Yesterday I ran the inaugural Fleet Feet Pickle, an 18.2-mile store-to-store charity run for Backpack Beginnings. Later that night, I attended a “Post-Pickle Party.” Someone at the party asked how long I’d been running and if I’d always been as fast as I am now.
My answer was no, nowhere close. I was a 10-minute miler at best when I started running. I remember thinking that if I could ever only hold a 9-minute pace for a 5K, I’d never ask for anything ever again.
“So how did you get faster?” was the follow-up question.
My answer is that I run with runners who are faster than me.
Six years ago, I made it my goal to keep up with the guys in my Saturday morning group who ran front of the pack. It took well over a year—probably two—to get there. I’d start out with them and they’d drop me after a couple of miles. Then I could hang on for half the run before they’d drop me. Then three-quarters and finally I was making it out and back with them.
I’m using the same strategy to get better on the bike. The guys from work I ride with are faster than me. At the moment, they’re still dropping me on the hills. But I can see progress. Each week I’m a little closer to staying with them. Whether or not I ever reach their level doesn’t matter. Pushing myself to keep up with them is making me a better rider.
Finding people who are better than you at whatever skill you want to master and following in their footsteps can improve any aspect of your life. I network with writers who are better than me because I want to learn from them. I went to Crossfit because I wanted to lift weights and be strong and most people there were stronger than me. I seek out people who may intimidate me intellectually because, by virtue of being around them and forcing myself to their level, I’ll learn and improve.
The ego can take a bashing in this process but for most people (and me especially) this is a good thing. A new acquaintance invited me to ride with her. She's an Ironman and her average speed is over 20 mph so my instinct is to say no, because I know I can't keep up with her and I don't want to slow her down (and embarrass myself). But I'm going to say YES, because feeling like I'm about to die on a short ride with her, while painful, is what will move me toward my goal.
The other thing is we all have our role to play in this process. We’re all better at some things than other people and we can be the ones to push others to achieve more. Or we can be the ones stretching toward a new goal. The good news is most people are flattered and more than willing to help you reach a goal when you ask them.
Decide what you want to do, find people who’ve already mastered it, and start learning.