Your Career Isn’t a Marathon, It’s a Series of Sprints

Consistency is not enough and might keep you from leveling up

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

I hated sports in high school. The main reason was the Cooper test. It’s a standardized test of physical fitness devised by a man named Kenneth Cooper for the US military. The goal is to run as far as you can in 12 minutes.

However, since it’s meant to measure your overall condition, you’re supposed to run at a steady pace, not sprint and rest in between. Despite being a nerd, I was never terrible at sports, but I definitely wasn’t a long-distance runner. So while some of my soccer-playing, well-trained friends easily crossed the 2,500 m mark and netted awesome grades, you could catch me somewhere between corner three and four, wheezing on the tarmac or, on one particularly hot day, trying not to throw up in the bushes. D- is the best I ever got.

The Cooper test came to represent everything I thought was wrong with school. Is this really the best test they could come up with? Why did they make kids run in a circle for 12 minutes, like hamsters? Why couldn’t the runners just run in their spare time? Who cares if my stamina sucks if I’m not one of them? And why on earth do I have to keep a steady pace?

That last one irked me the most: The steady-mentality. Somehow it seems to creep its way into every part of our lives, doesn’t it? It’s a mindset we’re taught universally across domains. In school, you’re supposed to show up each day, do your homework, and study on the regular. College is the same. And even though freelancing is on the rise, a lot of employers still expect you to show up from nine to five each weekday.

So long after we’ve left high school, the Cooper test is alive and well, instilled deep inside of us, secretly driving everything we do. What I’ve learned is that consistently taking small steps is a good baseline for most endeavors, but it’s not enough. Many of the big goals we have in life, like owning a business, excelling at our job, being creative, or making lots of money, can’t be achieved on consistency alone.

Sometimes, our marathon mindset is the very thing preventing us from attaining them.

Life is non-linear

Talking to Joe Rogan, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Naval Ravikant explains the disconnect of inputs and outputs in our modern working world:

“We’d like to view the world as linear, which is, “I’m gonna put in eight hours of work, I’m gonna get back eight hours of output,” right? Doesn’t work that way. Guy running the corner grocery store is working just as hard or harder than you and me. How much output is he getting? What you do, who you do it with, how you do it — way more important than how hard you work, right? Outputs are non-linear based on the quality of the work that you put in.”

The world has never been a linear place, and the most desirable jobs have always benefitted from this gap between inputs and outputs. Historically, those kinds of jobs were only available to a small minority — think being a king with an army in 200 BC or a clergyman with the power to design laws in the Middle Ages. Over the past 100 years, however, several trends are making such jobs available to everyone:

  • Information is increasing exponentially, which means the half-life of knowledge is rapidly declining. Adapting and learning are more important than ever, which means there are more singular opportunities to win big by making the right decision at the right time. Timing beats knowledge.
  • The internet and code are putting leverage in everybody’s hands. Labor and money are scarce resources that help us scale, but they’re not the only ones we have anymore. Anyone can reach an audience of millions from their couch or create a piece of software that makes a slow process 100x more efficient.
  • Because of the above, anyone can also access tools others have created that enable such efficiency bumps. As a blogger, I can create a content schedule with one tool, automate the publication of my posts with another, then have a third post them to all kinds of social media. Not too long ago, it would’ve taken an entire team of people to do this. Now, I can do it alone for a few dollars a month, maybe even for free.
  • Brand and reputation are playing an increasing role in who gets the best jobs. Beyond doing good work, you also have to show good character. Doing so in public and holding yourself accountable, for example via tweeting a lot or making your portfolio public, will attract people offering you higher-quality, better-paid jobs.
  • Creativity is facing more demand by the day. Not just because prosperity leads to a need for more entertainment, but because innovation depends on blending the best insights from different fields. Any effort that’s highly creative is also hit-or-miss in its outcome. A great book will take the world by storm in a heartbeat, a bad one will quickly be shot down, even if both took a year to write. That’s a big disconnect of inputs and outputs.

As a result of these trends, we’re moving towards a world that looks like this, according to Naval:

“Super high quality work will be available in a gig fashion, where you’ll wake up in the morning, your phone will buzz and you’ll have five different jobs from people who have worked with you in the past or have been referred to you. It’s kind of how Hollywood already works with how they organize for a project. You decide whether to take the project or not. The contract is right there on the spot. You get paid a certain amount. You get rated every day or every week. You get the money delivered. And then, when you’re done working, you turn it off and you go to Tahiti or wherever you want to spend the next three months.

The smart people have already started figuring out that the internet enables this. And they’re starting to work more and more remotely on their own schedule, on their own time, in their own place, with their own friends, in their own way. And that’s actually how we are the most productive.”

Sticking with Naval’s Hollywood analogy, a good actress can make one successful movie and then completely disappear for the next three years. In the same vein, a string of three flops might force her to go back to doing TV shows. The big lesson is this:

Your career is not a Cooper test. It’s a series of sprints.

