What Is 20X?
My journey to completing an Ironman and achieving my 20X began in 2005. I frequently talk about 20X at work (and to whoever wants to humor me). In Mark Divine’s book “Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed,” he discusses this concept in the context of how the Navy Seals learn this during their grueling 24-week Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. People, he says, are capable of 20 times what they think they are, if they have the right drive, discipline and determination. Although I am not a SEAL, the concept really resonated with me, and has helped shape my thinking personally and professionally.
When I became CEO of Learning House, I did a lot of thinking about the type of leader I wanted to be (and already was) and the type of company I wanted Learning House to be. Ultimately, though, I wanted to get a handle on what I was about at my core. In the end, I felt like if my purpose and values did not align with Learning House’s mission (purpose) and values, we did not stand a chance at being the company I wanted us to be. After much contemplation, I realized that I was at my best and happiest when every day I was striving to be the best version of myself in all aspects of life and also helping others to do the same. I realized that although the mission of Learning House was important, what was almost more important was that I, and hopefully others, were striving to be the best version of ourselves each and every day. I believed that if we could all as individuals push to achieve 20X in our lives across many areas, both personal and professional, collectively, we could achieve whatever we dreamed. 20X, then, became my mission not only for myself, but also for Learning House. Practicing what you preach is important to me, and when I started my new role at TLH, I knew I needed to go for my own 20X, to demonstrate the power of the concept and encourage others to follow.
Why The Ironman?
I knew almost instantly that the best way I could demonstrate 20X was by finishing an Ironman, a triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run. Or, as the triathlon commun
ity calls it, 140.6. The finish line of Ironman Louisville (a spectacular race in large part because of the 3,300 volunteers from Louisville who are so hospitable and hard working) is literally right outside of our office (see me crossing the finish line below). It’s quite surreal and I would recommend any and all TLHers living in Louisville to check it out at some point during your career here. So, in typical Todd Zipper format, I just signed up for the race without much of a plan and not having raced at even the half ironman distance in 11 years (circa 2004).
How It Began
In 2003, I raced in my first Sprint triathlon (.5 mile swim, 13 mile bike, 3.1 mile/5K run) and I was hooked. I graduated college in 1998 and frankly, was really out of shape. I had started doing yoga to help with chronic back pain (a classic symptom of a lot of stress and a deterioration of the core muscles), but I knew the competitor and athlete in me needed something more regular. So after getting hooked, I spent one glorious season in 2004 training and racing in triathlons, including doing a half ironman. That experience gave me the confidence to sign up for an Ironman in 2005. It was all coming easy, or so I thought. I was young(er) and thought I could do almost anything. Well, the world had a very different plan for me. My body completely started to break down as I ramped up the training and my crazy travel schedule for work, which still exists today, but in a different format, became a weekly affair. That Ironman didn’t happen. Fast forward 10 years; I had stayed in decent shape, but the Ironman remained elusive. I knew when I signed up for the 2015 Ironman, I had my work cut out for me.
How You Can Achieve 20X
Here are some takeaways, both from the training and the race, that I hope can be helpful to you as you look to achieve 20X in your life.
- Take your time. I trained for one year for this specific event, but had been preparing mentally for quite some time (10 years). I think if you want to do something huge/enormous (pick your superlative), you have to be willing to take your time. It could take months, but more likely years to achieve.
- Embrace the best and worst of you and shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. I found that Ironman training for a host of reasons brought the absolute best and worst out of me, but in the end, I believe strongly that the best won. This could be a blog post by itself, but let’s just say on the negative side, something that requires 20X seems to bring to light a lot of the obstacles in your mind. I had a lot of fixed mindset thinking. As we discussed in a previous blog post, a fixed mindset comes from the belief that your qualities are carved in stone – who you are is who you are, period. Characteristics such as intelligence, personality, and creativity are fixed traits, rather than something that can be developed. So, for example, I kept saying to myself, I am not an endurance athlete.I get injured and sick all the time when I push my training. I don’t have enough time to train. So on and so forth. A growth mindset, though, says that everyone can change and grow through application and training. I even found myself during the race thrown in some fixed mindset thinking, but if I was going to finish, I need to eradicate the thinking and replace it with more growth mindset thinking of what I would do to overcome the various obstacles thrown at me.
- Hire a coach/Have an adaptable plan. There are tons of training plans that are virtually free that can get you through an Ironman. None of these would have worked for me. Not only do they expect you to peak your training at close to 20 hours per week, but they just assume you can commit to achieving 100+ miles per week on the bike, 30+ miles per week on the run, etc. Not only did I not have the time, my body could not take that conventional training plan. So, I found a great coach that both structured a plan unique to me from an hours-per-week standpoint (6 hour per week most of the year and 8-12 during the final four months) and a holistic outlook (i.e., nutrition, supplements, sleep, strength/weaknesses, etc.). Most importantly, the plan adapted as my countless injuries started to mount (IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, shoulder tendonitis, iliac crest pain, and of course, I got the flu twice this past year). It’s important to note that this concept really resonates with our industry, higher education, and the change that is happening. Disruption is coming and institutions need to have a way to customize individual learning plans and not be so quick to outsource the human touch of coach/teacher. I found that I needed both during my journey.
