Why A Successful Career Is Like Being A Winning Racehorse

“To win without risk is to triumph without glory.” – Corneille (Le Cid, 1636)

EN, a recent AWAI graduate who has written several successful nonprofit promotions, e-mails me every once in a while with news of her career, questions about copywriting, and suggestions for ETR. Today, I got a message from her saying she had talked to an owner of thoroughbreds who said that when it comes to racehorses all “winners” possess these three traits:

Stamina. The horse has to be physically strong.

Class. In a pack of horses, one horse will always take the lead and walk in front of the pack.

Heart. The horse must have courage and not be fearful of such distractions as rainstorms, cheering crowds, etc. It must remain focused on reaching its goal ahead of the rest of the pack.

Furthermore, EN said that this fellow was of the opinion that all three of these traits are genetically programmed into a horse (can’t be taught). That’s why breeding is so important.

1. Stamina

We’ve talked about stamina before. (See Message #151, “Breaking Through the Pain.”) It is without question one of the most important — if not the most important — qualities of a successful person.

Stamina allows you to reach goals that your competitors have abandoned out of frustration or fatigue. Stamina allows you to overcome an opponent who is bigger, stronger, and smarter than you. Stamina allows you to enjoy the immense benefit of compound interest. And this applies equally to the knowledge you gain and the money you save. Stamina is wonderful, because it is something you can develop simply by trying. It is also the one thing that can defeat talent, intelligence, money, connections, and almost any other advantage your competition may have.

2. Class

I think the word “class” is somewhat misleading in this context. The idea that in any pack one will emerge as the winner is both tautological and profound. I’ve discussed this subject in relation to employees. We’ve observed that in any social or work group, people put themselves into the pack according to their personal perceptions of what feels comfortable. Some naturally prefer to stay at the tail end. Most want to be in the anonymous middle. Some strive for the lead. If you want to be successful, you have to push yourself to get to the front of the pack. Having the desire to do so — making discomfort feel “comfortable” — is 80% of the game.

3. Heart

Yes, courage is also critical for success. The most common reason people give up on their goals is fear. Some people start out strong and move immediately to the front of the pack. They hope that once they get there everyone else will let them stay in that favored position. Often, this is exactly what happens. But sometimes their competitors will have the stamina to keep going, trying to gain ground and recover the lead position. These efforts can create a lot of stress and even pain for the person in the front. If he stays strong and doesn’t get frightened, he can usually maintain his position. But if he slackens up — even for a minute — he will be overtaken.

Spend a few minutes today thinking about yourself as a racehorse. How much of each of these qualities do you possess? Where you find yourself lacking, consider what you can do to be better.

I am a strong believer that even an old dog can become stronger. Having a strong heart and the will to push on may feel like a disposition — even an inherited personality trait — but, in fact, it is a learned response.

You can teach yourself to endure pain, to put up with stress, and to continue in the face of fear. I have learned this lesson in business and otherwise, time and again. If I had to describe my essential nature, I’d say that I am cowardly, lazy, and shy. Yet, I don’t usually act that way.

I’ve learned this lesson most recently as a student of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. At my age, I am almost always outmatched physically by my opponents. I’ve learned to succeed by refusing to stop the thousand times I’ve wanted to. By pushing myself beyond my discomfort, I’ve given myself the time to learn the technique I now use to defeat less experienced fighters who are bigger, better, and more athletic than I.

Having courage and stamina is not something that’s built into you. It comes from individual experiences. Each time you give yourself permission to keep going — even for just one more step or one more day — you give yourself strength.

You can build your mental strength and stamina just as well as you can your body. And you can do it at any age.

Start with one thing that scares or tires you. Go beyond your comfort zone. Just a little today. Tomorrow, you’ll be stronger.