Before Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile on May 6th, 1954, on Iffley Road Track in Oxford, physiologists, doctors, and athletes themselves had contended that running a mile in under four minutes wasn’t only impossible, it might actually lead to death. The human body simply wasn’t equipped to accomplish such a feat, they said. On a deeper level the message was clear: there are certain limits about ourselves that must be observed, certain limits that we simply can’t surpass. Bannister had a different belief. At the time, himself studying to be a physician, Bannister didn’t just think that the human body could, in fact, run a mile in under four minutes, but that he was the one to do it. And after he broke the record that day in Oxford, running an amazing 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, just 46 days later, the record was broken again.
And this year, on May 6th, at the Formula One Race Track in Monza Italy, three runners, Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic marathon champion, Lelisa Desisa, the two-time Boston marathon Winner, and Zersenay Tadese, the half-marathon world record holder will, like Bannister, attempt the impossible. Running 17.5 laps around the 2.4 kilometer track, they will try to break the two hour barrier in the marathon. Many believe, that, like the four minute mile, it is a feat that simply can’t be accomplished. While the current record is a mere two minutes off the mark –at 2:02:57 – that two minutes represents a 2.5% improvement, which, in the world of elite running, is a huge – and many say impossible – jump.
But if any one of these three runners breaks the two hour mark, it wouldn’t be the first time the many were wrong – and not just about running. There are numerous examples – from Evil Kneival jumping 19 cars on a motorcycle, to Garrett McNamara surfing a 78 foot wave in 2011 in Nazare, Portugal – of humans defying reality and proving that when it comes to what we are capable of, we really don’t know much.
We Are Meant To Self-Actualize
The trouble with thinking that we can’t run a sub four minute mile or a marathon in less than two hours is that these imposed glass ceilings simply don’t fit what human beings were meant to do. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who created Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, defines self-actualization, the highest need, as the need for every person to realize his or her full potential, to reach a level of “self-actualization.” Maslow believed self-actualization wasn’t just a vital component of a healthy life, but a biological need for mastery. To prove his theory, Maslow studied mentally healthy individuals instead of people with serious psychological issues. Focusing on self-actualizing people, Maslow noted that they often have “peak experiences” or high points in life that correspond with recognizing their potential – often potential they didn’t know existed. These peak experiences fulfill an inherent need to grow, improve, and stretch beyond our limits, to achieve a sense of mastery. People, Maslow believed, are wired to see what they are made of, to push themselves past limits, past the four minute mark, the two hour mark, and any other self-imposed limitations, because it is this very process that makes us human. And it’s not a stagnant process. What we achieve today, we will want to better tomorrow. That’s the way of mastery – it’s not a destination. It’s a journey. A journey that we take every day, because it’s who we are. And yet when we impose preconceived limitations on ourselves – believing that there are things we simply can’t do – not only do we rob ourselves of the journey, but of the joy in finding out just what we are made of.
Fixed Ceilings and Fixed Mindsets
Carol Dweck, Stanford Psychology Professor and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success says that there are two types of mindsets we can have. The first, a growth mindset, sees our abilities as malleable, and directly linked to the effort we put in. To get better, we simply need to try harder, and if we are not getting the results we want, we can improve by committing more effort. Further, what Dweck found is that when people with a growth mindset experience failure, they actually try harder. Those with fixed mindsets, on the other hand, see their abilities as predetermined and unchangeable. When they don’t get the results they want, it is not because they are not trying hard enough, it is because they are not equipped with the right skills. And no matter how hard they try, or how much effort they put in, their abilities are fixed. Setbacks, for people with fixed mindsets, don’t make them try harder, they make them give up. Having a fixed mindset, is like having a glass ceiling. There is only so far you can go, and no matter how much you try, you will never pass that point. Once you believe that, you simply stop trying to go any further. There is only so much you can run, write, invest, work, and do, and only so much you are meant to accomplish. And most importantly, you don’t imagine anything more. But the problem is, as Sir Ken Robinson, creativity expert, and author of the bestselling book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, says, imagination lies at the heart of every great human achievement. In short, when we stop imagining more, we stop achieving more.
The Gift Of Uncertainty
There is one thing that glass ceilings may do very well. They make life certain. When we know exactly what we are capable of, we also know exactly what to expect. There are no surprises, and we take comfort in the idea of knowing that we know. And where there are no unknowns, there is no uncertainty. The problem is, a world like this doesn’t exist. From Amelia Earhart’s first female solo air flight across the Atlantic, to Danny Way jumping the Great Wall on a skateboard, people have been breaking barriers that were never thought possible. But these barriers were self-imposed. There was no rational reason to think that a person couldn’t jump the Great Wall on a skateboard, except that it had never been done before. And that is just the problem with imposed limits. They tell us that just because we can’t imagine it being done, it can’t be done.
But doing anything starts with imagining it. Jane Elliot might have thought as much when she famously told the blue eyed children in her class that they were smarter than the rest of the children in her class. By the end of the day, the blue eyed children performed much better on class assignments than the rest of the children. When Elliot reversed her position the next day and told the brown eyed children that she had been wrong and that, in fact, they were the more intelligent children, it was the brown eyed children that performed better on class assignments. Elliot’s work has since been replicated in numerous studies and sheds light on a powerful truth: what we believe about our abilities becomes our abilities. When we believe that we can’t run a four minute mile, try as we might, we won’t break that barrier. And when we believe that we can’t write a book, start a business, or lead the sales for our company, we also won’t break those barriers. Like glass ceilings, our beliefs will hold us down, and we become hostage to them.
And while life may be more certain when we know exactly what to expect from ourselves, it is in the uncertainty – in the not knowing, not being sure, and not having answers – that the extraordinary happens. It is when we don’t know what to expect, but we try anyway, that we find abilities we never knew existed. We find strengths we never realized we had, and we reach heights we never imagined possible. It is then – in that uncertainty – that we might realize out true potential. That is, until we reach into the vast unknown again.
So will the two hour marathon mark fall? Well, as we watch Kipchoge, Desisa, and Tadese on the Runners World live link tomorrow, we will be reminded, once again, that whether or not they break the barrier is not as important as that they think the barrier is breakable at all.
Photo by familymwr