When Kenyan runner Wilson Kipsang won the New York City Marathon earlier this month, with a time of 2 hours 10 minutes 59 seconds, it revived conversation about why so many Kenyans are so successful in the world of competitive running.
It’s certainly not because they have better trainers and equipment than runners from other parts of the world, said Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology who studies the evolution of running in general and Kenyan runners specifically. “Aspiring runners in Kenya get no goo, no gel, no sports drinks. They have no trainers or sports medicine experts,” he told NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
In the part of the country where many of Kenya’s best runners come from, many people are poor and work hard, Lieberman explained. “There are almost no jobs apart from subsistence farming. There are no factories, and very few secondary schools. So there are really few options for young people to better their lives. They can either work hard on a farm or train to be a great runner. So aspiring runners work really, really hard when they train.”
I’m not a scientist or a sports expert, but I believe it’s the adversity and limited options in Kenya that make so many people hungry for success and drive their hard work toward it. It’s what I experienced — albeit in a less-extreme form — in my trip from unknown high school athlete to Division I college tennis player.
In high school I didn’t always have a coach or professional by my side telling me what to do. I had to figure things out on my own — often while playing on a busted-ass court.
When you’re playing on a pristine tennis court, you know exactly how the ball’s going to bounce, where you need to be and what you need to do to return it. On lesser courts, you never know what you’re going to get, so you have to be reactionary and ready go in whatever direction the ball bounces. You’re constantly challenged and you learn to think, react and move faster.
People Need Less Than They Think
Conventional wisdom would suggest the athletes who have the best coaches, facilities and equipment would be the most successful, but that’s often not how it works. Often, the best athletes are the ones who train and work through adversity. The reason: People need less than they think.
We’re really resourceful as humans. When we don’t have all the resources we think we need to do things “right,” we’re forced to think and work harder — and often achieve better results. That’s where the term “growth hacking” comes from — the idea of challenging yourself to do more with less. And, that’s why you often see more enthusiasm and productivity at striving startups than at well-funded, established organizations.
Certainly employees need information and resources to do their jobs, but they may not need as many as they receive at larger organizations. If you’re a leader at such an organization and are struggling to find ways to motivate your employees and inspire them to be more productive and innovative, it might be time to ask whether your company is too cushy to inspire great work.
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