Run Your Own Race
How to get further by focusing on less on others and more on your own path
Every year, over a million people attempt to run a marathon (ref). Yet only a few hundred of them run to win. What is the point of running a grueling race if not to win?
The thing about running a marathon is that it's not about winning the race. It's about pushing yourself to your limit. It's about giving yourself a goal that you never thought you could achieve and then exceeding it. That is the magic of it.
I recently met a woman, Dr. Omonye Phillips, who reached out to me to connect after hearing me speak at the Global Leadership Summit. Just before we got off the phone, she made a quick comment about how her sponsor told her to run a marathon, and she did. She had never run before, but in 16 weeks, she trained and made it happen.
I was shocked. How on earth did this mother of three (two at that time, now three), (with a senior work position and a busy life, make the time to run a marathon? Read on to hear her story. (If you want to hear it in her own words, check out her account here.) It's a story of perseverance, goal-setting, and finding success on your own terms, and it's one that all of us can learn from.
Racing against yourself, not others
So often we look at life based on comparisons. Are we doing better than our coworkers, classmates, or acquaintances? We look at the people who graduated from class with us and think, "Did they achieve more than I did?"
That comparison is a dangerous thing. It threatens our well-being and equanimity in our success and achievements.
Our schooling system does us a disservice in this regard. We teach kids that there is only one definition of success. There is a class rank, a grade to pursue, and an SAT score to mark your place. This sets us up for comparison and self-doubt.
But life is not like school. Two people can be equally accomplished in very different ways and still live amazingly successful lives, measured with different yardsticks for success.
Imagine if, as you were running, you were always looking to the side to see how everyone else was doing. Would you run faster or slower? Would you be able to focus on your own goal, or would you end up getting sidetracked? This is how so many of us view the world. We're looking to our left and looking to our right and thinking, "Am I faster than the person next to me?"
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a runner. I've only ever done a couple of light 5Ks as a kid, and they were miserable, because I am terrible, terrible, terrible at running. I have a hereditary medical condition that doesn’t allow me to regulate my temperature well, so I pass out when I get overheated. Definitely not conducive to running.
When I did run, I always found that the hardest part was distraction from all the other runners. You're trying to keep pace, but you feel like you're constantly out of your depth, and that is not a good feeling. Sometimes other people can be a motivator, but (especially if you're a terrible runner like me) it is stressful. You feel like you're constantly trying to keep up and always falling behind.
But when you let go of comparisons, you can focus on what's more important: your own race. Others will come and go, but your biggest challenger will always be yourself. By taking your eyes off the people around you, you can focus on your own goals and your own measure of success—and this is what the race is really about.
Carve your own path
Omonye reached out to me on LinkedIn, and during our first conversation, she shared her own story. She grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, as one of four kids. Her mom got very sick with cancer when Omonye was eight and passed away when she was ten. Her father raised her and her siblings from there, always encouraging her to “be the best version of yourself.”
Omonye wanted to make her mom proud, so she studied hard, eventually attending an International Baccalaureate school in the UK. She then took another path to the US so she could study to become a pharmacist, completing her pre-pharmacy studies and earning her doctorate degree at the University of Michigan in just six years.
In 2011, Omonye became an intern at Rite Aid just after finishing pharmacy school and studying for her board exams. . She became a pharmacy manager in 2012, then a district manager in 2015, right after having her first baby. She is now a mother of three and a Vice President of Pharmacy Operations at Rite Aid, managing nine regional leaders at 170 stores with over 3,000 associates under her care.
Omonye went from an intern to a VP in eight years, all while raising three children. Her goal wasn't necessarily to become a VP, but it was to rise in the organization and have as big an impact as she possibly could. She focused on that and never let anything distract her from her goal. As I recently wrote in What They Don't Tell You about Maternity Leave, pregnancy and motherhood can really do a number on your career. But Omonye persevered, reaching a level of success she knew would not come easy especially considering her situation as a young mum with little kids. She credits the great support from her husband as one of the main propelling factors for her career growth. She also spends a significant amount of investing in herself as a leader through attending conferences and reading about leadership and people management. This allows her to build great relationships with people and ultimately bring out the best in others.
Omonye’s version of success is not yours. It is her own personal journey.
Make a plan
Nothing happens without preparation. Sure, there are accidents that change the world, such as the discovery of penicillin. But even Dr. Alexander Flemming had to doggedly research, from inspiration to execution, over many years, and with the help of many colleagues, to make it possible (ref). Success almost always takes a certain amount of planning, iteration, and investment.
