do those things that unsuccessful people don’t like to do.

Successful people have the determination, the will, the focus, the drive to complete the tough jobs.  When I am hiring employees, I must admit that I take a longer look at resumes which include experiences that demonstrate the kind of commitment required of runners.

Running may not be your thing, but all of us have to earn a living one way or another.  The majority will work anywhere from 35 to 45 years.  The average person will have three to five career changes and perhaps 10 jobs before their fortieth birthday.

Statistics like these make a foot race pale in comparison to the treadmill so many workers must master just to bring home a paycheck.  Good training and the right mental preparation will help you find a job you love, that challenges you and satisfies you, and makes you want to get back in the race every day.


Mackay’s Moral:  Dedication and commitment are what will carry you through the long run.

Take the time to manage your time

Have you ever wondered where all your time goes?

You’re not alone.  People have been talking about time for centuries.  Consider this excerpt from “The Book of Fate,” written by Voltaire in the 17th century:  “Of all the things in the world, which is the longest and shortest, the quickest and the slowest, the most divisible and the most extensive, the most disregarded and the most regretted, without which nothing can happen, which devours everything that is little, and gives life everything that is great?

“The answer is time.  Nothing is longer, since it is the measure of eternity.  Nothing is shorter, since it is lacking in all our plans.  Nothing is slower for him who waits.  Nothing is quicker for him who enjoys.  It extends to the infinitely little.  All men disregard it. All men regret the loss of it.  Nothing happens without it.  It makes forgotten everything unworthy of posterity, and it immortalizes the great things.”

I have a saying that I’ve often used – “Killing time isn’t murder; it’s suicide.”  We all start out in life with one thing in common; we all have the same amount of time each day, each week, each month and each year.  Now it’s just a matter of what we do with it.

I’ve seen estimates that the average person spends seven years in the bathroom, six years eating, four years cleaning house, five years waiting in line, two years trying to return phone calls to people who aren’t there, three years preparing meals, one year searching for misplaced items and six months sitting at red traffic lights.

That’s nearly 30 years and doesn’t include a lot of what you might need or want to do.  Prioritizing your time should be a top priority.

Getting more done doesn’t always mean doing more things.  Sometimes it’s about doing less.  Don’t try to schedule every minute of every day.  When you make and prioritize your to-do list, leave yourself some flexibility to handle interruptions and unplanned tasks that are bound to come up during the day.  You should block out segments of your day for important tasks, but be sure to reserve enough time so that you don’t have to rush through things.  Taking your time can sometimes be the best use of your time.

timeDo you need to manage your time better at work?  Who doesn’t?   One of the first things you have to take control of is your time.  It always seems like there’s not enough time to accomplish everything when you’re working hard, but Bob Nelson in 1,001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work, says there are some steps you can take to rescue your time. Here is some of his advice:

  • When you get to the end of your day, make a to-do list for tomorrow.  Put whatever’s most important to accomplish at the top of your list.  That way, when you walk in, you’ll know just what you need to do and where to start.
  • Make a commitment to arrive at work a half hour early every day.  Then you can get started on whatever’s most important and work without interruption for that period of time.
  • Don’t jump down on your list to lower priority tasks until you have made sufficient progress on your higher priority tasks.
  • Use a calendar and plan.  It will organize you, and you won’t have to spend time asking what you’re supposed to be doing.  You’ll already know.
  • Go through your in-box at least once a day and prioritize it.
  • Say goodbye to unimportant meetings.  If you don’t need to be there, don’t go.  It will waste your time, and your list won’t get any smaller.
  • Focus on what only you can do.  Then, when possible, delegate to others.
  • Take a couple of hours every week to sit down and look at your big picture goals.  Are you making progress? Set or reset goals appropriately.
  • Learn to say no.  Be polite, but firm.  Otherwise, you won’t have the focus or energy to attain your goals.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If we take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.”  A minute doesn’t seem like much, but the cumulative value of those minutes determines the quality of a lifetime.  Don’t waste another second!


Mackay’s Moral:  If you want to have the time of your life, make the most of your minutes.

Get to the root of your problems

A rancher left 17 horses as a bequest for his three children.  When the rancher passed away, his children opened his will.

The will stated that the eldest child should get half of his 17 horses.

The middle child should get one-third of the 17 horses.

The youngest child should be given one-ninth of the 17 horses.

Because it is not possible to divide 17 into halves or thirds or ninths, the heirs started to fight among themselves as to the distribution.  So they agreed to consult a wise old neighbor.

The wise neighbor listened patiently to the will.  After giving the instructions much thought, the wise man brought one of his own horses and added it to the 17, bringing the total count to 18.

