Hidden in the canyons of Mexico’s Copper Canyon lives a shy tribe of people called Tarahumara, or the Running People. The Tarahumara live quiet lives, growing corn and beans and living in family groups in huts and caves often perched precipitously on the mountain cliffs. They are also all ultra-runners.
At social gatherings and celebrations, the Running People will conclude the festivities with a friendly footrace. A footrace up to 200 miles, that is. For a guy like me that is out of breath after four miles on the treadmill, the thought of these people running through mountain passes in handmade sandals sounds more like a mirage than a reality.
In Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, he marvels that in the midst of a 100-mile ultramarathon they, “churned up the slope like kids playing in a leaf pile.” Laughing. Smiling. Somehow enjoying a 100 mile run. For the Tarahumara, running wasn’t a chore—it was a time to connect with their world and with one another.
Now lets step back from the Copper Canyon and into your city, your home and your workplace. You’re fed up with the job you used to love. Coworkers you’ve collaborated with for years are grating on your nerves. Projects that excited you in the beginning seem stale and dusty. Like the American runners racing against the Tarahumara, you’ve burnt out, and you’ve got 150 miles left to run.
How do you return to the blissful state where you began? Mental toughness.
I know, I wish I had a different answer too. But oftentimes the only element in our day that we can actually control is our attitude. And, when the boss is happy and the workload is light it’s easy to stay upbeat. Throw in an irate customer, a missed deadline and some extra rush-hour traffic, and then you have a training ground for mental toughness. Here’s a few tips from the Running People themselves
Take Shorter Steps—your burnout might be the result of overextending yourself. Instead of focusing on everything you need to get done this week, focus on the five things you need to get done today. Break larger projects up into small pieces and knock them out one at a time.
Lose the Shoes—After researchers studied indigenous groups like the Tarahumara, they discovered these groups experienced far less injury than Westerners with hi-tech and cushy running shoes. At work, sometimes the very things we think we need are the things creating problems. Have you gotten bogged down in party planning drama or chasing down someone by email instead of picking up the phone? Maybe it’s time to pick up speed by simplifying your processes. Lose the shoes.
Look to your elders—Would you believe that among the Tarahumara, the best runners are often the oldest!? Though it seems contrary to nature, it’s true. The runners with years of experience have honed their speed, footwork, diet, and strategy. The same is true of great leaders in any industry. If you want to avoid burnout, begin to note the habits of those a few years down the road, and a few rungs up the ladder from where you find yourself.
Never run alone—In Tarahumara culture, racing is a means of bringing the community together. How would our workplaces change if we viewed collaborative work in the same way? Sure you might feel like the project is about as fun as running uphill in the boiling Mexico sunlight, but there is some solidarity in enduring it together. Find at least one person at your workplace who you know you can lean on during a particularly tough day. But be prepared to return the favor.
Mental toughness is choosing these attitudes and practices over the feeling of burnout. It doesn’t matter if you’re running 100 miles or just trying to make it through the last 100 days of school with a rowdy classroom. When nothing around you seems to be changing, change your attitude. After all, it’s a marathon not a sprint.