How many times do you get on the road and actually drive to nowhere? Most of your life is spent getting somewhere or getting something done. Even when you just want to enjoy an afternoon drive, you still have a goal and a clear purpose in mind.
All great things, like running a marathon or growing in your organization, require goal-setting and metrics. You don't have to have a hard and set rule (e.g. "I must get promoted within two cycles"), but if you allow strategic ambiguity to sneak in, you will drift. Then you will wonder where the time went.
You are much more likely to achieve what you want when you can set a concrete goal and figure out what it will take to get there. When you have this plan to guide you, you can take the steps you need to achieve success—whatever that looks like for you.
We often think we have to do it alone, but accountability is important for succeeding in your own race. Having allies means having supporters and cheerleaders to help you. These are people you can bounce ideas off of, turn to for support through challenges, and get inspiration from when you face uncertainty. I've been in three different LeanIn Groups over the years. Just meeting people on their own paths and hearing about their journeys has helped me get perspective on my own.
Omonye’s ally was her skip-skip-skip-level manager, Rob Mullins. He saw something in her. As she recounts, “He could have hired another candidate as a VP, but he took me instead.” As her stalwart sponsor, he gave her a step-function lift from where she was to where she ended up going.
Rob also did something interesting: he asked her to run a marathon. As an ultramarathoner himself, he gave Omonye a challenge to push herself harder than she thought she could. She joked back at him, “I don’t even like driving 26.2 miles, much less run it.” But he persisted. He saw something in her that she didn’t know was there. So she took it as a challenge to push herself outside her comfort zone and confirm his belief in her abilities.
The first thing Omonye did was buy a book called The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer. The second thing she did was call up a friend to train with. Within 16 weeks, she went from a non-runner to a marathon finisher. She put in the effort, but her sponsor was the catalyst, and her friend was her training partner. This meant she had the support she needed to get to the finish line. Even when she didn’t want to get up and train, she made it happen because she knew they were there at her side, cheering her on and supporting her.
Be a problem solver
A few years ago, Omonye found herself a mother to children who suffered from hair loss due to severe eczema. On top of being a wife, a mom, and a successful executive, she now had to use her problem-solving skills to support her kids. She tested a number of options before stumbling upon mulberry silk. Using this natural fiber, she created hair wraps to help her children manage their eczema. In June 2022, she launched Omosilk to share her creations with other families facing the same challenge. When Omonye faced a personal challenge, she found a solution, then figured out how to scale it and bring it to others.
When you are running your own race, you are not alone; rather, you are part of a community of runners all sharing the same experience and helping one another. This support and encouragement connects you to a larger community and engages you to help others as you help yourself.
Don't let setbacks hold you back
When you go on social media and you see someone else succeeding, do you sometimes get that twinge of envy, or that feeling that you're missing something? Most of us have at some point.
It's tempting to think there's some secret ingredient to success, something that you either have or you don't. But I'm convinced that the people who are the most successful are not the luckiest ones or the ones who work the hardest, but those who don't allow setbacks to hold them back. What you choose to do in the face of disappointment ultimately decides what your path is going to be.
I have this rule about grieving. When something terrible happens to me, I give myself a chance to mourn for a fixed period of time, then I end it and move on. We don’t get to decide what happens to us, but we get to decide how to deal with it.
Omonye lost her mother at a young age, and she knew that she had to continue forward to honor her memory and make her proud. She worked to make something that could have crushed someone else into an inspiration for success.
Omonye didn’t always look like what customers expected a pharmacist to look like. As a young Black woman, she didn’t fit a preconceived mold. One memorable example of this was when she was 24, and a customer told her, “I want to talk to the pharmacist.” When Omonye confirmed she was the pharmacist, the woman replied, “You're the pharmacist? This is not April Fool's.”
Omonye learned to ignore these microaggressions and not let them bother her on her rise through her career. Even now, as one of the youngest VPs at Rite Aid—and the only one who is a Black woman - she knows that she may sometimes be overlooked and will need to constantly prove herself. But she is living her life on her own terms and not conforming to the expectations of others.
Those who succeed in the long term don't allow setbacks to become what breaks them, but rather what makes them. Our ability to deal with adversity and come back from it stronger is what decides our success.
Omonye ran her own race on her own terms, both metaphorically and physically. Her resilience made her able to start from the bottom and work her way to the top in less than a decade. The same determination she used to run a marathon in just 16 weeks is what allowed her to leave her home country for high school, travel to another country for college, and raise a family while working full time. She didn’t look to her left or right, but instead focused on her own race. When she did, she accomplished her set goals beyond her imagination. She is in competition with herself and continues to strive to do more and be better than she was the day before.