Since inputs and outputs are disconnecting across all jobs and industries, you can show up diligently for decades and do as you’re told, but you might still be left with little to show for it in the end. If you want to achieve more than average, you need to take calculated risks, try new things, use leverage and branding to scale yourself, and repeat this cycle until you break through. This requires a sprinter’s mentality, not the slow, steady grind we’ve been conditioned to accept as normal, says Naval:

“As a modern knowledge worker athlete, an intellectual athlete, you want to function like an athlete. Which means you train hard, then you sprint, then you rest, then you reassess. You get a feedback loop, then you train some more, then you sprint again, then you rest, then you reassess. This idea that you’re going to have linear output just by cranking out every day for the same amount of time — that’s machines, you know. Machines should be working nine to five. Humans are not meant to work nine to five.”

This all sounds good in theory, but how does this sprinter mindset play out in real life? If we want to deal with all this non-linearity, we need to know. Let’s look at a few examples.

Leveling up with sprints

As a writer, it’s been hard to wrap my head around this slow separation of inputs and outputs. One reason is that, to an extent, consistency works. Publishing daily and weekly helped me get my website off the ground, establish a reputation on Quora, and grow several email newsletters.

But in all cases, it eventually stopped working. Growth flattened, I wasn’t pushing myself to create better things, and I never had enough time to deliver something bigger than the usual. In order to get to the next level with my art, I had to let go of my pace and start sprinting.

Sprinting as an artist

My new sprinter mentality with writing means no more weekly newsletters and no set publishing schedule. Instead, I now work on articles that might take a week or even a month to create, let them sit when drafts are done, get feedback, edit them properly, and launch them whenever they’re ready. I’ve also started working with someone to compile some of my work into a book.

If you’re an artist, sprinting means shipping less often but making better things. It can add to or replace your regular schedule, but, sooner or later, it’ll likely have to take over if you want to keep improving. You can now also rest when you’re done without feeling guilty or worrying about the next deadline.

Sprinting as an entrepreneur

In 2014, Pieter Levels decided to launch a new project each month. He coded, designed, and promoted them all on his own. His seventh project, #nomads, blew up on ProductHunt, and he decided to double down. Today, Nomad List makes over $80,000 each month. Peter still does everything himself. He keeps launching new features while traveling the world. And if he feels like taking time off? He just leaves his laptop closed for the day. That’s sprinting.

If you’re a freelancer, you can do the same thing by taking on one-off projects instead of multiple part-time positions. Work hard on someone’s website copy for two weeks, collect your payment, relax for a few days, then look for another well-paying gig. You’ll have to manage your financial runway, but you won’t be locked into a fixed schedule that’ll soon keep you from growing.

Sprinting as an employee

A friend of mine works at a medium-sized, traditional company that makes sunshades, blinds, and shutters. He started as a trainee, working in different departments for the first 1.5 years. He put his focus on sales and worked hardest when he was stationed there. After he graduated from the program, he volunteered to build a new department close to the part of the country where he’s from. Now, he gets to work from home, travels a lot but not too much, and can still spend time with his girlfriend and family. He sprinted into the position and the position itself now also consists of sprints.

Of course, sprinting is no magic formula for everything. Your health wants to be maintained on a consistent basis, and if your happiness depends entirely on reaching big milestones, you’ll always worry about goals. Certain careers are exceptions too, like high-performance endurance athletes, who gradually build towards the actual event. Still, even marathon runners often don’t go the full distance before the main run, which kind of makes that a sprint too.

Wherever you can use blocks of time to leap ahead, whether it’s by creating a big result in one go, shipping a bet that might pay off, or building a system that continues to run with little time needed to maintain it, sprinting is superior to a consistent work rhythm.

All you need to know

Education in many domains teaches us to cultivate a marathon mindset. We’re supposed to take small steps consistently in order to reach our goals.

Unfortunately, the world in which those small steps add up is now disappearing beneath our feet. A universal disconnection of inputs and outputs is ruining the efficiency of linear effort over a long period of time.

Instead, the most rewarding and meaningful careers now require a sprinter’s mindset. Productive people apply a combination of learning, creativity, leverage, and reputation in high-impact areas. They complete risky but rewarding missions, then rest and reassess before tackling the next challenge. If enough of these missions are successful, these people stand to win big in a non-linear world.

Of course, sprints aren’t a magic bullet. In some areas of our lives, especially those outside of work, we’ll still have to balance them with consistency. Yet, they are an essential tool in taking our careers to the next level.

Confucius supposedly said, “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” In the grand scheme of things, going slow can also mean running really fast, then not moving at all for a while.

Your career isn’t a marathon. It’s a series of sprints. Don’t worry about your pace. Worry about getting there. Even if life forces you to stop, there’s always another sprint you can prepare for.

Luckily, you have way more time than just 12 minutes.

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For my best articles & book updates, go here:

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