My father speaks in proverbs. His one-liners were conversational currency in my family. One of his favorite phrases was “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”
While this might sound harsh to our “always-look-on-the-bright-side” culture, he has a point.
You can’t win a race you don’t finish.
Photo by Paul-W (Creative Commons)
Imagine this scenario:
It’s the Boston Marathon and the best runners in the world are at the starting line. Of course the Kenyans are there. A light breeze ruffles the corners of their specially designed red, black and green running shorts. Their elbows are bent and fists clinched. Their long, lean, muscular legs are taut and ready for the gun.
As you scan the faces of the fastest runners in the world, each is set with determination. Until you come to mine.
There I am at the starting line just a few feet from the Kenyans. I’m wearing basketball shorts, an old college t-shirt, and worn Nikes. I look up and down the starting line as I try to rub the sleep from my eyes.
The gun sounds and we are off.
In an amazing feat of athletic prowess, I fly from the starting line, stride for stride with the leaders. After 50 yards, I pull to the front of the pack and my face exudes pure joy. I am winning the Boston Marathon! At 75 yards my chest is heaving and my smile transforms into a grimace. But I press on, legs pumping with full power.
Then, after the length of a football field, I stop. I hold my hands in the air in celebration. I have won the first 100 yards. I run over to the spectators and hug a few strangers. I kiss a baby. I grab an American flag, drape it over my shoulder, and take a victory lap up and down the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, the race continues without me.
This is ridiculous, right? Why?
The prize is not awarded after 100 yards or even at the midway point. Winners are crowned at the finish line.
Deciding what you want out of life is difficult. Starting is even harder. But finishing is perhaps the most challenging of all. To finish, we need to stay focused on a project until the end. We need to defeat resistance and gravity. We need to have the grit and determination to overcome obstacles.
When we moved to Bosnia, we spent the first year in language school. Bosnian is one of the more difficult languages in the world. As the joke goes, “What language do they speak in heaven? Bosnian, because it takes an eternity to learn.”
I am not a natural language-learner. By the time we moved to Sarajevo, I had already failed to learn German and Spanish. But I was determined to speak Bosnian. Here was my strategy—don’t give up. I knew that if I could keep trying and not quit, I would eventual learn the language.
Now, four years into our life in Bosnia, I can speak Bosnian. Not as well as I want to, but I’m getting better each year.
This is the advantage to placing the emphasis on finishing. We can all finish. You don’t have to be talented or special or unique or a genius to finish. You just need to not quit.
Some writers quit mid-story because the work “just isn’t good enough”. Well, what sounds better:
“I finished writing a mediocre book,”
“I wrote half a mediocre book.”?
Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace at least seven times. (His wife had to write out his notes by hand each time). He thought it wasn’t good enough.
But, he finished. And today his book is a classic.
The momentum of finishing will carry you into your next project. A better book. A more successful event. A more powerful talk.
I have heard there is a vault in Nashville with unpublished demo tracks from famous songwriters. It is a vault of crap. But finished crap. Crap that gave way to Grammy award-winning gold.
Don’t quit. Don’t guarantee failure. Don’t cheat the world of your finished product. It may be crap or it may be gold. But we won’t know unless you finish.
Step one: Set a goal. Step two: Get to work. Step three: Don’t quit. Step four: Celebrate at the finish line.
When we were first married, my wife and I wanted to pick up a hobby together. She said she always wanted to run a 10k. Once she had decided to train, but someone talked her out of it. They said she couldn’t do it.
A fire arose in my rookie-husband chest. “No way! No one tells my wife what she can’t do. We are going to run a 10k and then wear the t-shirt over to their house!”
We started training that week. Taylor had never run more than 5 minutes straight so we started there. 5 minute run and 30 minute walk. We trained through the hot Georgia summer. We trained until our pants were falling off. We trained through tears.
But when we crossed the finish line months later and picked up our t-shirt, none of that mattered.
Was our time good? Not really.
Did we win the race? Little children passed us.
But it didn’t matter.
We stomped in the face of the doubts and doubters.
We crushed the voice of insecurity.
We yelled to our soul, “neither heat, nor pain, nor sweat, nor tears, nor cramps, nor excuses will keep us from finishing.”
