5 Things 'America's Most Dangerous Underdog' Can Teach Us About Success

5 Things 'America's Most Dangerous Underdog' Can Teach Us About Success

Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi running in 2009 NYC Marathon

Image credit: Randy Lemoine | Flickr
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You can’t talk about success in the running world without mentioning Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi. When Keflezighi’s family settled in San Diego in 1987, he didn't speak English and had never raced a mile. Yet, he went on to win a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics and became the first American man in decades to win both the New York and Boston marathons.

To succeed, Keflezighi training consisted of doing four-and-a-half-minute-mile high-speed circuits and running at 4,000 feet (and sleeping at 9,000 feet) in the mountains of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. He pushed his personal limits to the max, and it paid off.

The most successful athletes are driven by the desire to accomplish their goals and hit new personal records, something business leaders should also be doing. 

Related: Want to Be Successful? Quit Slacking Off.

If you want to follow their formula for success, do these five things:

1. Focus on your signature strengths.

Your signature strengths are what you do best -- the talents that distinguish you from others. The first step is to discover what those strengths are. Analyze your victories, identifying the qualities that helped you achieve them.

Keflezighi, for example, won major marathons by focusing on his consistency. While some marathoners’ times fluctuate, his best times span a 90-second range, which helped him focus on the mark he needs to hit.

Using your signature strengths will make you happier, driving your ability to perform. “Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become,” writes Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

2. Define success and visualize achieving it.

Consider what motivates you. Is it a passion for doing the work you’ve chosen, making a positive impact, receiving public recognition or something else? Winning doesn’t always mean generating the most profit. It sometimes means loving what you do and who you do it with.

You can’t let anyone else define success for you. Once you’ve defined it, visualize achieving it. Keflezighi’s goal in each race is to win, no matter the length or number of competitors. Guard yourself against people who distract you from your goal.

3. Compete against yourself, not others.

Not everyone is comfortable with the competitive nature of sports. Competition can evoke ideas of cutthroat tactics, ruthless opponents and a zero-sum game. Although these exist, eliminate the idea of competing against others. Instead, embracing a sense of inner competition will help better prepare you for success.

Related: 10 Mindsets That Will Radically Improve Your Business

Keflezighi focused so strongly on his own preparation, not on others’ or on gaining media attention, that The Wall Street Journal called him “America’s most dangerous underdog.”

Push yourself to continually improve upon what you can control as you seek your personal best. By focusing on your own game, you’ll likely surpass competitors along the way.

4. Keep things in perspective.

Don’t let anything overshadow what’s most important to you in life. These things often include maintaining good health, spending quality time with the people you love and savoring the moment.

Keflezighi hasn’t limited his success to marathons; he’s also raising three daughters with his wife. 

5. Recognize failure as opportunity.

"Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly," Robert F. Kennedy said. It takes determination and grit for marathon runners to push through the pain at mile 20 and failure is a real possibility.

Keflezighi faced failure on and off the course -- after being sidelined by injuries, he lost Nike as his sponsor. He rebounded by enlisting Skechers as his new sponsor and winning the next Olympic trial.

A single-minded focus on your challenges and the decisiveness to act to overcome them can help you triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.

Though you won’t hit every goal, you must take risks to make gains. Whether they turn into victories or injuries, they’ll offer you the opportunity to learn and train to do better next time.

It’s this ability to gain strength from successes and failures that separates the best from the rest. 

Related: 3 Questions to Ask to Determine If You Are a Good Leader