The Business of Running

January 31, 2007 — 13 Comments

I run 5 miles every night. It’s where I go to digest my day, hash out the multitude of information that’s been poured into me in the last wild six months or so, and to try and condense it down to some sort of cohesive strategy to live my life by.

Tonight, as I ran my laps, a familiar thing happened: someone tried to race me. A mile in, I came up on a runner as they entered the track, and made a move to pass him on the right. And like an asshole, he sped up.

It’s never your real competition that does this; it’s the mark of desperation. He was half my size, with a tiny, stuttered stride, and a form that burns stitches into your flesh. A real runner is out there for himself, and no one else. If it was about conflict, about proving superiority, you wouldn’t see them alone on the track at 4am, or on the streets in the pouring rain. I lace up my shoes each night because it’s precisely the opposite of what my body tells me it wants–that’s my motivation. So my pace is linear, rising steadily to the climax, not sporadic like a Richter scale. Running is like golf in the sense that it’s a continuous battle for control of your emotions. When you let them get away from you, your performance suffers. The instinct, when you’re challenged, is to chase after them. But if you do, you’ve already lost.

Emerson said that “there is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.” It’s accepting the imposition of another’s will on the racetrack that is suicide. You run to define yourself, and when you allow a short term challenge to alter your pace and long term strategy, you’ve just been defined by someone else.

What I’ve learned–and it’s probably one of the few life lessons I picked up on my own–is that if you continue at the pace you set for yourself, 9 times out of 10 you walk away the winner. I’ve picked up on the fact that success in life begins itself internally and manifests itself externally. And the only way you can reach your destiny is to define and then commit everything to achieving it.

And as I kept a constant stride, his fluctuations induced heavy breathing and staggered steps. And as I stayed fluid and loose, he grew rigid and paranoid. He swerved erratically, refusing to concede the inside or outside of the track. His breathing was frantic–it’s not good for you to sprint in the middle of a long distance run. He’d glance over his shoulder constantly, checking my status, which was maddeningly consistent. There is nothing more discouraging for the runner ahead to find that each time he speeds up, seconds later you’re still on his heels.

***

This is the pitfall that big business makes when they see the rising tide of revolution. They quicken their stride, increase their pace with frantic, misguided energy, and entirely lose their focus. There is a reason that almost every war strategist warns against emulating the tactics of the opposition–you become an inferior copy of your enemy. Robert Greene talks about this too: When you’re being pursued, or knocked off balance, he says, the key is to stop and mentally re-center yourself–and whatever you do don’t continue to do the very thing that got you in trouble. That’s what they call the definition of insanity. Instead, you try a new approach, or fix what wasn’t working.

Again, with internet video, as YouTube breathes down the neck of the networks, we find them attempting to build competitors–to in a sense, become a cut-rate copy of their enemy. Instead, they ought to be focusing on their strengths, the nearly limitless resources, the superior content, priceless franchises and intellectual property. With the music industry, they think that DRM is the solution to the downloading problem. They devote countless hours and capital to staying one-step ahead of the pirates, only to see them catch up just a few weeks later. Newspapers see the success of Digg and want to make their own, when they ought to be using the rankings as a Nielson-like barometer to guide their coverage. Ultimately, media needs to stick with what they do best, set their own pace, and devote everything to keeping.

It’s not just the old media either. How many rip-offs do we see of TheSuperficial or WWTDD? How many of those sites work on growing organic traffic with original, unique content? None, they all steal from the big guys and spam like crazy. That was the saving grace of Calacanis’ Netscape. Sure, it was similar to Digg, but it wasn’t a short term sprint at the lead. It was, and is an attempt to develop a real community for a separate niche audience.

***

As we approached the third mile, our cycle continued. I'd catch up as I ran at the same speed until we were side-by-side, he would pick up the pace until he was a few strides ahead, and then, unable to maintain it, he'd fall right back in line with me. Of course, as I suspected all along, he made a quick push past me and exited the track to a walk. But I kept going, as I planned to the whole time--another 2 miles actually, and then 250 situps, stretching and a half-mile jog home.

In the short term, yeah I would have liked to have beaten him, just for the satisfaction. It was that one time out of ten that the strategy wasn't immediately gratifying. So when it comes down to it, whose works best--the one that's focused and self-motivated, or the one that's inherently chaotic and defined by its opposition?

***

Newspapers and television were here long before the Internet. And now the web comes in at a frantic pace, struggling to come into its own as it works to define itself, making it up as it goes along. The biggest mistake the old media could possibly make would be to attempt to match that--to step away from their strengths and try and compete with weaknesses. Yet, that is exactly what they are doing.

So what if Warner Brothers makes a bit of headway with some YouTube clone--all that means is they spent less time addressing the fact that their content has exponentially decreased in quality. People were drawn to the amateur videos on the Internet because it supplemented what they had ad abundantiam elsewhere. Why then, would it be a good move for the major studios to get in the business of trafficking this sort of entertainment? Understand that a pendulum swings both ways--and you'll literally exhaust yourself chasing it from side to side. If your business model relies on the right side, for instance, strengthen that position as it swings to the left, don't abandon it. Of course, if the center changes, you shift with it, just as a runner adjusts to the peculiarities of the racetrack. It's what Emerson meant about imitation and suicide, if you mimic the moves of other market players, you'll wear your heart out under the stress.

Just watch as the old media starts to show the symptoms of cardiac arrest. They hear the footsteps of another runner behind them and instantly engage. And it will be their undoing. What good is a tiny victory if it distracts you from your original purpose, business, or strategy? What good is exercise that is physically ineffective? And when they have the finally exit the track because they literally can't take another step, who is going to keep running, who is going to inherit the spot at the top? The competitors strong enough to ‘stay above the fray.’

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

13 responses to The Business of Running

  1. Nice work, Ryan. I’m impressed.

  2. Wow, that was a really good piece. Possibly because I am a runner, so I understand where you where coming from with the running analogy. Still, very well written. Good job.

  3. very interesting read

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  5. Wow, that was impressive:) I am a runner myself, so I was able to connect with you. Beautiful analogy.

  6. I’m not a runner… beautiful piece

  7. What an amazing read, took me a few minutes to get to your first post, since you don’t have an archive button, but it was well worth it.

    • I’ve been stalking you for a couple years now..randomly chewing on a piece of your mind when i get a chance. But, each time, without fail, your article for the day perfectly targets whatever inner conflict or issue I’m going through. So thank you for that. I just decided to tear through your archives starting at ground level and I have to say, this piece was absolutely spectacular.

  8. over 4 years later, seems like you were right about old media competing with new media, but like Scipio did to Hannibal, is there ever a time to beat the master at his own game?

  9. Beautifully crafted and very moving!

  10. Thanks Ryan.

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. A conversation with Ryan Holiday: blogger, former marketing director of American Apparel, soon-to-be author; October 2011 at Andrew McMillen - October 24, 2011

    [...] among other topics. I’ve consumed every word that he has written since his first post, ‘The Business Of Running‘, often multiple times. That first post remains a valid starting point for understanding [...]

  2. Radhika Morabia - January 8, 2014

    […] What I’ve learned–and it’s probably one of the few life lessons I picked up on my own–is that if you continue at the pace you set for yourself, 9 times out of 10 you walk away the winner. I’ve picked up on the fact that success in life begins itself internally and manifests itself externally. And the only way you can reach your destiny is to define and then commit everything to achieving it.Ryan Holdiay […]