You Can't Sprint a Marathon

My first day on the job as a consultant in a boutique Fortune 500 tech consulting firm went like this. I took the 6am flight from Portland to Houston, arrived at work groggy but got right down to business. The day flew by. Dinner time came and went and by 8pm I was getting pretty hungry.

I asked a colleague "what time are we leaving for dinner?" I knew as a consulting firm we tended to work later than normal business hours, until after our client counterparts had gone home. My colleague told me we had a meeting scheduled in the conference room at 9pm, and that we'd be eating takeout during the session. After the meeting, we all went back to our desks and kept working until 11:30pm or so.

As we walked to a taxi to head back to the hotel, one of our co-workers phoned ahead to the hotel bar. The bar closed at midnight and he wanted to make sure we could all get a round of drinks before they closed.

And so, my first day of work on this project ended after midnight in a closed hotel bar, hurriedly drinking a cocktail before the staff kicked us out.

If this had been a rare occasion where we needed to hustle to meet a deadline, I would have enjoyed the effort and remembered the crazy day as a special situation.

But this wasn't a one-time hustle, it was a normal day.

The next day, I found out this was simply how we worked every day, from 9am to midnight, with lunch and dinner at our desks and a cocktail just as the hotel bar was closing. Wake up and repeat, like Groundhog’s Day.

This went on for nearly a year. People burned out, the project missed major deadlines, and everyone hated the client and our company for making us work like that. Many people quit. I nearly lost my shit on a weekly basis.

It might seem obvious that a schedule like this isn't sustainable, or healthy, or even particularly productive, yet this kind of insanity is exactly the kind of "hustle" plenty of well known entrepreneurs and social media stars tell you is essential to success. And to prove it, they post instagram photos and videos of 6am workouts and 10pm business meetings, with everything looking perfect in-between, day after day.

But that's bullshit. You can't sprint a marathon. "Success" (whatever that means to you) isn't a 100-yard dash, it's a long distance event.

That’s the problem with the word “hustle.” It used to mean a short-term hurried activity. Now it’s supposedly the required daily state of being.

Don’t fall for it. Life isn’t a rap video. You don’t get ahead by sacrificing your sleep, health, relationships and sanity to squeeze more work hours into the day. You burn out. Trust me, I’ve done it more than once and it always backfires.

And there’s a second trap here too. If you’ve accepted that hustle is essential to success, that means you’ve also accepted someone else’s definition of success, which probably leads to some big future money, accomplishment or fame (and most likely a vaguely defined combination of all three).

But is that really your definition of success? Is that really the point of life, to hustle through month after month, year after year, working for some magical “some day” where it all happens? Hardly. Life is a picture, but you live in a pixel. It’s a musical thing, and you’re supposed to sing or dance while the music is being played.

Here’s the ironic thing about that consulting firm I worked for. During public quarterly financial calls, the CEO used to famously give perspective on our company performance by saying “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” The company was supposed to be running a marathon, but everyone inside it was sprinting. No surprise, we missed our growth milestones by a mile.

The next time you feel like sprinting, by all means, sprint. But don't believe anyone who says you should be sprinting all the time. Pace yourself instead and remember to sing and dance along the way.

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Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I’ve been writing here since 2009. Join my email list for new articles about supporting yourself doing something you love: