What Kenyan Distance Runners Can Teach Us About Achievement

Why does one small tribe in Kenya – the Kalenjin – produce a statistically impossible percentage of the world’s fastest distance runners? According to David Epstein, Senior Editor at Sports Illustrated, “There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon, while there were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.” This one small tribe tends to not only win most competitive marathons, they generally also fill nearly every slot of the top 10 finishers.
Researchers set out to uncover the mystery. They explored factors such as climate, genetics, social pressures, altitude, diet and dozens of other factors, but none emerged as the decisive conclusion. Other tribes and other nearby countries shared similar attributes, yet none were even close in their running legacy.
Scientists were baffled, until they learned that 13-year-olds in this tribe are required to complete a grueling, incredibly painful rite of passage. Beaten, tortured, cut, and burned, if the adolescents even flinch or let out a peep, they are labeled a coward and forbidden from mating, earning a good wage, or rising in society. Anyone who can’t endure the incredible pain is banished, relegated to serve his or her remaining lifetime as a loser.
The surprising source of success emerged: it was the Kalenjin’s pain tolerance that enabled their logic-defying results. Being groomed to ensure tremendous pain from an early age, they were able to persist through agonizing training and endure the sacrifices that produce world records. Their resilience, tenacity, and grit enabled them to not just beat, but destroy the odds.
Maybe there’s a lesson here for us business-folk. While I’m not advocating painful tribal rituals, our ability to withstand discomfort and fight through adversity is directly linked to our level of achievement. The more mental toughness we develop, the more results we enjoy.
Let’s face it; we’re pretty darn comfortable in the Western world. With the tap of our phones, we have cars, food, or even massages delivered to our front doors in minutes. We no longer endure difficult hunts for food, shelter, information, or even our peppermint Frappuccinos. In our everybody-gets-a-trophy society, it’s no wonder that battling through stinging setbacks feels so foreign.
Mental toughness is skill, not a birthright, and as such it can be developed and expanded. Your training camp may be a sport field, modern dance stage, martial arts studio, recording studio, or science lab. Whichever discipline inspires you, it’s all about pushing yourself beyond ordinary limits. Doing what other’s won’t. Persistence in the face of painful setbacks and obstacles. 
Too many of us get 95% of the way there, but fail to give it that one last burst of intensity to achieve greatness. Toughen up to withstand just 5% more training, effort, and adversity, and you stand to gain 1,000% better results. The rarified air of champions awaits if, like the Kalenjin, you’re willing to endure the grueling sprint to the finish line. 

It’s time to set your own world record.