Achieving the Impossible

May 6, 1954 began like most other spring days in southern England. A morning rain shower left the air cold and a stiff wind blew for most of the day. At the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, spectators began arriving for the University’s annual track meet against the Amateur Athletic Association. As he began his stretching routine, Roger Bannister , a young medical student, contemplated the goal he had set for himself. Bannister was set to run in the one-mile event. In defiance of history, Bannister planned to not only win the race, but to do so in less than four minutes.

Others had attempted the break the four minute barrier. The closest was Gunder Hagg, a Swede who posted a time of 4:01.4 in 1945. In the eight years since, no one else had come close. Sporting experts had decided that the four minute mark could only be passed under ideal conditions – the right weather, the right track, the right training regimen. But as Bannister approached the starting line on the track (still damp from the morning shower), he took note of the chill in the air. At least the wind had died down.

At 6:00 pm, the starting gun was fired and the race began. Trailing for most of the race, Bannister pulled out all the stops during the last 300 yards. Crossing the finish line, he collapsed onto the track, unable to stand. The noisy crowd fell silent waiting for the race results. Finally, the announcer broke the silence. Bannister had won the race and achieved his goal – a new world record time for the one-mile event – 3:59.4.

Advice on setting and achieving goals is commonplace. Ever heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals? That’s all well and good, but what does it take to achieve the kind of breakthrough performance that Roger Bannister experienced? How does one go about achieving what everyone says can’t be done?

Here are three lessons from Roger Bannister’s experience that I think answer that question:

He set an impossible goal.
I think one of the reasons people often fail to reach a particular goal is because their aim is set too low. Goals that are too vague or only require a little stretch are easily forgotten. Impossible goals get your attention. They command your daily focus if they stand any chance of becoming reality. Coming off of a huge defeat in the 1951 Olympics, Bannister knew he needed a new approach to training if he were to remain competitive. Winning the next race wasn’t a big enough goal to push him out of his comfort zone. But breaking the four minute barrier forced him to rethink his motivation, his priorities, and his approach to training.

He believed it was possible.
Contrary to popular opinion and scientific evidence, Bannister believed – no, he knew – that a sub-four minute mile run was achievable. Others before him had come close, but failed because they didn’t believe. Their disbelief guaranteed their failure. One of Bannister’s biggest rivals, John Landy, had given up his quest to break the four minute barrier saying “It is a brick wall. I shall not attempt it again.”

He focused on the possible.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. While impossible goals get your attention, they can also easily overwhelm you. The key is to break the goal into smaller, more achievable steps. This helps you to keep a positive focus and celebrate successes along the way. Bannister didn’t focus on the mile. He spent his training time perfecting his quarter mile run, eventually reaching a point where he could consistently run the quarter mile in under one minute. Once he reached this point he knew he could put them together and achieve his goal.

By the way, it’s funny how once someone achieves the impossible, it suddenly becomes possible. The unattainable becomes the benchmark. Forty-six days after Roger Bannister’s amazing run, John Landy set a new world record for the mile with a time of 3:58. Today, a sub-four minute mile run is commonplace. The current world record is 3:43.13.

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