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Wisdom From an Ironman: Developing Grit and Resilience

Mar 26, 2020 | 11m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Why slowing down is actually more effective than pushing hard
  • How to identify your “anchors” and use them to your advantage
  • How to boost your morale and stay on course when you want to give up


Work Backwards: How to Set Realistic Goals

Anyone can do an Ironman or run an Ultra Marathon. Once you’ve decided to take up a challenge that’s going to stretch you to your limits, grit is the piece that will get you to the finish line. As the saying goes, “the biggest muscle is actually between your ears”. Here’s what you need to understand to help you achieve your most ambitious goals.

A Fine Balance

There are five basic elements to our lives that exist in some form of balance:

  • Family & social life
  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Work & income
  • Sleep and recovery

The act of balancing these elements is what we broadly define as “wellness” today. Think of them as five fingers to your hand. Too much nutrition and not enough exercise leads to obesity. The absence of sleep lowers your ability to recover after exercise or to be productive at work, which in turn compromises your income, that impacts everything again.

The most important skill that anyone wanting to become an Ironman or Ultra runner has to master, long before embarking on the journey, is how you would balance inevitably limited 24-hour days. Trade-offs between these “five fingers on a hand” need to provide you with a decent amount of time per week that you can dedicate to preparations towards your goal.

Now, the Ironman is just a physical fitness goal. You can apply this theory of balance to work to any goal you are working towards in your life. Suppose your goal is to improve the Nutrition aspect of your life. You’d want to learn to cook at home if you have no cooking skills today. To do this, you’d have to compromise something. It’s always the reality of what you can afford as well as what you’d need to give up to achieve your goal.

Anchoring: Knowing Yourself and Assessing the Environment

At its core, the act of making commitments is a very personal one. The easiest way to stick to your commitments is to find a strong link between the commitment you’re making and the values you live by. Human beings are also biased to depend on some limited and initial pieces of information to make subsequent judgments – this process is called anchoring. Your “anchor” is an impulse behind the original decision. It is the single most powerful force that will keep you going towards the goal.

There are many self-assessment tools out there that will help you place your character on a framework of labels and attributes. Training up resilience and ‘grit’ aspects of one’s character places a huge importance on self-centricity, independence from others’ opinions, and empathy to those who think differently. Anyone taking up a regimen with 15-20 hours of training a week looks “crazy” to others. This self-sacrifice is judged as insanity, and some will even belittle you for making this choice.

Achieving big goals is completely opposite from being “kiasu” as it’s called in Singlish, standing for “fearing of missing out” or FOMO. Not being prone to FOMO pays off. If you find that you tend to be “kiasu” though, despite your level of determination, the nature of your character – being an interdependent, risk-averse person who needs a lot of guidance in decision-making – would require a different motivators as compared to different personality types such as ‘self-made’ ‘commoner’ or ‘risk-taker’. The latter would not be afraid to become a lone wolf, when focusing on her own tasks.

Knowing yourself is important for anchoring as well.

Identify the anchor that led you to set an ambitious goal. Be it a purchase of an expensive bicycle to battle Ironman distance, or a bright-as-the-sun headlamp that’ll help you run an ultra distance through the lonely dark night, staying attached to the original anchor and building stories around it is literally half of the battle won.

For example, I remember for my first Ultra-marathon, I’ve started with exactly the latter: I bought an expensive Lupine headlamp. German-made, with extreme brightness and insane battery life. That was an anchor to drag myself out of the bed at 4:00am and do loops of MacRitchie Reservoir and Bukit Timah climbs, running into spider webs stretched across the trails. The anchor’s monetary value and its presence in my view day after day eliminated any doubts and took away many psychological transitions from downtime to training.

The Human Element

To achieve your big goals, surrounding yourself with positive, like-minded, and supportive people is a must. Avoid casting aside your goals in favour of mingling with weak links without social necessity, or making problematic choices to maintain toxic connections. Doing this will lower your motivation, which will ultimately lead up to failure.

Big changes require big support. Do a scan of your social circles and be very selective about the people you spend time with. The unfortunate reality is that you cannot be nice to everyone at the same time. In the worst case, you can always distance yourself from certain people while you work towards your goal and choose to reconnect with them once you’ve accomplished what you set out to accomplish. It may appear an egoistic choice, but a necessary one to make if you’ve made a commitment to something larger.

That doesn’t mean you shut yourself away from everyone. Quite the contrary. Recovery after training includes interactions with people and fulfillment it brings. So, never isolate yourself from the true friends who understand and support you on your journey towards your big goal. These are positive pillars of encouragement who will cheer you on even if they don’t help you actually achieve your milestones in tangible ways.

Setting up a social calendar months ahead of time may sound like a crazy idea for a lot of us, but in reality, this is how the most successful pundits and their families operate. Structured time-off over weekends, joint holidays, and even work-day breakfasts require focus and planning. Be intentional about how and with whom you spend your limited free time.

Remember, when you’re working towards a big goal, your schedule and commitment to regimen is the only sacred and non-compromisable area of your personal life, until you reach that D-day and H-hour and accomplish what you had in mind. So, ensure you communicate this with everyone in your life who supports you. But for the time being, put your goals first.

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Arseny Chernov

Head of Technical Program Management, Google Pay | Angel Investor | PDPA practitioner




Personal Productivity Well-being at Work 🤗 Balancing Personal & Professional Life