Milestones, Goals, and the Power of No

It’s been a few weeks since I hit my latest milestone, but life was fairly full in the immediate aftermath. On the plus side, the extra time was good for reflection.

The milestone to which I am referring is that, on October 27, 2019, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. The race itself and the training leading up to it were the hardest physical things I have ever done. The weather during the actual race was crazy, with torrential rains for my first 14 miles or so. My finish time was a lot slower than I’d hoped, but I don’t care because I finished. I learned a lot and am already looking to do another.

Looking back on the process of training for the race, it was very much a clarifying experience. As the daily and weekly mileage ramped up, my time management skills were put to the test. It was no longer possible for me to squeeze in the mid-week training runs during a lunch hour, so it required more communication with my co-workers. To a one, they were supportive.

On the other end of the day, I needed to make sure things didn’t extend in a way that impinged on time with my family. Our kids are older and fully self-sufficient, so a lot of the logistics that were needed when they were younger were no longer a factor. At this stage, I just wanted to make sure I was getting meaningful time with them and my wife.

In order to pull it off, I found I needed a nearly puritanical commitment to time and schedule. It got me reacquainted with something I learned earlier in my consulting career — the power of “No.”

One of the favorite tropes of our culture is that “the customer is always right.” Anyone who has worked in retail, foodservice, or hospitality can immediately attest that this is a huge fallacy. Still, as a culture, we knuckle under to that trope and do whatever pleases the customer in that moment.

As a contractor, you are often brought in to leverage your expertise to support some project for your customer. In the end, a thing is delivered, and you move on. At no point do you ever have ownership of the deliverable; it belongs to your customer. Therefore, “the customer is always right.”

Early in my career, I spent a few years at a large, old, well-established consulting company. During the onboarding training, they blew up that trope. To their way of thinking, the customer was not always right and it was our professional responsibility to tell the customer when that was the case. Our job wasn’t to merely deliver a thing; our job was to advise the customer all along the way to delivery and that could mean telling the customer when they were heading in the wrong direction. That clarified for me the essential difference between being a consultant and being a contractor. I never wanted to be a contractor again.

The first time I put that concept into practice, I was scared out of my mind, but I wasn’t fired and the customer didn’t call my supervisor. They actually listened and took what I said under advisement. Over the years, my advice was not always taken and, being human, I was sometimes wrong. But I found that my willingness to say “No” gave more credence to the situations where I said “Yes.” The best leaders I have ever worked for have understood this. The worst have had no tolerance for “No.” It has become my razor in terms of leadership.

So how does all of this relate to me running a marathon? I think I had reached the point where I was, a little over two years ago, in terms of my fitness and health by saying “Yes” to too many things that didn’t really serve my core priorities. I may not have had a great understanding of my core priorities. Those priorities are family, health, and work, in that order.

I have previously described how I began leveraging techniques from my professional life to jumpstart my focus on fitness. Implicit in all of that was my ability to begin saying “No” to things that worked against my goals. As a society, we are constantly bombarded with messages that we can improve our health, lose weight, feel better, etc. without having to give up foods or habits we love or without exercise or other lifestyle changes. There is a medicine or supplement or super-food that can help us achieve our goals with little effort or change to our daily lives. This is as big a fallacy as “the customer is always right.”

As we age, our physiology constantly changes and requires us re-evaluate our approach in order to maintain our health. Our bodies respond less effectively to exercise so we need to move more. Our metabolism slows down so we don’t burn as many calories and we need to consume less. Our tendons and ligaments become more stiff so we need to stretch. There is no magic diet or pill to get us past the need to say “No” to some old things that we may very much enjoy and “Yes” to new things that we will have the opportunity to come to enjoy.

In training for a marathon, I needed to be much more explicit in my ability to say “No.” I said no to a lot of things: alcohol (mostly), sugar (but not carbs), soda and processed snacks, social engagements that would have interfered with my training or sleep schedule, and so on. This was because I had three priorities to balance: time with my family, my responsibilities at work, and training for my race.

Sitting here a few weeks after the race, I realize that my challenge remains the same — to back-port the discipline that helped me cross the literal finish line into my personal and professional lives and maintain it absent the hard deliverable of an upcoming race. I will do more races of various distances, but, at some point, I will not be able to run at this pace anymore. At some point, I will need to say “No” to this thing I have come to love but the habits I have developed during this process will continue to serve me well.