Sprinter or Marathoner?

I love the Olympics, both winter and summer editions.  Although my favorite thing may be the fashion statements of the athletes in the opening ceremonies (sorry, I cannot pretend otherwise; it’s more than a parade), I really like the events that have both sprints and tests of endurance.  Athletes specialize in one or the other, and so do careerists.

In careers, the thing you should never get wrong is mistaking one thing for the other, and not knowing which you are: sprinter or marathoner.  If you know you are good in short haul, but once you have done it and bought the T-shirt, it’s over for you, than don’t sign up for jobs or careers where feedback and reward is consistently long delayed.  If you are a pacer, not a flashy, right out of the gate burst of speed and light, don’t nominate yourself or market yourself as a specialist in change, or turnaround projects.  Your long-haul sensibilities will not tolerate the sacrifice of nuts and bolts for paperclips and paste.

Form is important to athletes and so it is in careers.  Both sprinters and marathoners sign up for pain, but  different kinds of pain, requiring different kinds of training and physical demand.  A career sprinter may have to change jobs more often, learn faster, take more risk, get good at forming relationships quickly, and focus on leveraging specialties directly related to results.  A career marathoner, on the other hand, will be process-focused, may have to push past a bit of boredom to stay on track, keep up the pace and not fall victim to complacency, make more tactical alterations, take less risk and rely on proven training, and trust the slow building of deeper relationships that takes place over time.

Of course, this is an analogy with the usual limits–some of us just run, swim, bike, skate, or ski as fast or steadily as needed under the circumstances.  We all adapt–for a while.  But if your natural inclination is toward bursts of energy, when things are slow you will find yourself creating some kind of opportunity for quick feedback and maybe a little drama.  If your preference is for measured input and  measured output, the sudden call to pick up the pace can make your stomach lurch and your head spin–and can leave you feeling lost.

Don’t make assumptions about what’s required, and don’t seek and then accept an invitation to join the wrong team, or the wrong job on the right team.  Some jobs require balance–you have to be able to perform as needed; these are utility player jobs and they are interesting because they provide variety and a good mix of fast and slow.  I believe that sprinters do better in those jobs, because they can sprint sequentially, which looks and feels (to them) like a pace.

I think most folks think that entrepreneurs are sprinters–all that idea-generating heat and light and passion.  However, the opposite is probably true.  A successful entrepreneur is the one who is able to manage timing and resources through thick and thin, endure serious setback, and stay the course when things are looking grim.  Entrepreneurs look for faint signals to keep them going, but they don’t mistake them for the finish line.

And really, careers don’t have much of a finish line, so the whole analogy has limited range.  Careers don’t come in absolutes, and you can retrain yourself to run the race you face.  However, it always helps to understand discomfort when it shows up, and to know what makes you happiest in a job.  If you wonder why you aren’t getting enough feedback, you may be a sprinter.  If you are wondering why you get so much feedback, and find that it detracts from your focus, you may be a marathoner.

Keep Calm, and Carry On.

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