With spring around the corner and St. Patrick’s Day excitement in the air, yesterday was the perfect day for a run. I set out around noon, running up from Cobble Hill along the water to Brooklyn Bridge Park. As usual, the journey involved paddling up a stream of baby carriages and well groomed lap dogs. Mid way through my run a thought popped into my head. Why is it that athletes today are so much better than athletes 30 years ago?

Presumably nothing significant has changed in the DNA or genetic makeup of humans in the last 30 years. If that is true, why are football players, baseball players and soccer players so much better at their sports today than their antique counterparties? Why couldn’t a 1970’s football player train himself to be as psychically dominant as football players today? Certainly if any running back from the NFL today were transported to the 1970’s he would be an unfairly dominant player – they’re simply bigger, faster, and more agile.

It seems that there is a weird rule that it is only possible to be a little bit better than everyone you see around you. Looking at the below chart of mile-record times by year – you can see that there is a relatively straight line regression of mile times from 1860 to today. Each year people get just a little bit faster. But why does it have to be just a little bit? Could the runner who set the 1980 world record of 3 minutes and 50 seconds have run that same time if he were alive in 1910? Are the improvements over time due to better training methods, or is there something hard coded into humans that really only allow us to be marginally better than everyone else around us?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mile_run_world_record_progression

As I was forming this thought in my head like a ball of clay, I noticed a middle aged female runner wearing a florescent purple shirt pass me on the running path. From her bright shirt, I instantly recognized her as the runner who I had just passed a mile or so back. She was now running significantly faster than she was running when I passed her earlier. It was as if her pace quickened to catch up with me.

As she strode past me my body instantly reacted. A shot of adrenaline surged into my muscles and my pace quickened to keep up with her. Without even thinking about it I continued to pace with her past my street down toward Red Hook pushing a 7-minute pace to eventually pass her as we approached the entrance to the Battery Tunnel. As I passed her, I turned off onto a side street to run home. One half block after I turned, my muscles tightened, my breaths became shallow and the wind that had propelled me down through Carroll Gardens had gone completely out of my sails. I ended up walking home.

This episode makes me wonder. What are humans truly capable of? It seems to me that there are all sorts of secret pockets of human potential closed tightly inside each of us behind locked doors. The only key that’s needed to unlock this potential is seeing someone in a florescent purple shirt do it first.

Unlocking Human Potential
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  • I like it Eif. It’s like running those sprints back when we were athletes. I always wanted to be the fastest, but never was!
    I booked my flights for our reunion weekend. See you in May, buddy!

  • Joe Panzarella

    Good thought AE. I think there’s a larger pattern and it has to do with the business you’re in: communications. The increasing speed (no pun intended) of how communication travels is the reason humanity continues to break records. From smoke signals to the printing press to IM, generations have benefitted from not only seeing changes but LEARNING about them. That’s why the invention of the printing press by Guttenburg is considered the most significant of all. The ability to record facts and mass produce the results for all led to the industrial revolution and thus the start of the global economy. Keep up the good.work.

  • Andrew

    Josh – thanks for reading! I often think about those times. Can’t wait to see you in May.

  • Andrew

    Joe – Love it! Thanks for reading. Have you read Steven Johnson’s ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’? He offers some similar thoughts about the affect of communication on innovation, I think you’d like it. If you don’t have time for the full book, you can get the 17 – minute version here:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from.html

    On another note – I ran into Javid last week on 23rd street – reminded me of our old times on the 8th floor of DFCB!

    Hope you are well,

    Andrew

  • It’s pretty much better training methods, more focus on diet and other factors. There’s some research on the subject somewhere…

    If you focus on performance, you get better at performance. There was less of a focus on systematically improving performance 30, 40, 50 years ago; thus, the bar was set lower.

    Knowledge evolution, really: figure out what works, then that gets propagated through the network and everyone benefits. Improvements are incremental and marginal, but cumulative; additionally, there is probably some degree of path-dependency of methods, so you need to clear one hurdle before hitting the next.

  • Simon Dexter

    Hi Andrew,

    Just found your blog – you’ve got good ideas. Performance improvement is especially important in today’s competitive environment. On that note, there is book by Geoff Colvin – Talent Overrated – which I think is very relevant to your main question – the true capabilities of humans.

    Its thesis is, the way I understand it, that excellent performance is developed through application of “deliberate practice”, which basically means not just overall practice but focused effort concentrating on areas requiring improvement.

    You may want to try Outliers by Gladwell but I think his message is more general.