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What A Former McKinsey Consultant and An Elite Runner Want You To Know About Burnout

By Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

In the summer of 2003, a precocious 18-year-old sat nervously on a grass field flanked by eight lanes of a warmup track, awaiting the final call to the starting line. This wasn’t your ordinary high school track meet, or even a state championship; this was the Prefontaine Classic, the crown jewel of track-and-field. A few days earlier, the same 18-year-old was sitting in his physics class thinking about his high school crush, Amanda. Now, he was sitting amidst the best runners in the world, wondering how he’d measure up in the sport’s preeminent event — the mile.
 
As he watched stars such as Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat execute their intricate pre-race rituals, he tried to distract himself by playing his Game Boy; he stuck out like a sore thumb. A few long minutes later, when the athletes were summoned from the warmup area to the starting line, he was forced to leave the comfort of the video game Super Mario Bros. In a futile attempt to stay calm while entering the packed Hayward Field, located on the campus of the University of Oregon — a running mecca if there ever was one — he kept repeating the mantra, “Don’t look up, don’t look up.” The top of his head, not his face, was broadcast across the country, live on NBC. Before he could process that he was lining up next to Kevin Sullivan, who had placed fifth at the previous Olympics, his name was suddenly belted out over the loud speaker. Any illusion of calm was shattered. A wave of anxiety coursed through his body. Whatever little food was in his stomach rose into his chest. “Shit. Here we go,” he thought, as the starter raised his gun. “Just don’t puke.”
 
Four minutes and 1 second later, it was all over. In that short time, he had become the sixth fastest high school miler in the history of the United States, the then-fastest high school miler in the country, and the fifth fastest junior in the world. He had gone toe-to-toe with collegiate superstar Alan Webb, who had a 3:53 mile to his credit and who would eventually set the American record of 3:46. He finished within arm’s reach of Olympian Michael Stember and passed the then–US mile champion Seneca Lassiter, who promptly dropped out of the race after the high school kid left him in the dust on the final lap. In other words, he had officially become a teenage prodigy.
 
Even so, the disappointment that came with finishing just shy of the sport’s magical 4-minute mile was evident. When the official results were announced, the NBC broadcast showed a wiry, completely depleted kid, hands covering his face. As the initial flood of emotion wore off, however, he couldn’t help but revel in a bit of hard-earned contentedness. He thought to himself, “I’m 18 years old and running in the biggest professional meet in the country; breaking 4 minutes will soon be an afterthought.”
 
NBC’s color commentators were cooing over the performance of the high school kid. “You got to say something about a kid who can stay that disciplined,” they remarked. If only they knew.

Reaching this level of performance demanded more than just talent and hard work. Ask those who knew him and a single descriptor invariably came to mind: obsessive. It was the only word that fit. Friends and family repeated this word so often that it could have easily been dismissed as trite and cliche. Except it wasn’t.

His days were a monotonous pursuit of excellence. Wake up at 6 a.m., head out the door for a 9-mile run, go to school, lift weights, and then run another 9 miles at 6 p.m. In order to avoid injury and illness, he adhered to a rigid diet and religiously went to bed hours before his peers. His life was an exercise in willpower and self-control.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

He insisted on sticking to his training plan always, even if that meant running 100 miles during a week-long cruise vacation — circling the 160-meter track on the top deck until not fatigue but dizziness stopped him. He ran through tropical storms, summer heat advisories, and family emergencies. No natural or human disaster could prevent him from getting a workout in. One more example of his obsession manifested itself in his love life, or lack thereof. Apologies are long overdue for the unfortunate girlfriend with whom he cut things off simply because his racing had gone south during their courtship, even though she, of course, had nothing to do with it. His obsession surfaced every weekend when he regularly chose his 10 p.m. bedtime over parties and opportunities to meet girls. In other words, he was far from your average high school boy, but then again, average high school boys don’t run 4-minute miles. He had the rage to master: an unending, unrelenting resolve to do everything he could to reach his goals. And it was paying off.
 
He was one of the fastest documented 18-year-olds on the planet and one of the fastest high school runners in the history of the sport. He received recruiting letters from nearly every university in the country, ranging from athletic powerhouses like Oregon to bastions of academic prowess like Harvard. His dreams were filled with Olympic rings, medals, and thoughts of conquering the world. And they were all realistic.
 
A few years later, across the country in Washington, DC, a young man was preparing for his first day at a new job. He hurried out the door after his usual morning hygiene routine — brush teeth, shave, shower, get dressed, and go — a routine he’d condensed into 12 minutes. His morning routine hadn’t always been such a sprint. But after 2 years of working at the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he’d applied to his own life the uncanny efficiency that he’d helped Fortune 500 companies achieve. No waste. No downtime. Completely streamlined. The sole pitfall of his uber-efficient mornings was that it caused him to sweat, which was only exacerbated by a tight-fitting suit and the thick humidity of summer in Washington, DC.
 
A single thought dominated the first 10 minutes of his walk to work: stop sweating. He wasn’t accustomed to the suit, which was a step up in dress code required by the new job. He’d have to alter his morning routine: either build in more time or lower the water temperature in the shower. Maybe both. He was good at this kind of analytical thinking. In the months prior, he built a model that projected the economic impact of United States health care reform, a sweeping and messy legislation that would shake up multiple industries. His model had made its way around the Beltway, and experts, most of whom were twice his age, agreed it was pretty damn good. It undoubtedly helped him land his new gig.
 
