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The first four minutes: the growth mindset of entrepreneurs

May 2, 2017

It’s 63 years ago – 6 May 1954 – that Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. Inspired by Sydney Wooderson, who set the British record set at 4 minutes 4.2 seconds on 9 September 1945, Bannister started his running career in the autumn of 1946.

He had never previously worn running spikes or run on a track, but he showed promise in running a mile in 1947 in 4 minutes 24.6 seconds on only three weekly half-hour training sessions. He was selected as an Olympic possible in 1948 but declined as he felt he was not ready to compete.

Over the next few years, improving but chastened by this lack of success, Bannister started to train more seriously. In 1951, Bannister ran 4 minutes 8.3 seconds, then won a mile race on 14 July in 4 minutes 7.8 seconds at the AAA Championships before 47,000 people.

After failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister set himself a new goal: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.  On 2 May 1953, he ran 4 minutes 3.6 seconds, shattering Wooderson’s 1945 standard. This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach, said Bannister.

Other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close, notably American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy, who ran 4 minutes 2.0 seconds. Bannister had been following Landy’s attempts and was certain his Australian rival would succeed. Bannister knew he had to make his bid.

6 May 1954. Aged 25, Bannister had begun his day at a hospital in London as a junior doctor, where he sharpened his racing spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they would not pick up too much cinder ash. He took a mid-morning train from Paddington to Oxford, nervous about the rainy, windy conditions that afternoon

With winds up to 25mph, Bannister said that he favoured not running, and would try again at another meet. Just before the start, he looked across at a church in the distance and noticed the flag of St George was moving but starting to slow. The wind died. The conditions were far from perfect, but Bannister knew at least one obstacle had been eased. As the run began, the conditions did worsen, with a crosswind growing, but by then Bannister was in his stride.

The race went off as scheduled at 6pm with Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher providing the pacing. Brasher led for the first two laps, Bannister stayed close and then as the race reached lap three, Chataway came through to maintain the pace. The time at three-quarters was 3 minutes 0.5 seconds but Bannister knew he had to bide his time.

Bannister began his last lap, needing to run it in 59 seconds. Chataway continued to lead around the front turn until Bannister began his finishing kick with about 275 yards to go (just over a half-lap). He flew past Chataway onto the last straight and threw everything at the challenge ahead, his tall, powerful style driving him on. Could he do it? He knew this was it. The world stood still. It was just him and the track. He was being carried by history.

The announcement came. The announcer excited the crowd by delaying the proclamation of the time Bannister ran as long as possible:

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which – subject to ratification – will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement.

Bannister’s time was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He’d done it. He’d broken the world record. He’d done what so many believed was impossible. But Bannister’s record only lasted 46 days, Landy beat his time on 21 June in Turku, Finland, with a time of 3 minutes 57.9 seconds. Bannister went on to win the 1,500m at the 1954 European Championships with a record in a time of 3 minutes 43.8 seconds. He then retired from athletics to concentrate on his work as a junior doctor and to pursue a career in neurology.

It was doubted that a man could break the four-minute barrier for the mile. Experts said for years that the human body was simply not capable of a 4-minute mile. It wasn’t just dangerous; it was impossible. Perhaps the human body had reached its limit.

As part of his training, Bannister relentlessly visualised the achievement in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body. It took a sense of extreme certainty for Bannister to do what was considered un-doable. He alone was able to create that certainty in himself without seeing any proof that it could be done.

Once he crashed through that barrier, the rest of the world saw that it was possible, and the previous record that had stood for nine years was broken routinely – 24 people broke the 4-minute mark within a year of Bannister.

Once Bannister proved that once you stop believing something is impossible, it becomes possible. He decided to change things. He refused to settle. When no one believed his goals were possible. When his competitors were hot on his heels, he picked up his pace. He took things into his own hands, and decided to tell a better story. And in doing so – he did the impossible.

Bannister undoubtedly had a growth mindset, now an established learning theory from the work of Carol Dweck whose research-based model showed the impact of mindsets. She unpacked how a person’s mindset sets the stage for either performance goals or learning goals.

A person with a performance goal might be worried about looking smart all the time, and avoid challenging work. On the other hand, a person with a learning goal will pursue interesting and challenging tasks in order to learn more.

Dweck became interested in people’s attitudes about failure. Dweck noticed that some people rebounded while others seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behaviour of thousands, Dweck coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’ to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and ability. When people believe they can get improve, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.

