The Finish Line Theory

Why life is not a marathon or a sprint

Sacha Greif

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“Life is a marathon, not a sprint”

Like many aphorisms, this might sound good at first but it’s actually fairly bleak when you really think about it.

So in essence, you’re telling me life is a long, gruelling slog along a predefined path, surrounded by countless people doing the exact same thing, where reaching the end of the road is the only thing that can finally put and end to the pain…

Not exactly the most uplifting thing I’ve heard today!

A Thought Experiment

But let’s run (get it?) with the race metaphor for now, and hold a small thought experiment.

First, imagine you’re running a marathon. Now let’s try and chart your hypothetical happiness levels as the race progresses.

Right before the start of the event, you’re probably feeling pretty good. You’ve waited a long time for this day, and it’s finally here.

Then the race starts, and you’re feeling great! You’re actually doing it, all these hard months of training are finally going to pay off!

After a couple miles though, you’re already out of breath and starting to slow down.

Along with pain and fatigue, doubt starts creeping in. Can you really make it? Why did you even sign up for this thing in the first place? What were you trying to prove?

Another hour goes by and you’re at your lowest point, almost ready to quit.

But wait! You just saw the last race marker, and there’s only a couple miles left! You can’t quit so close to the goal, you need to make another push!

You find your second win and you manage to cross the finish line. It was all worth it after all!

You feel exhausted, yet also ecstatic at the same time. You’ll be back next year for sure!

Quitting

Now of course, we can also envision a slightly different scenario. One when you didn’t get much sleep last night, or maybe tweaked your knee in the first stretch of the event.

As it turns out, you get so unhappy and demotivated during the race that you can’t endure it anymore and end up quitting halfway through:

In this second scenario, your spirit gave out before it could ever be lifted up again by the thought of the finish line.

The Startup Curve

If you look at our graph again, you might notice some similarities with another chart, the Startup Curve.

Paul Graham’s Startup Curve

The main differences are that with a successful startup, the curve just keeps going up and to the left. Whereas with a marathon, the day after tends to be pretty miserable…

But apart from that, the basic idea is the same: after an initial spike at the beginning, you need to endure a long, arduous slog before finally reaping the rewards of your hard work (whether that’s crossing the finish line or raising a new round of funding).

That is of course, assuming you never go below the fatal “quitting threshold”.

Hacking The Finish Line

In other words, everything depends on which you’ll reach first: the finish line, or the quitting threshold.

Now you can’t move a marathon’s finish line closer to yourself, and you probably shouldn’t fake company growth either (although that doesn’t stop people from trying!).

But in a lot of other cases, you can actually “move the goalposts”, in a good way.

It’s all about setting smaller, more achievable goals for yourself. Sure, you won’t get the overwhelming joy of finally crossing that finish line, but you’ll also stay far away from that ever-dangerous quitting threshold.

Instead of aiming for growth, aim for stable revenues. No revenues? Track user accounts. No user accounts? Then go for newsletter sign-ups.

In practice, this is a fundamentally un-startup-y approach. You’re not trying to hit it big by going all-in, but instead trying to find a rhythm that lets you have a balanced life and keep going for longer.

It’s a good strategy in some cases, and a bad one is others. But if you’re a bootstrapper, it’s probably a much safer philosophy. You don’t have millions in the bank, so you need to maximize your other assets: longevity and tenacity.

Not A Marathon Or A Sprint

So if life’s not a sprint or a marathon, what is it?

How about a series of short, successive 5K races? Races you can do without leaving kids and friends behind, and with less risk of permanent damages, whether it’s to your knees or to your ego.

Or maybe life isn’t a race at all. Maybe life is a slow, lazy stroll along the beach while eating ice cream!

Well, probably not. But I’m sure if we keep looking, we’ll find the right metaphor eventually.

“Life is a Sumo wrestling match, not an Archery contest”

If you enjoyed this, you might also want to check out my other essays:

The Product Spectrum
How to make your transition to entrepreneurship (a little bit) easier

The Spiderweb Strategy
Why it’s OK if some of your projects don’t make money

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Sacha Greif

Designer/developer from Paris, now living in Osaka. Creator of Sidebar, VulcanJS, and co-author of Discover Meteor.