Photo credit: Scott Webb

What You Can Learn From People Who Have Broken World Records

Based on interviews with real Guinness world record-holders.

Jason Shen
Sep 13, 2017 · 11 min read

There are 7.5 billion people on the planet. That’s a big number. But advances in technology continue to bring the world closer together, creating a global community and a connected economy.

To stand out in this more competitive global era, we don’t just have to be one of the best designers/marketers/lawyers in town, but also one of the best, period. We’re competing with the rest of the world.

So, we’ve got to raise our game. And who better to learn from than people who have earned the top spot — people who have set world records? People who have literally become the best person in the world at something — who have reached the top of that 7.5 billion person stack?

In January of 2014, I set a new Guinness world record for the most number of Aztec push-ups completed in one minute. You can watch the video below, or read the whole story of how that happened.

In the process of setting this record, I learned a lot about the kind of people who set world records.

I started a podcast called Record Breaking and interviewed nearly a dozen world-record setters.

Here are the three key patterns I noticed from these individuals, and how you can use their strategies to achieve higher performance for yourself:

1. Build on things that you’re already good at

Every person is better at some things than others, which is to say our skills are not evenly distributed.

Like a character in an video game or a player in NBA final, our ‘stats’ will show that we’re stronger in certain things and weaker in others.

We might be find ourselves quite comfortable with thinking through abstract concepts, but struggle with connecting with new people. Some might enjoy making compelling posters, graphics, or films, but find writing a personal essay a total chore.

The research behind deliberate practice suggests that there’s no reason why you couldn’t become really, really good at something you suck at today. But if you don’t enjoy it, you might aim to reach an acceptable level and move on.

If you want to be the best, it helps to start in an area that you already have some grounding and can build from. Many of the record-breakers that I interviewed relied on this strategy.

Will Carlough holds the world record for highest score for the NES video game Ice Climbers, at 1,975,670 points.

Will did not just pick up the game one day, work at it for a few months, and set the record. As a child, he had spent years of his childhood with only a handful of video games, including Ice Climbers, giving him lots of practice with the game’s mechanics.

As an adult, Will still enjoyed video games, but had moved on. But when he heard that Super Smash Brothers Melee for Gamecube would feature two characters from Ice Climbers, he felt a rush of nostalgia. He downloaded a version of the game for his iPhone and started playing it in anticipation of the Super Smash Bros. release. A chance encounter with the documentary King of Kong taught Will about the possibility of setting an all-time high score for a video game.

Only then did he set out to challenge the high score for Ice Climbers — having had not only years of experience in childhood, but a renewed passion and enthusiasm for the game as an adult.

My personal story: setting the world record for Aztec push-ups was not something I attempted out of the blue. The movement requires far more flexibility and coordination than many other fitness records. But as a former NCAA national champion gymnast, I had already invested well over 10,000 hours of training in explosive, coordinated movements, with routines that typically took between 45 and 90 seconds to complete. So when I found out — almost by accident — that there was a record for most number of Aztec Push-Ups in one minute (31), I was able to quickly top the figure (the record I set is now 50).

You could say I had been training for Aztec push-ups my whole life.

How can you use this idea to gain a competitive advantage in your own world?

For individuals, this means taking stock of your existing skills and experiences.

Two good resources to consider are the StrengthsFinder assessment by Gallup (which you can do just by buying their book) or the Johari Window, a free online exercise you can do with the help of a few friends.

When you consider new projects at work or new opportunities in other areas of your life, think about what you’re already good at. We often discount our strengths or take them for granted, but they’re an important indicator of where you might have an edge over others.

Are you pretty comfortable with public speaking? Consider looking for more opportunities to speak inside your organization or at a local meetup. Maybe you can start a YouTube channel where you share new ideas or lessons you’re learning in whatever field you are in. Apply to be a speaker at industry conferences. Push yourself to refine and improve your ability and capacity to speak to groups, even if it isn’t your main source of income. Use this strength to your advantage.

For organizations, the lessons are similar. Coca-Cola is one of the most successful consumer brands on the planet, and one of the reasons why they’ve been so dominant is that they’ve stuck to their core competencies. They are really good at inventing, marketing, and shipping various beverages to people all over the world. Coca-Cola loans or licenses more than 500 non-alcoholic brands and accounts for nearly two billion of the 60 billion servings of worldwide beverages consumed daily. They knew their strengths and stuck to it — and doubled, tripled, quadrupled it.

2. Find other ambitious high-performers to train and compete with

Becoming a world-class performer is not something that happens in a vacuum.

It’s hard enough for someone to learn all the necessary skills and stay motivated enough to train at a high-intensity level. In an ideal situation, you’d be working with an expert coach who can guide your efforts, or with a community of people who share your goals and interests.

Note: the arched back is a sanctioned and common technique for powerlifters and is employed to some degree by most top bench pressers in this sport.

Emily Hu is a powerlifter who has a combined total in the bench press, deadlift, and squat of 975 lb, which is the world record for the women’s 123 lb. category. The video above shows her bench-pressing 270 lb., which is roughly equivalent to a 180 lb. person doing a 396 lb. deadlift.

As a child, Emily trained in martial arts, but got her start in lifting through bodybuilding. She developed a friendship with the bodybuilders in the gym she trained at. A few years in, one of them suggested she enter a powerlifting competition. She thought she was just doing the deadlift, but discovered she had signed up for all three events. She realized that she needed help and recruited a powerlifting coach to work with her. That coach helped her make it through the competition, improved her technique, and developed workout plans that allowed her to eventually set the record.

