Genius is a lonely calling. You’ve heard this story before – the myth of exceptionalism. A solitary figure resides on privileged ground. Greatness is seized by the individual’s otherworldly talents. These stories possess a common shape due to structural constraints related to our attention spans. In this way the audience isn’t overwhelmed by a blitz of moving pieces, an array of characters moving in and out of focus. It’s easy to fixate on an iconoclast. It’s messy to account for the multitudes of essential contributors. And so we center tales of achievement around the uncommon drive of a protagonist. They’re the ones who appear on magazine covers. They become legends.
This convention lives across disciplines. When we think of Kevin Durant in the off-season, he’s by himself in a gym before sunrise, putting up hundreds of jump shots. Quentin Tarantino sits in the corner of a coffee shot, scribbling furiously into a notebook, crafting intense scenes saturated with idiosyncratic dialogue. Mark Zuckerberg, up late in a Harvard dormroom, cranks out code which will become the foundation of a social platform that wraps around the globe. They work alone. Solitude is seen as a necessary ingredient for being a ‘genius.’
In the running world, there’s a place on the planet that appears to fit this construct – isolation gives rise to excellence. Iten is a town in Kenya. In terms of size or resources, it is modest. Iten’s population is roughly 4000. It sits far from the global cities where world-class sporting events take place. Solitude can be found in unlimited quantities in Iten. That said, this unassuming community is the greatest source of long-distance running in human history. It’s not close. In the past 30 years, Iten has produced twenty-five world champions and four Olympic gold medalists. A dozen medal winners from the 2011 World Championships reside in the town of Iten – five more than all of England’s medal total. The idea Iten represents is that of the determined, long-legged athlete, born to run, churning through endless miles with the devotion of a monk. This runner flies across valleys and swallows up hills with an inevitability that keeps in time with the rising and setting sun.
Running is by definition a lonely effort. Teammates aren’t available to share in the heavily lifting of competition. It’s up to you to take the next step forward. Achieving excellence, it would seem, is a sole function of the individual’s talent and character. But examining Iten’s running culture quickly dispels this impression. It turns out that of Iten’s 4000 residents, a quarter of them are runners. Training sessions happen six days a week, with practice groups numbering in the hundreds. Here is a video that captures a run, with dozens of world-class athletes pushing each others’ limits. Among the group is Wilson Kipsang, a marathon bronze medalist in the 2012 London Olympics. There is a collective will focused on improvement. This micro-culture demands performance at the highest standards. And so when they run together, these runners physically and mentally challenge their peers. Similar to a cycling peloton, the efforts of each individual accumulate into a pace that no one person can sustain. When you’re up, you better kick everyone’s ass. You take turns forcing the group into discomfort.
Aside from physical labor, there’s an intangible contribution that each person makes to a group striving for accomplishment – one consisting of ambition and hope. The participants are drafting off of one another’s dreams. This abstract material is a magic ingredient. Those runners in Iten are driven by goals that define their world, their lives, their every passing day. Each man and woman is there because their ambitions allow them no other path. That psychic material each person brings to the table is a blend of selfish and unselfish motives. The locomotion generated by your peers’ desires compels you to run harder. It’s a mutual feedback loop that goes both ways. It branches out in every direction to those surrounding you who live to be better today than they were yesterday. The lesson here is that selfishness is unselfish. Greatness isn’t solitary. It never has been. And it’s not about mutual agreeableness and gentle support either. Being cooperative means you take your peers, partners, and teammates to hard places. Being better than you were before means that you need to seek discomfort. The best people to work with do that for you. To find them, you must do the same for others. So raise your threat level as high as you can. That’s a starting point.