When he turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, however, his thoughts shifted away from which variable of his morning routine he’d alter first. “Holy shit,” he thought, “this is awesome,” as he arrived at number 1600, the White House. There, he’d be working for the prestigious National Economic Council, helping to advise the president of the United States on health care.
 
Like most exceptional performers, this young professional’s journey to the White House was rooted in a combination of good DNA and hard work. He scored highly on an early childhood IQ test, but not off the charts: His verbal intelligence was exceptional, but his mathematical ability and spatial skills were quite ordinary, if that. He worked his ass off in school, regularly choosing to immerse himself in philosophy, economics, and psychology rather than in booze and parties. Though he was good enough to play small-school collegiate football, he instead chose to attend the University of Michigan and focus singularly on academics.
 
His scholarly success attracted recruiters from the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company. At McKinsey, he quickly earned a reputation as a top performer. In whatever time remained at the end of his 70-plus hour workweeks, he practiced his presentation skills and read the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and countless economics books. His friends often joked that he was “anti-fun.” No doubt he was grinding, but he was enjoying it, too.
 
His performance at McKinsey soared on an upward trajectory, and he got staffed on increasingly high-profile projects: It wasn’t long before he was counseling the CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies. That’s when, in the winter of 2010, he was asked to build the previously mentioned model that would forecast the effects of United States health care reform, a herculean task. Imagine being confronted with 50 variables, all of which interact with one another and none of which is certain, and then being asked: “Tell us what is going to happen, and do it on this spreadsheet.”

He dug in and worked harder than ever before. If he wasn’t losing sleep because he was working, he was losing sleep because he was anxious that he wasn’t working. His hands and feet constantly felt cold. Doctors told him it was stress, though they couldn’t be certain; his visits were all conducted via phone — there was no way he had time for an actual appointment during normal business hours.
 
But he got the work done, and the model worked. It was effective and elegant. Insurance companies and hospitals all over the country used it. As a matter of fact, it worked so well that the White House called and asked if he would help them implement the law. He’d be a few reports away from the president. His friends who once joked he was “anti-fun” now joked that he might run the country one day. In this fast-paced world of high-stakes problem solving, he was a rising star. He was a few months shy of his 24th birthday.
 
By now you may be wondering: Who are these people, and how can I emulate their success? But that’s not the story we’re here to tell. The high school running phenom never ran a step faster than he did that summer day at the Prefontaine Classic. And the young-gun consultant didn’t go on to run for office or make partner at an esteemed firm. As a matter of fact, he left the White House and hasn’t received a promotion since. Both runner and consultant shined extremely bright, only to see their performance plateau, their health suffer, and their satisfaction wane.
 
These stories aren’t unique. They happen everywhere and can happen to anyone. Including us. We, the authors of this book, are the runner (Steve) and the consultant (Brad).
 
We met a couple years after we had both burnt out, and as we shared our stories over a few beers, we realized they were quite similar. At the time, we were both beginning our second lives: Steve as a performance scientist and budding coach of endurance athletes, and Brad as an emerging writer. Both of us were embarking on new journeys, and we couldn’t help but wonder: Could we reach the highest levels of performance without repeating our previous failings?
 
What started out as a two-person support group morphed into a close friendship founded upon a shared interest in the science of performance. We became curious: Is healthy, sustainable peak performance possible? If so, how? What’s the secret? What, if any, are the principles underlying great performance? How can people like us — which is to say, just about anyone — adopt them?
 
Consumed by these questions, we did what any scientist and journalist would do. We scoured the literature and spoke with countless great performers across various capabilities and domains — from mathematicians to scientists to artists to athletes — in search of answers. And like so many other reckless ideas conceived over a few glasses of alcohol, this book was born.
 
We can’t guarantee that reading this book will set you on a path to winning Olympic gold, painting the next masterpiece, or breaking ground in mathematical theory. Genetics play an unfortunately undeniable role in all of those things. What we can guarantee, however, is that reading this book will help you nurture your nature so that you can maximize your potential in a healthy and sustainable way.
 
We’ll show you how strengthening your ability to solve complex cognitive problems is similar to strengthening your ability to lift weights — that the world’s best thinkers and the world’s best powerlifters follow the same processes to elicit growth. We’ll investigate the influence of routine and environment, and explain how and why the pregame warmups of all-star athletes, artists, and public speakers are so alike and so effective. We’ll even discuss fashion, and use science to explain why the geniuses of yesterday, such as Albert Einstein, and the geniuses of today, such as Mark Zuckerberg, don’t care much about it. We’ll explore why after they achieve breakthroughs — be it painting a masterpiece, penning an award-winning novel, or setting a world record in sport — so many great performers often thank and attribute their success to forces beyond themselves: be it family, God, or some other transcendent power.
 
If we’ve done our job well, by the time you finish reading this book, you’ll thoroughly understand:

  • The scientific cycle behind growth and development
  • How to prime for peak performance and daily productivity
  • The power of purpose as a performance enhancer

Far more important, though, you’ll be able to use these concepts in your own pursuits, whatever those pursuits may be.

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