For Christmas this year I got braces. My wife doesn’t think it’s a big deal.
“Josh, lots of people have braces”
“Yeah, in middle school! I’m 36.”
Photo Credit (Creative Commons)
This is actually my second time getting braces. About 25 years ago, I got braces to close a large gap between my top middle teeth. Afterwards, they gave me a retainer to spread out my bottom teeth. I lost it. My parents insisted I had to replace it out of my own pocket. I didn’t want to. Now, years later, I’m paying.
As I lay in the orthodontist chair, the nurse informed me of the process I was about to undergo.
“Your teeth will hurt for a few days as they adjust to the braces.”
I expected as much.
“No eating hard candy or nuts.”
What! No nuts for a year and half. I love nuts.
“No biting your sandwich. Tear off a piece and eat it like that.” She mimed eating a torn piece of sandwich as she spoke. It looked as goofy as I assumed it would.
I love sandwiches. I mean, I really love sandwiches.
“Your braces will sometimes cut the inside of your cheeks. You can put some wax on them.”
The nurse left and the orthodontist came over to begin gluing the braces to my teeth. After an uncomfortable two hours sitting with my mouth open, my grill was metallic.
“I think we will put some rubber bands on to speed up the process. Just change them every 12 hours.”
Great, something else to remember to do.
“One more thing.”
The orthodontist put some substance on my back molars. When I tried to close my mouth it wouldn’t shut. My teeth didn’t touch.
“Um,” I slurred, “I can’t close my jaw.”
“Well, to reposition your teeth, I need to keep your teeth from touching.”
“How am I supposed to eat?”
“You’ll figure it out. You have to chew with your back molars.”
Suddenly, my future flashed before my eyes—a nutless, sandwich tearing, awkward chewing future.
“How long until I will be able to close my jaw all the way again?”
I can do anything for a few weeks, I thought.
“Around nine months.”
The reality of braces pierced me like a dental drill to the head. I was paying someone to make my life miserable.
I am not sure why I expected braces not to invade my normal life. I was paying the orthodontist to rearrange my teeth, to change the shape of my jaw, to correct years of crooked growth. Why did I expect the change to be painless?
Isn’t that how I think about change in other parts of my life, though? I want to change. I am willing to pay for it. But I expect the transformation to happen without causing me discomfort or altering my life.
True change doesn’t happen that way.
There is no change without pain.
There is no change without discomfort.
There is no change without life-adjustments.
There is no change without giving something up.
There is no change without starting something new.
There is no change without waiting.
There is no change without embarrassment.
There is no change without cost.
There is no change without lying on a dental chair for two hours with someone else’s fingers in your mouth.
Perhaps we need adjust our expectations.
Photo Credit David Lee King (Creative Commons)
Two days later my wife and I and some friends were playing Christmas carols for the British embassy in an old Catholic church. The inside of my mouth was swollen and sore. The metallic taste of the braces mixed with the metallic flavor of blood. We were singing old British Christmas carols without a microphone. My lips worked hard to pronounce each mutli-syllabic word and the wires cut away at my cheeks. “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen . . .”
Afterwards, we went to the Ambassador’s house for minced pie and mulled wine. I felt insecure. I couldn’t yet control my saliva. My teeth hurt too much to bite through the crisp shell of the pies. At least I could drink the wine.
I tried to avoid talking to people, but I knew I would need to greet the Ambassador at some point in the evening. I imagined the scenario—drool slipping out of the corner of my mouth as I slur out a thank you.
“Shthank you, Mishter Ambashador.” I pictured minced pie residue shooting from my mouth and landing on his expensive suit.
At last the time came to leave and I made my way to the Ambassador to thank him. We shook hands. He said some kind words. I responded appropriately. And then, we headed home.
My greatest fears were not realized. My teeth hurt. I felt uncomfortable. But life went on.
Isn’t it the same with change? Transformation brings pain and discomfort but never to the degree we fear. It hurts us but it does not destroy us. This is how we learn to embrace change. Much like I am learning to embrace my metal and wires. Not because I love them, but because I love the transformation they bring.
What change do you need to embrace? How do you need to adjust your expectations for change? (Let me know in the comments)
If you were stranded on a deserted island and you could only bring one thing with you, what would you bring?
Maybe you would bring a knife or a sat phone or a genie or a water purifier. I know what I would bring—someone else.
Photo credit jaci Lopes dos Santos (Creative Commons)
I’ve noticed something about myself. Part of me longs to be alone. Another part longs to be with people. When I am alone by choice, I can focus and accomplish so much. When I am alone because I have no one to be with, I crumple in on myself.
Maybe you know what I am talking about. Some of us have found our way on a deserted island without ever stepping foot on a boat. We’ve created our own isolation right where we live.
The problem is:
Without others, we cannot be who we were made to be.
Without others, we cannot do what we were made to do.
Without others, we cannot live as we were made to live.
Isolation is an inhibitor to life. In the stupor of isolation we stumble about like a drunk in the night. We need other people if we are to be the person we long to be.
So, how do we end up isolated?
We are so focused on the goal, we forget people
This is my personal challenge. On the DISC personality profile, I am a D. That means I am a driver. I like to lead. On Strength Finders I am an Achiever. I like to get things done. I focus on a goal and go after it with intensity.
When I played basketball in high school, it wasn’t because I loved wearing short shorts and hanging out with the guys. I played ball because I love to compete and win.
Focus and intensity are not bad things. In fact, if you are going to overcome resistance and accomplish your goals, you will need a healthy dose of both. However, we need to ensure our intensity helps us crush our goals not the people around us. Goals come and go, but your friends, your family, and your community remain.
This imbalance is why many middle-aged men spiral into crisis. During their twenties and thirties, they choose advancement over relationship. All of their energy goes into achieving their work goals. And the crazy thing is, many of them succeed. They get the corner office. They have the respect of their boss and work peers. However, on their 40th birthday, they look around and the room is empty. Their success was built on the grave of broken relationships.
So what do they do? They go back to the last time they had significant relationships—college. They start dressing like a teenager, buy the car of their freshman dreams, and (often) find a younger woman. All of this in search of the relationships sacrificed on the altar of success.
If your goals don’t include other people, you might want to get better goals.
We view others as the competition
How do you define success? If you are a blogger, do you consider yourself a successful blogger when people read your posts or when your blog is more popular than others?
Somewhere deep inside we believe that only a few of us can win—that there is limited space in the winners circle. If we want to succeed, we not only have to accomplish our goals, but do it faster and better than anyone else.
This thinking is harmful to your success (and to your health). When we view others as competition, we don’t share our best practices or help each other. We don’t rejoice with someone else succeeds. We spend more time tracking the success of others than creating awesome work ourselves.
If you want a quick test for this, how do you feel when a friend’s post goes viral? Do you say to yourself, “Why did that go viral? It’s not really that good.”
The ones who gain an audience most quickly are those who are generous and create within community. This is not the Hunger Games. More than one can survive. We can all win if we work together.
We view people as a means and not an end
There is a perverted version of “working together.” It is when we surround ourselves with people but only so they can lift us up. If you want a visual for this, imagine a crowd of people with one man walking on everyone’s’ heads.
This is a huge trap for those of you with a driven personality like me.
You can view people by what they contribute instead of who they are.
You can rank people based on their importance to the goal.
You can use people when you need them but abandon them when they need you.
In this case, you don’t look isolated, but you actually are. You often wonder whether everyone else thinks about you the way you think about them. Since you don’t extend grace to those around you, you fear failure. You believe that if you stop succeeding, people will abandon you.
The most painful truth is that you build the trap yourself.
We cannot forget that people are inherently valuable. They are not a means to something else, they are an end. Long after our buildings crumble and our blogs disappear and our awards rust, the souls of men and women will remain.
It’s Time to Leave the Island
Other people are not the problem. They are not distractions. They are not tools to be used. They are not your competition. Other people are a source of hope.
If you really want to do something significant in this world, you need a community.
You need a place where you are accepted.
You need people who love you whether you win or lose.
You need grace and mercy and good ideas.
You need the different perspectives of diversity.
You can’t get this alone. God wouldn’t have put 7 billion other people on earth if he wanted you to live in isolation. It’s time to leave the island.
You can’t steer a parked car. If you want to accomplish something, you have to start moving. Inaction gives birth to nothing.
But that is not the whole story.