Bannister’s achievements support Dweck’s model of the fixed versus growth mindset shows how one’s beliefs about your own underlying potential impacts actual achievement. At the same time, neuroscience discoveries were gaining traction, researchers began to understand the link between mindsets and achievement. It turns out, if you believe your brain can grow, you behave differently.

Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.

What’s the best way to get started with your growth mindset development? One way is to identify where you may have fixed mindset tendencies so that you can work to become more growth minded. We all live upon a continuum, and consistent self-assessment helps us become the person we want to be.

For some people, failure is the end of the world, but for others, it’s this exciting new opportunity. Instead of focusing on output, which can be seen as emblematic of a fixed mindset, think about the effort needed to improve. Thus the takeaway is it’s not the most talented, but those willing to keep going and overcome barriers that enjoy more success. Hard work brings results.

The boom and bust nature of startups often results in entrepreneurs being viewed simplistically as successes or failures based on the outcome of their startups. However, the real key to success is mindset, which allows entrepreneurship to be viewed as a journey rather than a distinct outcome.

Fixed mindsets attribute failure to a lack of innate ability, get beaten down by it and become much more risk averse and self-conscious. On the other hand, entrepreneurs with growth mindsets are better suited for the startup rollercoaster ride, as they learn from their experiences and don’t attribute failure to a fixed trait.

This leads them to be able to analyse problems more deeply and bounce back more effectively. In a growth mindset, there is a lot of truth in the saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It also happens to make you smarter.

Perennially innovative companies like Tesla, Apple and Amazon are distinguished by a learning culture that fosters curiosity, innovation and encourages risk taking. They realise that learning generates its own unpredictable rewards, rewards you will miss if you aim only at specific, measurable goals and disregard the roles of effort.

As a growth-mindset entrepreneur, your success is an incremental aggregate of many little ideas. Every new positive or negative data point should raise more questions. Why did customers like this product so much? Was this luck? The growth mindset engenders continuous innovation and improvement even in the face of success.

So, how do you cultivate a growth mindset?

1. Don’t be defined by what you already know rather identify with your current learning, have a learning path defined, have an appetite to learn and enjoy the learning process itself. Embrace the iterations of steps backward as much as the steps forward.

2. Enjoy lessons learned for what they are don’t focus just on the outcomes, no matter how significant they maybe. Instead, recognise milestones by learning from the effort it took to achieve them. Success and failure are both by-products of the learning journey and offer valuable lessons.

3. Don’t be self-defining fixed-mindset entrepreneurs are self-defined by their results. Growth-mindset entrepreneurs are never self-defining, rather they embrace the journey and trust results will follow. Growth mindset entrepreneurs show long-term resilience, repeated innovation and the necessary drive for future enduring success.

4. Hear the voice of a growth mindset entrepreneur in your head – challenges are exciting rather than threatening, here’s a chance to grow, think the growth potential in following this opportunity, even if it’s out of your comfort zone – just like the example of Bannister.

5. Focus on the process you can learn from the processes and improve for the next time. Don’t let yourself sink into fixed mindset thinking, worrying about a challenge, a setback, or a bad outcome, focus on how to improve the process so next time out the outcome may be different.

Many successful people, including Einstein and Edison, said they learned more from their failures than from their successes, many of their breakthroughs came after a number of failures that provided learning experiences.

The more we are organised around stretching and growing, and being comfortable with confusion and setbacks, the more we are going to create growth mindsets.

Your future only exists in your own mind. To own your future, you must always be taking steps to grow and make the future bigger than your past, always looking ahead at what’s possible. Having a bigger future is not about how much time you have left, it’s about what you do with that time.

Always maximise the value of your past as you move forward, and know that your past won’t become useful until you’re committed to having a future that’s even bigger. Like Bannister, I always expect the life ahead of me to be much bigger, more exciting, more motivating, more engaging, and more fascinating than anything I’ve achieved before.

Each of us needs to believe that within us is a sub-four-minute mile performance, where we cast aside all self-doubt  of the little voices in our head and refute the naysayers.

The first sub-four minute mile could have belonged to someone else, but Bannister wanted it more, he had a growth mindset. Three minutes and 59.4 seconds that changed history. Few other sporting moments have been crystallised in a nation’s memory in the same way as the first sub-four-minute mile. It’s still special too – more people have climbed Everest than run a sub-four-minute mile.

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