- Take a front-sight focus approach and minimize distractions. Another concept I learned from “The Way of the Seal” is front-sight focus: the ability to envision your goal to the point that you see it, believe it, and make it happen. Said differently, focus on one thing until victory is achieved. This may seem obvious, but I think it’s important to pair this concept with the idea of minimizing distractions. For example, sleep became an even more critical thing for me as I ramped my training throughout the year, so I needed to cut out any wasteful activities at night like getting sucked into a Netflix show. All of a sudden, waking up at 5:30 to work out for an hour before work wasn’t so bad!
- Never give up/be willing to fail. This might be the most important takeaway. I am not sure if this is the best analogy, but in my mind, I equate this to the Hernan Cortés famous “burning the boats” story. In 1519, Cortés and 600 Spaniards landed in Mexico to embark on a conquest of an empire that hoarded some of the world’s greatest treasures. This daring undertaking seemed insurmountable for these men. As they marched inland, Cortés gave the order to, “burn the boats,” so there was no escape. If the men failed, they would be slaughtered. Today, many use this phrase to capture the idea of unwavering commitment. I had so many excuses and reasons to stop during the training and during the race. But for me, there was no lifeboat. It was Ironman or bust. If I had to walk the entire Ironman, so be it, which I thought was a real possibility because of severe IT band syndrome (I.e., awful outer knee pain) during most of my training. In the end, I ran almost the entire marathon pushing whatever limits I had previously given myself.
- Be adaptable. This is quite possibility my favorite takeaway and one I, of course, resisted. I mentioned above that first, I had to be incredibly adaptable throughout training as life (3-month-old baby when training started), work (we are pretty busy at Learning House crushing it!), and onslaught of injuries all interfered with my plan. I had to continue to adapt to life circumstances and after a while it just became second nature. It was the same for the race. There were so many twists and turns to the race, including mist from the river preventing us from seeing the next buoy to my water bottles with my distinct endurance formula launching off the back of my bike to stretching every mile to ward off the debilitating knee pain. If you take the attitude that there is always another way, you can begin to adapt quickly.
- Gain support from your friends/family/colleagues. When you are going to do something big in your life, from an Ironman to a new job to learning a new language to having a child to whatever, I find it is mission critical to get the support of your “crew.” They will be there to pick you up when the tears come, and trust me, those tears will come. They will be understanding when you move in and out of the hyper-selfish stages to achieve the goal. They will celebrate with you during and along the way. For example, there is zero chance I would have made it to the starting line or done as well as I did during race day without my family there -see picture below.
- Practice visualization and affirmations. There has been a ton written about this, but I often closed my eyes on Fourth Street in Louisville next to our office and imagined crossing the finish line. I would visualize various different parts of the events and how I would react when this or that happened. I had not run more than 13 miles prior to the race, but I had a plan and visualized running hard the entire marathon. As part of these visualizations, I would also often use affirmations, such as “I am an Ironman, I am an Ironman.” It sounds hokey, but it kept me going. Many great leaders and highly successful individuals, like Andrew Carnegie practiced this, so why not me?
- Take your practice seriously, but yourself lightly. I learned this expression from a yoga teacher many years ago. This is a
tough one for me, but wherever possible bring levity and humor to the journey. It’s easy to take things way too seriously. For example, when I was on the line yesterday up to the swim, some guy behind me basically started yelling at my kid because he was getting in his way (there was nowhere to go with 2,700 racers trying to jump into the water). I looked at him and said, “really.” He instantly realized he had crossed the line of taking things way too seriously. Doing an Ironman is a great accomplishment, but in the grand scheme of life, not that important. Another example of the opposite is me stopping to take a “selfie” with my brother even though I had already entered the “pain cave.” So I added 15 seconds on my time, who cares!
- Do your thing, not anyone else’s. At work and in my Unstoppable course, I talk a lot about aligning what you do every day with your purpose in life. This may seem obvious, but I think for the longest time, I did not really get why I wanted to do Ironman. I think in a sense, it was a way for me to put another notch in my belt and move on. I finally moved beyond this and connected to a higher purpose around the type of person and leader I wanted to be. In addition, it’s easy to get sucked up into what other people (or your view of what other people) want you to be. When you go 20X, it has to be all about what is in your gut, and not about comparing yourself to others. One of my closest friends dating back to elementary school also did an Ironman this summer (a different race) and his time far exceeded mine. My brother 10 years ago also did an Ironman and had a better time than I had. Frankly, I am so happy for them and could not care less that they “beat” me. They were both an inspiration, actually. I did my own thing and it felt incredible. Even in the end when I was at the half marathon, I thought there was a shot that I could beat 13 hours, so I really pushed it. I came in at 13:01. It was perfect. No regrets.
I have so many labels for this day and moment and am actually writing this blog post in the wee hours of the morning. Even though 13 hours is a very long time to be grinding it out on the race course, it felt like it was over in a flash. In many ways, it felt like a dream. All these moments that happened during the day that were so clear then, I can’t remember many of them now. One thing I do remember is how much I enjoyed biking through the Kentucky countryside, which was just spectacular and the volunteers were always there to help or cheer for you when needed. When I crossed the finish line, a volunteer grabbed my hand and walked me through the hoards of people in such a gracious way that I felt so touched.
Ultimately, my main message is to say if I can achieve 20X, so can you, especially if you strive, like me, to be the best version of yourself each and every day.