Slaying the Dragon by Michael Johnson

Subtitle: Sprinting as a Metaphor for Life, Introduction

Posted on November 8th

By Olivia Baker

"Life is often compared to a marathon, but I think it is more like being a sprinter: long stretches of hard work punctuated by brief moments in which we are given the opportunity to perform at our best." - Michael Johnson, Slaying the Dragon (pg# xix)

Like many of the memoirs and autobiographies we have read in this first year of Runners Who Read, Michael Johnson's Slaying the Dragon seeks to show us how we can set goals, achieve them, and weather the failures along the way through the lens of his personal experiences. However, unlike some of our past books from the likes of Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Lopez Lomong and others who are all elite distance runners, Johnson writes from the perspective of one of the greatest sprinters of all time.

I chose this book for the 11th installment of Runners Who Read because I believe that there is merit to arguments for life being both like a marathon and a sprint. In many ways, life is a long, slow grind like the marathon (as I discussed in a previous blog here), but as Johnson highlights in his quote, for as long as the performances in life may be, the preparation is almost always much longer, and in this way, life is like a sprint. In the workplace, we may spend countless hours over multiple months conducting research or preparing a project only to be given a few minutes to present it. Trust is built over the course of years in relationships for the few moments when we really need to lean on a friend. The mundane routines of daily life prepare us for the opportunities, expected and unexpected, that can come and go in the blink of an eye. Regardless of your running background, it is my hope that this book would be relatable to us in our pursuits of our goals while also challenging the ways we've discussed chasing our dreams in the past.

Discussion Question:

1. What are some of the ways in which life is like a sprint to you? How is it like a marathon?

Subtitle: How Do You Plan To Do That?, Mini-blog #1

PART ONE: Chapters 1-3

Posted on November 14th

By Olivia Baker

In Michael Johnson's house growing up, every time he came to dinner with a new ambition saying, "I want to be ___", the first question his father asked him was "How do you plan to do that?" This wasn't a hypothetical question either. He was expected to have taken the time to research what such a feat would take, evaluate how realistic it would be for him, and if he was really serious, such a plan should be written down. Sound intense? How bad do you want it? In keeping with the metaphor of life like a sprint—long periods of preparation punctuated by brief moments in which we have the opportunity to perform at our best—Johnson, in his no-fluff writing style, cuts straight to the point and makes a strong argument for practicality and preciseness in preparation in three main points:

Set the right goal. Take the time to deeply understand what motivates you and the "why" of a given goal. Then do the research to determine what it will take specifically for you to achieve the goal. Be realistic. Be specific. Formalize it by writing it down. (pg#20)

Be disciplined in the pursuit. Carry self-discipline in all areas of life, not just in pursuit of the given goal. Don't let the edges blur. Keep those corners sharp and uncut every day. Maintain a daily log to track just how far you've come and sustain a clear understanding of how much further you need to go. (pg# 46)

Lose with grace and defiance. Failures will come along the way as they are unfortunately a necessary part of the process. It is ok to mourn but try not to mope. Then write down the causes of the failure. Toss out the uncontrollable and focus on the parts you can control to help you get back at it (pg#72).

This first part of the book is jam packed with great advice and helpful examples of how to make the most out of the preparation phase of dream chasing. However, what distinguishes his approach from many we've read about so far is the emphasis he puts on writing things down to motivate himself, hold himself accountable, and keep track of his progress. If a dream is worth chasing, it is also worth pulling it out of our heads and putting a plan on paper to pursue. So this week, let's spend a little more time truly digging into and writing down our answers to the question "How do you plan to do that?"

