3 lessons for Product Managers I learned from running
Product management and running are both hard, and rewarding
Here are three lessons I’ve learned from running, that can be applied to a career in product:
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1. It’s a personal journey, and patience matters
When I’m running I like to listen to audiobooks, not to distract myself but because I spend so much time running it’s nice to take in a few books at the same time. I particularly love a celebrity memoir, and currently I’m reading Eddie Izzard’s Believe Me. When she describes her original plan to get into comedy, she has it all laid out with specific milestones by certain ages and… it doesn’t quite work out. But she learns something interesting in that: “Don’t get somewhere as fast as possible. Get somewhere as good as possible.”
It can be tempting in career and running and product to put speed above all else. And pace of delivery is important in product development, as long as you are going in the right direction. But optimising for only running faster can take away the love and reward for the process, and all the lessons that come from the journey.
2. Success requires agency and consistency
No one has to run, and in fact, the research suggests that as humans we have evolved specifically to not exercise voluntarily. Many people, however, like the idea of being the type of person who runs anyway. Being a runner is tied to many positive connotations: being disciplined, being resilient, being focused. I run because it is an activity that helps me maintain good mental and physical health, it has opened up a community, and it offers plenty of new challenges (can I beat my marathon personal best? For how many years can I run my age in miles?). But on the days when the weather is miserable or I’m nursing a mad hangover, running also requires that I hold myself accountable without giving in to excuses.
It’s an attitude that great product managers need as well in order to show up.
3. You only have so much to give
Going into 2020, I felt great. I was running strong, and matched my half marathon personal best that January. But sometime in those first few months of a new year--one that would change our lives completely-- I simply broke. I didn’t realise it until it was too late, but I was applying much too much stress to my body. What I ended up with was a hamstring injury that took over a year to recover from.
As David Roche and Megan Roche say in The Happy Runner, “the body doesn’t know miles. It knows stress.” Every element of your life puts some amount of stress on your body. That is usually not only ok, but desirable (especially in running): adding a little stress breaks the body down, and when followed with adequate rest and recovery, the body is able to build itself back stronger. In The Happy Runner, this process is compared to a giant pizza. Each week, you start with one pizza. Every activity takes a slice, whether that is a 15K training run, a presentation at work, or staying up with your sick child. And eventually, that pizza starts to run out, and if it’s gone before the end of your week, you’re looking at injuries, burnout, and illness.
If that wasn’t enough, they go on to explain that there’s also a catch. “You aren’t 100 percent sure how big the pizza is each week. It could be an extra-large, with plenty to go around. Or you could be at risk of trying to make a small pizza fit a big life.”
There is a lot that goes into making your pizza, including your genetic makeup and past experiences. I have learned, for example, to be diligent about taking iron supplements, as anemia is a constant challenge for me as it is for 1 in 3 women. But the ultimate lesson is that burnout is avoidable-- in both running and your career. Rest days are the mechanism for preventing burnout in training, and protecting your time and energy does something similar at work. As product managers, part of our job is to say no, and we should be able to do this when we have been asked to commit to a task that takes more time than we have.
Much like running, product management takes discipline and dedication to build a solid foundation, and is a journey you must constantly choose. Enjoy your work, enjoy your runs, and treat yourself to rest— and pizza!— as often as you need them.
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