The beginning of a new decade is as apt a time as ever to pause to reflect on what the future might bring, and our cover story (“The Future of Advice”) reports the views of expert industry watchers on a variety of key questions. But none of us need wait for the time we ask our client to “beam me up” for a portfolio review meeting for the future to start. It starts now — and every one of us can play a role in forecasting our own future.
Indeed, no future progress can take hold until someone envisions it, and we have the choice of passively reacting to someone else’s vision, or getting into the arena and actively shape our futures.
At Oxford University in May 1954, a 25-year-old English medical student, Roger Bannister, made history when he completed a mile in less than 4 minutes. What was so breathtaking (pun intended — Bannister collapsed at the finish line) about that milestone event (sorry — couldn’t resist that one) was that a 4-minute mile had previously been thought humanly impossible.
In the last half century, humanity has improved on Bannister’s record by 17 seconds, and many runners, including even some high school athletes, have achieved a 4-minute mile. But prior to Bannister’s accomplishment, the prevailing view was that it could not be done. And it’s easy to understand why. Even though the previous record holder (Swedish runner Gunder Hägg, in 1945) finished the mile in 4:01.3 minutes, in over a century of running competitions no one could cross 4 minutes.
After a disappointing performance at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister (now Sir Roger) thought seriously about quitting running. He decided he would give it another go, but this time set a goal of completing a mile in under 4 minutes, which would require shaving 7.8 seconds off his previous record.
The most remarkable part of the story is what came after that historic spring day in Oxford. The very next month, Australian runner John Landy broker Bannister’s record. Seemingly one runner after another finished a mile in less than 4 minutes, and many new records were set in subsequent years.
What all this demonstrates is how much we look to our peers to pace ourselves. This failing, which limits human progress, has two implications. First, it underscores that the best source of self-improvement and growth is internal. Ideally, we should search ourselves for the courage to set goals and achieve them, as Bannister did. Second, failing that, we should minimally know that if someone else is achieving what we ourselves desire, then it absolutely can be done.
In other words, understanding the instinctive human inclination to look to our peers (which too often leads to an unworthy “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality), we should at least surround ourselves with worthy peers. We are all influenced by our environment; we might as well choose one with high standards.
Roger Bannister’s accomplishment was more a strength of vision than feat of strength. To make great strides in your own future, look within.