Discussion Questions:

1. What is one tangible thing you do every day in pursuit of a long-term goal?

2. In what ways do you hold yourself accountable when reaching for a goal?

Subtitle: The First Peak, Mini-blog #2

PART TWO: Chapters 4-6

Posted on November 17th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

Congratulations! You've found some success! You've worked hard, pursued your goal with great discipline, and now you are beginning to reap the fruits of that labor. Whether that success came early, quickly, and all at once or took years of grinding just to break the soil, you are finally reaching your goals. So now what? How will you respond to your success? In Part 2 of Slaying the Dragon, Michael Johnson addresses this question directly, advising us to enjoy the win, look back at the path we took, and then look forward to the next mountain top.

Johnson got the first taste of success in his professional career very early on. By 22 years old in 1991, he had already reached his goal of becoming a World Champion at 200m. With the 1992 Olympics right around the corner, it would have been easy for him to immediately move on from the first victory in favor of pursuing an even bigger one. However, instead, Johnson takes a moment to soak it all in and enjoy the win he had worked so hard to earn. Next, he took some time to look back on the journey that brought him to that point. Sitting on a mountain top, is a great time to reflect because it is the place at which one can see the paths up the mountain most clearly. He observed his own path with gratitude for all who lifted him up along the way, and a critical eye for the missteps taken and things that could have gone better. He also sought to study the paths of others who had reached the same peak. Only after taking that time to celebrate and reflect did he move forward towards the next goal carrying the lessons with him to his next endeavor.

The more we advance towards our goals, the greater expectations become and the less room there is for improvement. In the face of sudden fame, wealth, and expectations to win an Olympic title, Johnson emphasized the importance of moving forward with consistency—maintaining the habits that got us to that point, but always learning to work smarter and find the small margins within which we can incrementally improve. So like Johnson, when we start to find success, let's celebrate the wins without allowing them to define us, reflect without lingering, and attack the next climb with the same discipline that brought us to the first peak.

Discussion Questions:

1. How long did it take you to reach the first peak on the way to achieving a goal? What changed for you when you hit it?

2. What are some of the ways you prepare for success?

Subtitle: Under Pressure, Mini-blog #3

PART THREE: Chapters 7-9

Posted on November 29th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

With greater success comes greater pressure. We all know what that feels like whether the level of success is large or small. You reach one goal and then the expectations grow even larger in pursuit of the next goal. After completing the 200m/400m double at the US Championships in 1995 and subsequently winning both at the World Championships that same year, there was an expectation that Michael Johnson would be able to repeat that feat on the bigger stage of the Olympics in the following year. He faced pressure from media and sponsors as they hyped up his potential to accomplish something that had never been done before at an Olympic Games. There was pressure to defend home turf as a high-profile athlete competing in an Olympic Games on USA soil. Most importantly, there was pressure from within to accomplish a goal that he had set for himself years ago and cement his legacy in track and field history. Pressure creates diamonds. Pressure also bursts pipes. How can we make sure that we become the diamonds and not the burst pipe when it comes time to perform?

Don't minimize it. Often times, we try to find ways to tone down the pressure on ourselves with language like "it's just another_____". If it is just another assignment, just another race, or just another date, it wouldn't make you this nervous. Allow the event or performance to hold the importance it deserves.

Trace the pressure to its roots. When we trace pressure to its roots, we realize that it all comes back to us. No amount of outside attention could create pressure if we ourselves didn't care deeply about the upcoming performance. At its root, pressure is a reflection of our own ambitions.

Let the pressure motivate you. Like a Coke bottle rocket all shaken up and ready to blast off, learn to release the pressure in a way that will propel you.

When we learn to manage pressure properly, it is no longer a weight on our shoulders, but a secret weapon in our toolbox, ready to propel us to perform at our best. When the lights shined brightest, the adrenaline that came from the pressure Johnson placed on himself propelled him to complete that 200m/400m double and break the 200m world record in the process. This week, let us all take a moment to re-evaluate how we perform under pressure.

Discussion Questions:

1. When was the last time you felt nervous about something? Did you feel like the pressure helped or hurt?

2. What are some ways that we can use pressure to our advantage when it comes time to perform?

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