Then he started reading the will again. Half of 18 is 9, so he gave the eldest child 9 horses.  One third of 18 is 6, so he gave the middle child 6 horses.  One ninth of 18 is 2, so he gave the youngest child 2 horses.

He had distributed 9 + 6 + 2 horses, which came to 17.  Then he took his own horse back.

Problem solved.

But first, the wise neighbor had to acknowledge that there was a problem.  In this case, he had to start by finding the “18th horse” – the common ground.  In order to reach a solution, you must believe that there is a solution.  Once the parties find the common ground, a solution may well follow.

In my opinion, this lesson should be taught not only in every problem-solving workshop but also in every team-building exercise.

Too often, we make problems larger than they are by rushing to solutions.  Methodical thinking, breaking down the problem into manageable parts, and considering unorthodox approaches are necessary skills that feed into practical outcomes.


Following a few simple steps will lead to more successful problem-solving.

  • Identify the problem.  Believe it or not, this step is often overlooked.  You know something is wrong, but you haven’t identified it.  Example:  Sales are down.  Reason:  Inferior product?  Ineffective sales force?  Competition?  Pricing strategy?  Get to the root of the problem, or you will not be able to address it.
  • Come up with a list of solutions.  Let your brain roam freely.  Even bad ideas can lead to good ideas.  Stay open-minded and be willing to listen.  Consider a variety of ideas, and assess the merits and pitfalls of each.
  • Trim the list to one or two solutions.  Think about how those actions would best solve the problem at hand.  Do you have the resources or personnel to put those solutions into action?  Will committing more money help, or hurt elsewhere and create a new set of problems?
  • Take action.   Decide what your ideal outcome will be.  What help will you need?  What is your strategy when you encounter an obstacle?  Do you have the flexibility to alter your plans if the problem persists?
  • Finally, evaluate.   If you have achieved a satisfactory result, can you sustain your progress?  What changes would you make to improve the outcome?  Can you use your plan to address other issues?

It’s helpful to have a strategy prepared for when problems arise, because problems are a fact of life.  Despite your best efforts, problems may arise.  Accept that, but you don’t have to surrender to them.  Read on for a very creative solution.

A woman tells a psychiatrist, “Doctor, I have a problem and I really need help.  Every night I have his terrible feeling that something or someone is under the bed, just waiting to get me.”

“That sounds very serious,” the doctor replied, “but I think I can help you.  It will require many hours of treatment and could take several months.  And it could get expensive.”

“How expensive?” the patient asked.

“Each session will cost $150,” the doctor replied.

“Let me think about it, and get back to you,” she said.

A week later the woman called the doctor and told him she would not require his services.

“Are you still planning on having therapy for your problem?” he asked.

“No, when I told my husband how much it would cost, he said he could cure me, and he has,” she said.

“Really?” the incredulous doctor asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “He cut the legs off the bed.”


Mackay’s Moral:  You can’t solve a problem until you first admit you have one.

Keeping life in perspective

Thomas Watson Jr., former chairman of IBM, liked to tell anecdotes about his father, Thomas Watson Sr., who founded the company.  One of them went like this:  “Father was fond of saying that everybody, from time to time, should take a step back and watch himself go by.”

This was the elder Watson’s way of saying that everyone needs to step back once in a while and to check their perspective.  Good advice for everyone.

Perspective in business is important.  Perspective in life is very important.  Perspective has many definitions, such as the ability to understand what is important and what isn’t.  And it’s the capacity to view things in their true relation or relative importance.

Humorist Will Rogers once wrote on keeping one’s perspective about other people:  “You must never disagree with a man while you are facing him.  Go around behind him and look the same way he is looking and you will see that things look different from what they do when you’re facing him.  Look over his shoulder and get his viewpoint, then go back and face him and you will have a different idea.”

Sometimes it seems all perspective is lost.  Consider the current political season.  Every side of every issue has a perspective – often narrow – that prevents civil discussion.  Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu once summed it up:  “Perspective gives us the ability to accurately contrast the large with the small, and the important with the less important.  Without it we are lost in a world where all ideas, news and information look the same.  We cannot differentiate, we cannot prioritize, and we cannot make good choices.”

Businesses need to keep perspectives fresh or risk failure.  Products may come and go, or they may have stood the test of time.  Businesses that look at things through their customers’ perspectives, rather than resisting change because “we’ve always done it this way,” are more likely to be around for another generation of customers.

Businessman looking at Innovation plan. Business background

Let me give you an example.  At our envelope company, our motto is “To be in business forever.”  The advent of email and paperless transactions certainly has impacted our customers in the ways they do business.  Traditional correspondence and billing envelopes have declined.  In response, what did we glean from our customers years ago?  They advised us to focus on advertising mail, and we invested heavily in that direction.  Today, direct mail (advertising mail) is on the rise and coexists and complements the Internet.