You also can’t steer a car speeding out of control. If we want to accomplish our goals, we need to start. But we also need patience.
Photo by Little Orange Crow (Creative Commons)
Have you ever wanted something so bad you counted the days, hours, minutes? Have you felt like you would crack open if it didn’t arrive? I have.
While knowing what you want is a good thing, impatience can keep you from getting it. Here are three areas where we need patience in order to reach the finish line.
Patience in starting
Car makers often market their high performance vehicles based on the time it takes them to reach 60 mph from resting position. “Zero to sixty in just over 4 seconds”, the voice over states. But note something, it is zero to sixty not zero or sixty.
Some of us live like there are only two speeds in life— zero, nothing, standstill, stalling, feet-dragging, inaction
or sixty, full tilt, 110%, out-of-control, pedal to the medal, craziness.
For example, we have an idea to start a non-profit and by bed time of the first day we’ve already bought a domain name, drawn an organizational chart, and researched donation websites. We are all in.
The problem is we aren’t sure exactly what we are in. The idea has not had time to settle into our soul. We haven’t yet counted the cost and decided we are willing to pay it. And a few weeks in, when we realize how hard it is to start a non-profit, we will probably give up.
We jumped from zero to sixty without really knowing where we were going.
In our battle with Inaction we have to beware of Impatience. Starting doesn’t mean pressing the pedal to the floor. It means giving it some gas and responsibly building speed.
Part of starting is coming up with a plan. If you want to start a company, step one is not filling out forms at city hall. First, buy some business books, take a few small business owners out to lunch, do research. This is starting too.
Now there will be a point when you have to “get some skin in the game.” This is the point of no return. You make a down-payment on a property. You hire your first employee. You advertise the grand opening. But you have patiently built to this point so you are ready to handle the pressure that accompanies it.
My Dad is a basketball coach. He always tells his players, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” Perhaps we could say, “Be patient, but don’t stall.”
Patience in continuing
If you are starting a new blog and your goal is to have 10,000 subscribers by the end of the first year, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. How will you respond when, in 12 months, your email list includes only your mom, best friend, and sister?
Setting a big goal is great. If I am going to sacrifice and dig in and labor I want it to be for something big. However, big goals take time.
William Wilberforce understood this. In 1781, he set his mind to abolishing the British slave trade. As a member of Parliament, he was uniquely positioned for the task. Still it required 26 years of tireless effort for him to succeed. He was patient. He set a big goal and then stuck with it until it was accomplished.
Why not set a goal that will take a while to reach? Do you really want to give your life to something you can accomplish in 12 months?
But to succeed we need what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction”. What we often offer is “a short burst in a random direction.”
Patience allows us to stay faithful to the work at hand when we are not seeing results. Are you willing to take the countless intermediate steps required to succeed?
Patience in finishing
We usually start a project or dream a vision or make a goal because of what we see in the future. We start because there is a finish line.
I have a friend who wants to be a full-time writer. Sometimes the dream energizes her. Sometimes it suffocates her. Dreams are like that.
She can wake up and think, “One day, I will be a full-time writer and today I will make one step in that direction.”
Or she can tell herself in the morning, “Today, I am not a full-time writer.”
Every day she wakes up between now and the finish-line. She can view it as failure or faithfulness.
This is how I felt writing a book. No matter how much I wrote that day, the book was still unfinished. The project sat heavy on my shoulders and I struggled to carry the weight. The best days were those when I asked myself: what is one thing I can do today that will get me closer to the finish line?
Patience allows us to delay gratification and press forward.
Without patience, there is only the now and what I can get from it.
Without patience we are sucked into our microwave culture.
Without patience, we won’t have the grit to finish.
Without patience, we will get lost in the present and never find our way to the finish line.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Point your car in the right direction, give it a little gas, and don’t stop until you reach your destination. You will be glad you did.
It seemed like a good idea 10 minutes earlier. But standing at the edge of a cliff staring at the sea 100 feet below, I was not sure. The cold water of the Adriatic beckoned and my friends chanted encouragements. Only one step was missing—I had to move.
Photo by Daniel Flower, Creative Commons
One of the shortest paths to disappointment in life is inaction. Overcoming indecision is not enough. Unless you take steps to reach your goal, you are no closer than before.
Because deciding is not enough. Without action, our decision is only words.
Why are we prone to inaction? Why do we hold 8-hour staff meetings but nothing ever changes? Why are we making the same New Year’s Resolutions year after year?
What allows us to make a decision without acting on it? Here are a few ideas from my life.
Not knowing where to start
You want to write a book but you are not sure whether to start with research or an outline or the first sentence.
You want to start a movement and you are not sure whether to begin with a mission statement or fundraising or programs.
You want to work for yourself but you are not sure whether to quit your job or take classes at night or draw up a business plan.
You feel trapped in inaction because you don’t know where to start.
Here’s a secret: the best place to start is . . . anywhere. Pick the thing that makes most sense to you and start there. It really isn’t that important (although I wouldn’t recommend quitting your job without a plan, just so you know).
In April 2010 I decided to write a book. It was to be a historical account of a heroic English woman, Miss Irby, who started one of the first schools for girls in Bosnia 150 years earlier. I resolved to complete the book before September 2011—the 100th anniversary of her death.
The problem was I had no idea where to start. I had never written a book. During my four years in college studying engineering, I never wrote a paper longer than 10 pages. Should I research first and then write? Should I write and research at the same time? Should I look for a publisher?
By the end of the summer, I had completed only 6 or 7 horrible pages of text. I mean horrible.
Then I met someone who came alongside me and told me to just start writing. I started moving forward as best I could—reading historical books, researching old documents, and writing. As I moved forward with the project, elements began to fall into place. A publisher appeared at just the right time. So did an editor and designer. The book was released on time.
Without that shove from a friend—start anywhere, just write—I might still be thinking about writing a book “one day.”
Worrying about the end before facing the beginning
Pessimism is growing in Western society. And where pessimism flourishes, inaction reigns.
Why write? No one will read it.
Why clean up the park? It will only get trashed again.
Why help the family on the street? Their poverty won’t go away.
Why pursue change? Corrupt politicians will win.
Why act when you may fail in the end? Because action is right. Because the only other choice is despair. Because no result is certain except the barrenness of inaction.
Letting Fear determine Reality
The cliff always looks higher from the top than it does from the bottom. Fear has a funny way of distorting reality. When the moment of action arrives, you have to rely on your earlier research. You read the skydiving pamphlet. You completed the pre-jump training. You watched the instructor pack the parachute and researched the safety history of the company. Standing in the open doorway of the airplane there are no new facts. Just fear. So jump.
I almost broke up with my wife, Taylor, when we were dating. After six months of chasing her she finally liked me. We had only been dating a month and I was having second thoughts about everything. I had no reason to end our short relationship, but fear was distorting my perspective. I was driving to her house to tell her the sad news and I decided to call my dad for advice. I never was able to bring up the topic. From the moment he picked up the line, he talked about how lucky I was to find a girl like Taylor.
That’s when I realized the only thing keeping me from moving forward was my fear. Fear of a broken relationship. Fear of making a wrong decision. Fear of failing as a boyfriend and a husband.
That night, instead of breaking up with Taylor, I shared my fears with her. She said, “Can I pray for you?”
Some of the best advice I ever received came from an older man in my church. I was single and complaining. He asked, “How many girls have you asked out this month?” I looked at my feet. “None.” “So why are you surprised you don’t have a girlfriend? You can’t steer a parked car.”
Not long afterwards, I met Taylor at an event. We talked for about 15 minutes. The next day I called and asked her to go out for coffee. A year later we were engaged.
His words, “You can’t steer a parked car” have stuck with me through the years. They apply to more than dating and marriage. The truth is, you can do something with momentum that you can’t do with inaction. If you don’t know where to start, just start somewhere. Get moving. Then steer it in whatever direction you want. The best way to kick inaction in the teeth is to start moving.
There are two ways down off the cliff: the walk of shame or the leap of joy. Only one is a story worth telling
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About Josh Irby
Josh is a writer who lives in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina with his wife and three children. For more than a decade he has worked with university students, helping them tell better stories with their lives. If you come to Sarajevo, you will likely find him in the corner of a local cafe sipping a macchiato and talking with friends.
Check out Josh’s Book
Two travelers—150 years apart—find love and meaning in Sarajevo. A true story.