If there’s one concept that keeps getting reinforced for me over and over again it’s that I do my best when I do things that are challenging.  It means exploring unknown territory.  It means doing things where there’s often a risk of failure.  It means also believing in yourself that anything is possible, and that you learn more by taking risks and failing than never having tried at all.

This weekend, I participated in Disney’s Princess Half-marathon.  Going into the race, I had not done as much distance work as I should have, and I was seriously concerned that I was going to be scooped up off the course for exceeding the time limits.  My attitude was less one of “I know I can do this” but more one of “Well, what choice do I have now?  I’ve backed myself into this corner and I have to do it.”  I could have opted out.  I could have complained about the cold, or feigned a pulled muscle, or any other reasonable sounding excuse- but I would have always known it was just that- an excuse, a rationalization for not taking the risks, for not facing the fear of failure.   And as I looked what I thought was a very realistic risk of failing in the face, I decided that even if I did fail, I certainly would learn something from the process, and then I would do better next time.

Much to my surprise, I finished the race and felt better afterwards, physically, than I did after the Philly Half-marathon.  I wish I had done a few things better, both in training and during the race itself, but I learned alot about myself during this process, including:

-Determination to get through will carry you farther than you think;

-The fear of humiliation is a very strong motivator;

-Preparation, even a little bit, is better than none at all;

-Experience matters, and the more experience you have, the smarter you get about things;

-Knowing yourself- your strengths and weaknesses- and being honest with yourself about them will help you come to terms with them, and help you move forward, whatever the task might be.

Having met my goal to finish the race, and to beat my Philly time leaves me feeling like I met my goal, but I want to do better next time- not skate by, but truly push the envelope towards not just passing, but excelling.  I’m not saying I’m looking to win a half marathon any time soon, but I know I need goals and expectations that are personally meaningful and go behind simple pass/fail metrics.  Pass/fail is okay, but somehow, the pass is less satisfying if you feel you got by by the skin of your teeth.

Translate all of this into the business world, and it means exploring new pathways and taking on challenges where success might not be guaranteed.  It means expecting and delivering more.  It means finding a balance between work and play, but maintaining a focus about the big picture as well.

While physical challenges are easy metrics to talk about, intellectual challenges are not always as easy to discuss.  When was the last time you attended a conference or meeting that was foreign to your field?  Unconferences are great for this- the synergy of people from different fiields and interests.  And there are professional conferences, like the famed South by Southwest Interactive and the upcoming Social Media Plus Summit in Philadelphia, where the power is not only in the information shared, but in the people you meet who are not necessarily just like you.  (Disclosure- I am speaking at the Summit)

As part of this past week’s trip, I attended the Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics (APGO) conference, to help present our pilot project producing educational podcasts for OB GYN residents.  Sitting in a room full of largely doctors and nurses involved in the training of new physicians gave me some insight not only into the challenges faced in health care, but how limiting vertical-only conferences can be.  (I’ll write more about this on another post.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issues facing education of new doctors are the same ones facing educators in k-12 or college education.  There are issues of multitasking, of focus, of engaging the students, and even about what evaluation methods are most appropriate.  There are issues of what constitutes a pass and when should people be passed along with the equivalent of a gentleman’s C and when should there be a stricter pass/fail metric, especially when the lives of patients are ultimately at stake.

While this may seem more extreme than a kid flunking algebra, I’d argue that if a kid cannot pass, we need to take a look at why not and how to help that person become competent, assuming they want to reach that goal as well.  The life of that eighth or ninth grader, in terms of their self-view and whether or not they have the skills they need to be competent as an adult may be at stake every bit as the health of you or your mom or sister if your doctor is skating by with a “pass only” mentality through their training.

Motivating people to succeed means getting them to understand the concept of challenge and that failure and risk of failure is actually not something to fear, but is actually a learning opportunity- it provides you with more information about how you can do better the next time.  All A plusses all the time means you’re not being challenged enough.  There’s nowhere to go, to improve- and that means it’s time to move on.  And it means that there’s a real risk of getting intellectually lazy- if you never face failure, you never face any fear, and you never have a chance to grow.

I’m embracing challenge and taking risks both intellectually and physically, because I need to know my limits and how I can do better every day.  What about you?