The Four-Minute Mile and what I learned from this intriguing story

We believe we can do it if it has been done before, but that is what I want you to move away from — and this story is proof

Photo by Isaac Wendland on Unsplash

Reading about Roger Bannister and the 4-minute mile sprint was strange, yet insightful. Strange because more than 1500 people had achieved this feat the last time I Googled the details. Insightful because there is so much more to it — bringing to the fore the notion about breaking mental barriers.

Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes on May 6, 1954. The second person to replicate this feat that was earlier perceived to be unconquerable did it 46 days apart. What changed? The genetics certainly didn’t. Now there was precedence and with it belief. When you see somebody do something, you have a higher confidence level of replicating that.

The enormity of a challenge in your head can sometimes weigh you down. You feel jaded, soon ready to succumb and assure your subconscious of the limits of your abilities. That does not bode well for a learning mind. Despite what you learn and build your skills in if you have already drawn a line in the sand about your peak, then you will not push yourself to figure out solutions to play on the other side of that line.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

What was truly intriguing about Roger’s feat was that he managed it in less than ideal conditions. When I read that light bulbs flashed in my mind. But how? What was the mentality? You would think that achieving something elusive requires all the things to fall into place and then some luck. That wasn’t the case here. Here is an excerpt from one of the articles I read on the subject:

“So the four-minute barrier stood for decades — and when it fell, the circumstances defied the confident predictions of the best minds in the sport. The experts believed they knew the precise conditions under which the mark would fall. It would have to be in perfect weather — 68 degrees and no wind. On a particular kind of track — hard, dry clay — and in front of a huge, boisterous crowd urging the runner on to his best-ever performance. But Bannister did it on a cold day, on a wet track, at a small meet in Oxford, England, before a crowd of just a few thousand people.”

The key phrase — “experts believed”. Experts get things wrong now and again, but you do have to side with the experts on this one. Weather and track conditions bear huge significance for athletes, yet everything was defied here. In addition to this, I couldn’t quite comprehend the sheer confidence that Roger would try to beat that mark in less than perfect conditions. I mention confidence, some would say delusion or arrogance even.

This wasn’t the main thing I learned from the piece though. Roger wasn’t an athlete in the conventional sense. Rather, he was “a full-time student who had little use for coaches and devised his own system for preparing to race”. As someone who is a huge proponent of innovation, underdogs, and multidisciplinary thinking, this was another light bulb moment. In society, when you are getting the advice, you often look at credentials. “Why should I listen to you” is often the line in anyone’s head before heeding advice. Roger’s feat then becomes a perfect example of why that phenomenon is hurting our world more than we know. We need solutions to world problems and the “experts” have been trying to come up with answers for some of them for a long time now. With all due respect, think about the singular way in which we answer to global pandemics — through a vaccine that has a long lead time. Could we incorporate more multidisciplinary research to help? The article convinced me — yes. Roger wasn’t a big athlete in his mind. Near the end of his life, he was prouder of his achievements in healthcare rather than athletics.

Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

Are we missing out on people who can solve problems in a different field to what they are otherwise designated to be experts in? Even with the most innovative teams at say Apple, experts have cross-functional collaboration but there is no one from a minor in engineering and a major in architecture playing devil’s advocate to the engineering subject matter expert (SME) for instance. We haven’t opened ourselves to that — because it would just look ludicrous questioning the authority of experts in their field itself. You know what else seemed ludicrous — the thought of Roger Bannister who was a medical student, with his suboptimal training methods and without a world-renowned coach breaking the record of a mile in 4 minutes in less-than-ideal conditions.

Thinking about all this after reading the article culminated in me having a greater appreciation for my ability to experiment and try new things. Tarot card reading, stand-up comedy, scriptwriting, and lot many other things have taught me a lot. Having worked in multiple industries has done the same. After reading this article, I introspected these things further and understood more about the unique way that I could build processes, solutions, products, teams, companies, etc. by leaning more on an unconventional approach centered around multidisciplinary thinking.

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Shubbankar Singh

Shubbankar Singh

Connecting things to scale value for others | Write on AI, SaaS, 5G, startups, entrepreneurship, innovation, product management and mental health