Talent Myths and the Story of Imperceptible Gains

I made a discovery as I sifted through the running data I have been collecting for the last nine years.

After 897 runs and 4,659 miles I have gotten faster. How much faster?

Well, for every mile I run I get 0.012 seconds faster.

That’s about as imperceptible as a fart.

And yet, those milliseconds multiplied over thousands of miles are transformative. They are the difference between a pudgy couch potato and an athlete on the verge of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. While the data may be accurate, it is far from motivational. You would never tell yourself,

“Just one more mile, it will be worth the 0.01 second gain.”

That wouldn’t work because it’s the wrong story. As I train I am constantly seeking stories that will motivate me to lace up the shoes and hit the trails one more time. I invent stories about barefoot hippies. Stories about how next time I will avoid bonking in the last 5 miles of the marathon. Stories about racing my teenage self. Data alone doesn’t spark action, the story has to be compelling.

People like to say that the data doesn’t lie but it also doesn’t motivate. Most data-driven stories are demoralizing. They suck the humanity out of what you are trying to achieve.

There is danger at the other extreme, however. The opposite of data is mythology.

One popular myth is the belief in natural talent. A person with a “talent” for running gains speed without grinding through the miles collecting incremental improvements. That doesn’t happen. The story is a lie.

We invented the talent myth because we don’t want to admit that each of us is capable of greatness. Instead of praising effort, of quantifying the imperceptible gains, we sprinkle successful people with pixie dust. We tell ourselves they must have been born with gifts that the talent fairy decided we didn’t deserve.

Talent is a destructive story because it separates us from the high achievers and pardons us from wasting our potential. Instead of putting in the miles, we satisfy ourselves with dreams of hitting a jackpot. Maybe we will get lucky. More likely we remain the pudgy couch potato.

Talent is the wrong story, an excuse to ignore the enormous effort involved in doing something notable.

Data is the wrong story, an excuse to find shortcuts to avoid the thousand mile journey of imperceptible gains.

Effective stories aren’t driven by data or myth. Results happen when you can find joy in the process and realize that every mile is an opportunity to grow. If you can embrace that story nothing can stop you.

Thanks for reading. Next week I am going to break my streak of writing every Saturday because I will be preparing for Revel in the Rockies. If you are on Strava, watch for my race results next Sunday to see the data I produce. And be sure to follow me on Medium or Twitter (@ade3) so you don’t miss my stories when I return in a couple weeks. Stay creative.

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