The 4 Minute Mile

The 4 Minute Mile

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In the last week I have spent time at some remarkable outlier education institutions: Singularity University, Uncollege and School of Communication Arts 2.0. They are all defying conventional wisdom yet delivering far, far more than conventional providers.

They are all part of my continuing research to explore the edges of human potential with a view to ‘running the 4 minute mile of education’.

For those who don’t know, the story of the 4 minute mile is quoted in many self help books, demonstrating how limiting beliefs impact on us all. There was once a time when no-one had ever run a mile in under 4 minutes. It was regarded as impossible: a barrier that could never be broken.

Then, on May 5 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile under 4 minutes.

It was not impossible – it could be done! As soon as that barrier was broken, other people managed to run under 4 minute miles in the next few weeks! What was impossible proved to be possible in the minds of the elite running community – and that shift of mindset allowed middle distance running to take a giant leap forward. So much so, that the world record for that distance stands at 3 minutes 43 seconds: a full 17 seconds below what was considered to be impossible at the time.

What often isn’t explained is how he did it. The common, oversimplified assumption is that it was through belief and hard work. Whilst I am sure that’s true, it isn’t the whole story. With outliers like Sir Roger Bannister, there is another story underneath. He trained differently from those around him, and discovered part of his secret to success by accident.

First, he was one of the early adopters of something that athletes now call ‘interval training’. He liked to run 10 quarter-mile sessions per workout at close to race pace, taking an interval of 2 minutes of recovery time between each run. This approach allowed him to significantly improve his cardiovascular performance compared with more conventionally trained runners.

Secondly, after a period of frustration with his times, he took 3 days off. After that rest from running, he made an unusual discovery. He noticed that his times actually became faster.

So, along with interval training, he added periodic total rests to elicit freshness, improve speed, and permit his body to adapt and recover. Believe it or not, these two training principles remain relevant today.

He was, in fact, an innovator. To change what was possible, he had to change the way it was done. And in a world where change is often feared and avoided, this was probably a harder thing to do than simply believing in himself.

Now, I am a huge optimist. I am a real believer in the limitless potential of human beings. I am quite certain that some crazy Usain Bolt-esque outlier will eventually break the 3 minute mile. The only questions for me are ‘when?’ and most importantly, ‘how?’

I adopt this type of thinking in my everyday life. I am always asking myself so-called ‘impossible’ questions like: ‘How can I be the highest impact human being on earth by just hanging out, having coffee?’ Or ‘How can I improve the best school on earth by a factor of ten?’

To some, these are crazy questions. They can’t be done. But I disagree, because it doesn’t matter if I achieve them or not. I am really comfortable with not knowing the answers, and with possibly never being the one to find the solution. I am certain that the answers to many ‘impossible’ questions are out there. If I keep asking them of myself and of those around me, maybe one day the answers will be found. At the very least, constantly asking those questions has already provided me with great insight and improvements.

I have learnt that you are closer to the truth if you assume that the impossible is actually possible.

Yes, you might have to start from a blank page.

Yes, you might have to break all the rules, and

Yes, you might be criticised for what you are doing.

But in all likelihood, the impossible is probably possible. What changes people from being bystanders into world changers is simply the knowledge and belief that they can make change happen.

So my challenge to you is to shift your mentality and make the assumption of possibility. I can assure you that whatever you want to change in the world can be changed. It’s just a question of finding out how.

There is some sort of 4 minute mile to be run in every field and discipline in the world today. My passion just happens to be education. Yours may be something else. Most importantly, whatever you want to achieve, just believe it can be done and reinvent the way it is done.

So ask yourself, if you could change anything about the world, what would it be?

And then, stop watching, and start thinking about how to do it.

And if you can – as I know you can – do something.

The least you can do is ask!

I would love to hear what you would take on if anything is possible. ‘Speak Your Mind’ in the comments section below, and who knows? Maybe someone can show you how.

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  1. Mark, thanks for another great post that inspires us to ask ourselves important questions.

    As I read, I thought of the powerful words of Robert F. Kennedy: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

  2. I so love that quote Pamela. Thanks for sharing. Mx

  3. Rashique S says

    Another renowned quote I find motivational is Nora Robert’s quote.. ‘If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place’. Marc, Sir, your posts are truly amazing. I have recently been trying to ‘find myself’ and you have a way of helping me realise what is truly important in life.

  4. I’m glad to have discovered this blog and your mission. This is so true–excellent reminder about the “criticism” part, which is par for the course but sometimes the reminder that it’s…par for the course…is both helpful and necessary. Well said.

  5. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further
    write ups thank you once again.

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