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I disrupted the system, and I failed. Here’s what I learned

Walking a marathon taught this sociologist that going against the grain doesn’t always end in triumph.

I disrupted the system, and I failed. Here’s what I learned
[Photo: Tobias Seidl/Unsplash]

We happily trumpet our stories when we disrupt systems and succeed, but what about when we fail? Should we return to life as usual with our tails between our legs?

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Recently, I attempted to go against the grain. Now, I’d love to tell you about how I triumphed against all the odds, but the truth is, I ended up failing. Last fall, I completed a marathon. The catch was, I didn’t run—I walked. It was a really (really, really) long walk of six hours. At best, people thought that I was strange. At worst, they considered me a failure.

I’ve made efforts to be a runner, but it’s never been within my grasp. Instead, it has left me gasping for air and a place to sit down as soon as possible. But walking, now that’s something I’ve always managed to do easily. So I decided to walk a marathon.

Unfortunately, the system didn’t support my efforts. When the duck is pitted against the squirrel in the climbing competition, he’ll be judged as a failure. Unfortunately, life is like this too. There’s a different path for those who fit within the existing structure and those who don’t. Here’s what I learned in my marathon experience.

It’s crucial to find a system that works for you

The thing about the system for marathons is that it is designed for running. Now, my chosen marathon was quite inclusive, but they were only accepting of all kinds of runners—not walkers. My race nicely offered an early start for those that would take longer to complete the experience, but even this was for “the velocity-challenged.” My only challenge related to velocity is if you judge me against people who are running rather than walking. This is true of life as well. Systems tend to reward those who fit the mold and not so much for those who don’t.

That’s why in life, it’s essential to find a system that works for you. And when you do, don’t be afraid to expand its acceptance of others from the inside out.

It’s essential to connect with others

Another problem was the community. I found that the giddy anticipation and camaraderie that tends to form before the race disappeared when people found out that I was walking. During the experience itself, I was like a rock in the river of runners. Despite my efforts to stay to the right—a must for those who are slower than the standard speed—I felt like I was still an obstacle.

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The community of nonrunning cheerers was confused about me as well. At key points in the marathon, we would come around corners where supporters would be holding signs and yelling encouragement. Most runners, even if they were struggling, would pick up their pace, wanting to look good for others. Within the last mile of the marathon, when the crowds had thinned substantially—because the runners had all finished—one man yelled to me, “Finish strong!” From his point of view, the least I could do was run the final mile to the finish line. Little did he know, this was my version of finishing strong. I’d walked 25 miles. Of course, this was no small task, but it was outside his ability to understand.

I learned the importance of making connections with others in this race. And when you do, share your experience so they can expand their definition of who fits. When you’re within the system, accept others, and challenge your own perceptions of others’ success or failure.

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle is your mind

Outside of the system and the community, perhaps the biggest fail was my own mentality. I told myself that finishing a marathon was a great accomplishment. My family and close friends agreed. But success in the wrong system and community felt like failure, and no one loves that. I can’t lie—crossing the line as one of the last finishers was a bummer. When the announcer congratulated me on being so late that I was actually first for next year, I smiled but wilted inside. They were judging me against a criterion I hadn’t signed up to succeed at, which made me feel like a failure.

This made me realize the importance of defining your own criteria for success and sticking to it rigorously. When you’re part of the system, find ways to accept without judgment and redefine—or at least stretch—what it means to win.

In the end, systems and people generally don’t know how to support something (or someone) a bit outside the norm. People don’t know how to plan for it, judge it, reward it, or admire it. For those of us who aren’t part of the norm, it’s a question of when to buck the existing system and make our own rules. Sometimes it’s worth the push and the challenge. Other times, not so much, and it can be hard to tell the difference.

We should embrace our talents and passions, even if others might not. But also, when we’re part of a system where we fit, we should help influence and expand thinking to make the system more inclusive of a broader range of capabilities.

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Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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