My wife signed up this week to run a half marathon in the spring. She invited me to sign up with her–which I seriously contemplated–at least for a couple of days. I even spent some time running on the track at the gym to see how my body would hold up to the punishment of pounding my feet against the ground (not well, in case you are interested). But as I thought about it, I started to remember the pain she went through last year as she prepared for what was then her first half marathon (The picture is of my wife, Angie (left), and her friend after finishing last year’s half-marathon.). At different times during training, she was icing her aching knees, hips and various other parts of her body. She was hurting. The training was grueling and at times, it didn’t seem like she was having a lot of fun. But, she did it. She ran her first half marathon in a time she was happy with. And I am incredibly proud of her.
I have always said since my college days, that running a marathon isn’t something I have any interest in doing. For one, my body isn’t designed to withstand the punishment that long distance running places on it. Thanks to my genetics, most of my joints are not designed well for any type of impact, which is why I’ve logged in what seems like a million hours on zero-impact elliptical machines. But despite that, I still seriously considered signing up for this marathon with my wife. Why?
Turns out, I love stretch assignments. For me, stretch assignments are big goals that I’m not sure I can accomplish when I set out. The reason I even contemplated signing up for the half marathon was that I’m not sure I could actually do it. I know that the process of trying to do it would force me to grow and do things I maybe didn’t think possible. Alas, I decided not to run the half marathon because the risk to my body was not worth it to me. But I am now on the path to identify a different stretch assignment in the arena of my physical health.
All of this got me thinking about the power of stretch assignments. These kinds of assignments and goals can be a little scary for both individuals and managers because they appear to have a lot of risk involved. But, the risk goes away if you truly believe these two things:
- Long term growth is more valuable than short term comfort.
- Failure isn’t permanent, it’s one of the best ways to learn and grow.
- Motivation. Taking on a stretch assignment that isn’t connected to something you care about is a recipe for disappointment. If I wasn’t serious about my health, I wouldn’t even consider a marathon because the struggle of the process would wear me down quickly and I would need the commitment to my health to power me through the tough times. The same is true if you are a leader who assigns others to stretch assignments. The best stretch assignments connect to the interests, passions or desires of an individual.
- Real possibility of failure. A legitimate stretch assignment is one where it’s almost as likely that you will fail as succeed. From a learning perspective, I always use this quote to remind me of the importance of failure in motivating learning: “The moment you become more serious about knowing how to swim is right before you are about to drown.” Feeling the breath of potential failure on your neck as it stands right behind you is a huge motivation. The higher the likelihood of failure, the more “stretch” will be involved and the more learning that is likely to occur.
- Discomfort. We don’t learn when we are comfortable. Comfortable means safety. Safety isn’t bad, but safety is the opposite of growth. In order to stimulate human growth requires getting uncomfortable. Feeling uninformed is uncomfortable. Feeling inadequate or under-skilled is uncomfortable. Feeling like you are going to be exposed for these things is really uncomfortable. And yet, that’s when our brains respond and our learning accelerates.
- Support. I’m not talking about a safety net kind of support, but rather the kind of support that will help you learn and process the situation as you go. Do you have mentors who can share wisdom with you? Do you have people who will lend you support? When my wife ran the marathon last year, she had a lot of support. One of her friends signed up to run it with her. They trained together. When one wanted to quit, the other would pull them through. She also had me to encourage her and make sure she had the time to train adequately. She had no safety nets, but she had support to help her along the way.