How to be badass at whatever you desire: Two case studies

I like to think that more than anything in life, I’m a fairly aware observer of human behavior, potential and the things that help or limit individual success. I openly admit that I’m much better at observation than I am at implementing the concepts I consistently see that lead to success. That discussion is a whole different conversation, but when I have been able to harness my energy and focus; personal success has generally been achievable. Those successes have come in many different areas of life.

When I don’t have focus or desire, then generally things get put on auto pilot – and well, you get what you get when you leave life’s directional trajectory up to the fate of chance.

There is an interesting debate going on within my learning lately that I wanted to share that relates to being really good. The debate is essentially the Tim Ferriss vs. Malcolm Gladwell debate. In the book Outliers, Gladwell suggested the idea of the 10,000 hours rule. To paraphrase the idea, it says that to be good at something you need to “practice, practice, practice”. He suggests that there is something about spending 10,000 hours practicing that begins to really allow someone to be proficient. In comparison, you have the Tim Ferriss concept that suggests what you really need to do is break down what you want to do well, identify where your time is most optimally spent that brings the most gains, then focus your efforts. Ferriss would argue that you can become world class at something in much less time, to which he repeatedly highlights his tango dancing improvements and success.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Are they opposing concepts? I don’t know if I can answer that question for you today, but I will share a couple personal observations of two people around me as potential case studies.

Who are these two badass individuals?

As I was trying to cross reference these concepts against my personal life experiences, I wasn’t having a lot satisfaction with the answers. What I decided was that all of these examples were too personal and I needed to look at a couple people that when I stepped back and looked, I wanted to attain their level of badassness (spell check says that is not a word?).

The two cases are easy to pinpoint for me: Nikki (my wife for the uninformed) is a badass on the bike. It seems almost unfair how this happened so quickly. Jeff Buhr has become a badass runner and triathlete, which I have seen developing over time.

Nikki’s Story

I shared the uptick in Nikki’s racing life last year after it became apparent that she had a desire, talent and ability to race bikes. (Post here: How I almost destroyed a very good endurance athlete)

Thinking back on it, I believe that the real observation that she had some potential happened at the triathlon national championships in 2010. I remember reading the race results multiple times and trying to figure out how she crushed the bike. Was it because she had optimized her cycling setup (via Alan Hawes input and support), or was it a ‘magical’ day (although I don’t believe there’s such a thing as magic in sports performance!); what was it?

Here are my observations:

1. She’s been training to have the fitness for cycling her entire life. She did both swimming and gymnastics at a pretty high and competitive level for a long time. The aerobic development from swimming, along with the absolute power that is required in gymnastics are both useful qualities for a cyclist. This is especially true when you look at the criterium races, which are what I think she enjoys the most (could be wrong).

This might support the Gladwell concept, as Nikki wouldn’t be as badass if she didn’t have those thousands of hours of training growing up.

2. When she started racing bikes she got the ‘crash course’ on how to actually race a bike. She initially started riding with the local cycling club and right away one of the more experienced female cyclists started teaching her the finer points of the sport of cycling. These lessons were invaluable to her development.

It’s almost comical when I think back to the first ride she and I did together in 2004 – I swore I would never ride with her again because I didn’t want to see her die. Today, I don’t ride with her because I don’t want to die (and truly can’t keep up anymore).

With those understandings, she didn’t stop. The next step was joining a cycling team and narrowing in her focus on the aspects that mattered most when it comes to racing. Not only learning the lessons but racing every single weekend at least once, if not twice, has accelerated her racing.

This might support Ferriss’ concepts, as what accelerated her racing was a high level focus on racing details. If all she did was go out and put in hours on the bike, she wouldn’t be as good of a racer today. She identified her weakness and learned what the best racers did. In fact, with her requirements in PA school she’s lacked the time to put in the hours on the bike she would like and some weeks racing is all she gets in.

Jeff’s Story

When we started hanging out 10 years ago it was primarily as part of the University of Kentucky’s triathlon club. From my knowledge, in May of 2003, he had not yet done a triathlon – he was just getting started. (Jeff can correct me if I’m wrong). That year was one of my favorite years of triathlon that I’ve had in the sport. He, Beth and Eric Atnip, Tyson Carroll and I spent quite a bit of time going to races. There were other members of the club like Chris Parks and Josh Axe that also did races (Dave Kuendig was off doing bigger and better triathlon things), but I remember sharing hotels and car pools with Jeff more commonly.

Not only did we have shared experiences going to the races, but Jeff and I ended up having a fairly healthy competitive season. I remember killing myself to keep him off me during the run in Chatanooga all the way to the finish line, then learning about my 2 minute penalty which moved him ahead in the standings (a well deserved penalty I will add… the one and only time, but it’s good to know the rules). I don’t recall what happened at the Louisville Tri-America race that year, as all I remember from that race was Chris Parks 10 feet ahead of me for almost the entire race.

That season ended with the Pigman Half Iron distance race, which was mostly sucked. It was an especially difficult race for Jeff, as I remember.

When you look at that season and Jeff’s ability in triathlon and in running, with races like the Bluegrass 10k you could say that he was above average within the age group ranks; but I think we’d both admit that overall we were not in the same zip code of “elite”.

The next few years were gradual improvements for the both of us, but he was more consistent then I in both cycling and swimming. In 2007, we paired up to do the Triple T in Ohio and it was clear that he was a stronger triathlete. Throughout the year it was clear that he was a better athlete than I, but at Ironman Wisconsin I was able to sneak out a 2 minute faster race (again running the last 8 miles in pure fear).

This is where Jeff’s story takes a very big turn…..

Through the first 4 and maybe 5 years of his triathlon adventure, Jeff was somewhat regular with his training. He wasn’t all that focused on the end game of his racing, other than to compete and do fun things. At some point in the 2008/2009 time-frame I observed a few things:

1. He became focused on one thing, getting fast. The only exception to this was when he trained for a month or so to go sub 3 hours at the Rocket City Marathon in 2008. Other than that most of his focus was on getting faster. He did the things necessary to get fast in the pool, he got faster on the bike, he got a lot faster on the run (in 2003 we ran a 37 min 10k, this year he just ran a 32 min 10k and won the Triple Crown of road racing in Louisville, Kentucky).

In a somewhat loose relationship, I can see how this might support Ferriss’ argument. He cut out all the things that were not helping him get faster, specifically all the long run training, ultra endurance training needed for Ironman, etc. He focused on the key components and filtered out the rest.

2. He is consistent as anyone I’ve seen over the last 5 or 6 years. He actually wrote a blog post about this himself recently, you can read that here. He is so consistent that even though I never train with him any more, I can tell you what his training schedule is with a reasonable amount of accuracy.

The training schedule he keeps isn’t what he has done for the last 6 weeks or 6 months, he’s done this for the last 6 years with a little variation; but not a lot.

The result is one incredibly impressive badass improvement.

This observation that I’ve had, along with the one that he had himself would support Gladwells concept.

One thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed is that not only has Jeff’s training been consistent, but as a friend and observer from afar; many things are consistent. He doesn’t have big detachments from his normal in work life, family life, nutrition/diet, sleep patterns, body weight or most things I observe.

So how do you become a badass?

Here are at least a couple principles that I walk away with as I look the two examples:

1. Be focused on exactly what you want to accomplish. If you are not sure what you ultimately want to achieve, you are going to waste a lot of time on things that just don’t matter.

2. Be passionate about what you are doing. It’s simply impossible to become truly badass at something when you have to fake enthusiasm.

3. Be consistent. It can be difficult to achieve great things when you are constantly starting and stopping and trying to start again. Keep momentum moving forward even if the ‘optimal’ is not currently possible.

4. Spend the largest amount of time you have available on the things that give you the biggest return. Think about this as scoring ‘easy wins’ on the pathway to your goals.

5. Choose something that you have proven potential that can be unleashed. Honest assessment is a part of this process, as the book Good to Great suggests from a business perspective; if you can’t be number one in the world, find something else. Maybe you don’t need ‘best in the world’ potential, but starting with a stacked deck doesn’t hurt.

So… who was right, Gladwell or Ferriss? To be a real badass, my observation is that they both have a bit of truth.

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