The Japanese have a saying:  You can’t see the whole sky through a bamboo tube.  In other words, look at the whole picture.  Don’t be too quick to judge.  It’s all in how you look at things.  As the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold.

Staying with the precious metal theme, you also need to look for the silver lining.  Problems will arise, plans will fall apart, and your parade will get rained on.  But if you look hard enough – not just through the bamboo tube – you just might be able to find a silver lining.

Are you having trouble looking for the silver lining?  Feeling burned out can negatively affect your life as well as your career.  These techniques can help you regain your perspective and your passion:

  • Fill in the blanks:  “In my life, I was once _____ and now I _____.”  You’ll find the answers very enlightening.
  • Reflect on the past.  Figure out when you were happiest and what got you the most down.  How does your perspective change when you compare your current situation with previous challenges?
  • List five or six principles that guide you in life, and decide whether they are values you truly live by or merely talk about.
  • Try writing a page or two on what you would like to do with the rest of your life.  Don’t worry about grammar, practicalities or priorities.  Just create that dream list.
  • Record your thoughts, feelings and hopes, or tell them to a trusted friend.  With someone to witness them, you’ll feel responsible for making some changes.

Albert Einstein explained perspective in the simplest terms when he was asked for an explanation of his theory of relativity that would be meaningful to lay people.  He wrote:  “An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.”


Mackay’s Moral:  When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at often change.

Killing it with kindness

One rainy night many years ago, a gentleman and his wife entered the lobby of a small hotel in Philadelphia. The man asked the clerk if he had any rooms available.

The clerk, who was actually the hotel manager, was a friendly man who prided himself on superior customer service.  He said that unfortunately the hotel was completely booked.  “However,” he said, “rather than send you out in the rain at 1 a.m.  I would be happy to offer you my room.  It’s not a suite, but it will be comfortable for the night.”

The man tried to object, but the clerk insisted.  The next morning, as he paid his bill, the gentleman said to the clerk:  “You are the kind of manager who should be the boss of the best hotel in the United States.”

Two years passed, but the two men stayed in touch.  One day the clerk/manager received a letter from the guest, inviting him to New York for a visit including a round-trip airline ticket.  When the clerk/manager arrived in New York, the man met him and led him to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.  He pointed to a brand-new building.  “There is the hotel I want you to manage,” said the man.

“You must be joking,” said the astonished clerk/manager.

“I can assure you that I am not,” said the man, William Waldorf Astor, and the palace that he had built was the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

The moral of this story is you never know when kindness will come full circle.

Kind words and kind actions start with kind thoughts.  In a hyper-competitive world, we might be tempted to take a dramatically different approach.  But that tactic doesn’t produce any winners.


Mean people are not happier, or necessarily more successful.  If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook.  The comments are too frequently cruel or so extreme, and they breed even more ugliness.  That’s the definition of “anti-social media.”

Pastor and author C. Neil Strait said:  “Kindness is more than deeds.  It is an attitude, an expression, a look, a touch.  It is anything that lifts another person.”

It even extends to the animal kingdom!  Great Britain’s Newcastle University found that cattle treated with care and a “more personal touch” tend to produce more milk for farmers. The school studied over 500 farmers across the UK and – believe it or not – found that cows given names by their owners gave over 50 percent more milk than cattle that were nameless.

Contrary to the old saying, nice people can finish first.  The key is to know how to use kindness to your advantage.  If you think you might need a refresher course, here are some steps you can take to make kindness a habit.

  • First, be kind to yourself.  You’ll find being nice to others easier if you build your self-respect with positive thoughts about your personality and achievements.  When you are good to yourself, you are best to others.
  • Treat everyone with respect.  Don’t worry about who’s on top.  Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, regardless of their position or job title.  No one is too big to be kind and courteous, but many people are too small.
  • Say no when necessary.  You can’t do everything.  Say no, but be polite and positive.  It’s kinder to say no to something when you cannot devote adequate time or attention than to do a half-hearted job.
  • Plant seeds of kindness.  Do something nice every day.  Kindness pays most when you don’t do it for payback.
  • Take the high road.  Trust me, it’s the road less traveled.  It’s a big wide highway with no traffic jams.  And no road rage.

There’s an old story about a king who had a beautiful ring and three sons who each wanted the ring.  When the king died, he left three rings for his sons and a note that said, “My dear sons, one of these rings is real, and two are fake.  The way you will know who has the real ring is that the son with the real ring will be kind and generous to all people.”

Each of the three sons spent the rest of his life being good to others – to prove that he had the real ring.


Mackay’s Moral: Funny thing about kindness:  The more it’s used the more you have of it.