Michael Kapral is world record joggler — yes, that’s juggling while jogging— who set the world record for fastest marathon (2:50:12) and half marathon (1:20:40) run while juggling three balls. But over the years, he’s had his records broken by other jogglers multiple times, forcing him to up his own game. It’s unlikely that Michael would have been able to improve his records without that healthy competition.

Similarly, Emily did not achieve her record alone. She had a community of bodybuilders and powerlifters to train with and compete against. She had a coach who could correct her mistakes and encourage her when she was tired or bummed out.

How can we apply this lesson to our own lives?

Ambitious people often try to do things on their own. They believe their strengths are superior, they find many of the people around them to be fairly mediocre, and decide they’re better off going solo.

This is a mistake.

Almost every field or discipline has a community, or a number of communities, which exist for practitioners to explore, challenge, and improve themselves in that field.

Participating in those communities—whether through an online mailing list, conferences, Meetups, classes, competitions, or Slack groups—are important opportunities to learn from others, stay motivated, and build relationships that will help you make your advancements faster and further.

This also means giving back to the community: sharing what you’ve learned, making connections to people, and being an advocate for the discipline.

It may also might mean hiring a coach who is an expert in whatever it is you’re trying to do, whether it’s swimming, presentation skills, or learning to code—coaches can help you make dramatic improvements. If Atul Gawande, an endocrine surgeon at one of the top hospitals in the nation and a professor at Harvard Medical School, was willing to hire a coach to improve his surgical skills, why can’t you?

The same principles of community, coaching, and competition apply to organizations. Mark Benioff, founder of Salesforce, wrote in his book Behind the Cloud that much of their early growth came from user groups that organized to talk about how they were using Salesforce. The company saw this organic activity and encouraged it, giving the group leaders the resources to grow and strengthen their communities.

Hailed for creating a breakthrough electric car, Elon Musk actually open-sourced Telsa’s patents to encourage more innovation in the electric car space. This might seem like a naive or foolhardy move, but Musk sees this as a way to fight the real competition, gas-powered cars. He wrote:

“Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”

Open your office up for community events, hire an agile coach to train your team, or find other ways to bring other passionate experts into your world to learn, connect, and grow.

3. Small wins add up over time

Top performers don’t get there overnight.

Even if you have some prior ability in a skill, and even if you’re training with a group of ambitious people, you still have to put in the work. But it’s not about grinding out half-hearted efforts repeatedly. It’s about looking for small wins and stacking them up where you can.

I interviewed a gamer named Darbian who holds the world record for fastest completion of Super Mario (at any percent completion) at 4 minutes 56.878 seconds. He first got into it in 2013, and after about 6,500 attempts over the course of two years, he first set a record in October of 2015. At 4:57.627, it was only sixty-three milliseconds faster than the prior record. He then spent another year further refining his technique, breaking his own record several times before arriving at his final score.

Darbian had to learn all kinds of tricks to achieve his record. For instance, Mario’s “hit box” is smaller than the pixels that display on the screen, which means Darbian can seemingly pass through enemies without actually triggering a collision.

People have actually written programs that have played through Super Mario millions of times using different approaches to find the best way through, so every gamer knows the fastest possible approach. The challenge for human players is training for and executing these complex maneuvers identified by the AI without error.

Darbian ultimately worked for three years to achieve his record, getting first the big wins, and then painstakingly eeking out small wins until he had broken the record a total of four times. Then he moved on to a new game, satisfied that he had reached his potential in that category.

The more time you spend working in a given field, the more familiar you become with its practices and idiosyncrasies.

And as you get used to how things are done, you might find extra time to try out something new. Maybe you’re an email marketer, and you start a newsletter on the side to test out crazy subject line ideas that you’d never be able to do at work. One in ten of them are any good, but over time, you find some subject styles that really work, and you’ve gained a new tool in your email toolbox.

It’s only by combining small wins with a dedication to the long haul that top performers find new gains and put more distance between them and their competitors.

Stacking small wins is a useful tool for larger organizations as well. An early engineer at Google named Larry Schwimmer developed a tool called Google Snippets, where employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. This technique, which has been adopted by other tech companies like Foursquare and Buzzfeed, relies on what Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile calls the “progress principle”. Amabile conducted research via diary studies of several dozen of creative teams that were working on innovative new projects. She concluded this:

When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great — but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously.

Her research found that removing obstacles and creating an environment to make progress everyday was one of the critical differences between teams that were productive and happy, and teams that were not. Getting those small wins consistently was key.

Every ambitious professional wants to make big strides in their work, and consistently produce at a high level. Through studying the history and techniques of world record breakers across a variety of fields, we’ve found these three powerful ways to unlock new gains in your performance:

  1. Start from areas of strength.
  2. Work and compete alongside other serious practitioners.
  3. Build small wins over time.

Will you jump to the top of the ranks immediately? Probably not. But you’ll be on your way to becoming better every day — and maybe, one day, the best.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Thanks to Niklas Göke and Coach Tony

Jason Shen

Written by

Serial entrepreneur & Asian American advocate. Co-Founder and CEO of - esports analytics co. TED, Etsy, Stanford, Y Combinator alum. BOS ✈ SF ✈ NYC.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

More From Medium

More from Better Humans

More from Better Humans

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade