I take my kids horseback riding every Saturday, and between lessons or while mucking stalls, their coach and I usually end up chatting about horses. This week we got on the subject of the ending of an amazing race at Aqueduct and how it’s a metaphor for the start of 2015 for many folks. A 3-year-old thoroughbred named Far From Over stumbled coming out of the starting gate and fell way behind. So far behind he was basically counted out of what was an important race that helps horses qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
As I watched the race, I felt just like Far From Over and could relate to his stumble at the start. I think we all find ourselves in this situation at some point each year. Perhaps you have a goal that feels out of reach or you're discouraged and feel like you'll never reach the finish line. More likely you may just be comparing yourself and your progress to others. Don't despair, what happened next in the race is a lesson for all of us. The horse and his jockey Manuel Franco refused to quit.
There’s an expression in the animal kingdom: “Eyes on the front born to hunt, eyes on the side born to hide.” This refers to how you differentiate prey from predators. For example, lions have eyes in the front of their heads and are hunters, while horses have eyes on the side of their heads and tend to be prey.
Where are your eyes? On the hunt for opportunity or are you trying to hide?
With eyes on the sides of their heads, horses obviously have great peripheral vision, and in the wild it can serve them well for survival purposes. With race horses, on the other hand, it's a detriment and means they can end up running off course unless they are made to remain on focus. Sound familiar, entrepreneurs?
This is why trainers place blinders on race horses' bridles so the horse doesn't get distracted by what’s next to or behind them and stay focused on what’s in front of them. The blinders also prevent the horse from getting spooked too easily. (We should all invest in a good set of blinders to wear for the same reasons.)
Just like the race horse, you are an athlete. You're training and competing every day. Competitors are prone to comparison, the ultimate performance killer. It’s self-sabotage because it takes our eyes off the prize.
We are all performers and we have to get to the point where we just run our race against no one but ourselves. In that kind of race, giving a full effort and playing full out is more important than wins or losses. It's more important than what you’re going to get or not going to get. If you’re comparing yourself to whoever is running the race next to you or who might be catching up, you won’t succeed because you have divided attention.
If you’re doing something and you’re worried about the result, you have divided attention. Divided attention does not serve anyone well. Would you want your surgeon comparing his incisions during open heart surgery to his colleague performing the same procedure one table over?
To illustrate divided attention to my athletes when I was coaching lacrosse, I would ask my players, "Do you remember the most important goal you’ve ever scored?" Invariably, they could all answer yes and describe in detail that game-winning goal, power-play goal or dive shot that they scored as they were being knocked down. They always remembered it clearly.
I would follow up that question asking if they went to the goal thinking about scoring the prettiest goal ever and making it on to ESPN’s plays of the week. This time the answer was invariably a resounding no because they weren't worried about appearances or the possible result. They were too busy being present in the moment giving a full effort.
If you’re thinking about the result, you won’t be able to give a full effort. Give a full effort simply for the sake of giving a full effort. The magic to this is that when you focus on just giving a full effort, the result will take care of itself.
Suppose every day you go to the gym and your goal is simply to give a full effort. The byproduct will be that you’re going to get in fabulous shape. If you enroll in an MBA program and your goal is simply to give a full effort in each class, the byproduct will be earning "A"s and ultimately an advanced degree. If you went into either of these situations worrying about the result, you would not achieve anywhere near your desired result.
Far From Over did not have divided attention. He sustained his effort and crept back in the race, making a strong stretch run to pull out a victory over the favorite. You can do the same.
Success is a matter of sustained effort, putting one hoof in front of the other as fast as you can, again and again. Just go to work and give a full effort, and your quota, goal or project will take care of itself.