All of my life I have been told to finish what I start. When I was very young, it was always in connection to food.

“Finish what’s on your plate.”

“Don’t order more than you can eat.”

‪As a youngster I was notoriously sneaky. By pushing bits of my food to the side of the plate, I could make nearly half of my vegetable portion disappear in the edge-design of the porcelain plates. As I got older, the phrase began to apply to more long-lasting activities. When I got bored of soccer in the middle of the season in Elementary School, my father insisted that I finish out the season because I owed it to my team and to myself to “finish what I started.”

A funny thing has happened as I’ve gotten older, and particularly since I joined the army. Rather than pushing the food to the corners of my plate, I have begun adding extra servings to test the strength of my stomach. In fact, since I began training for the army, I have forgotten how not to push myself to the edge. I no longer go for jogs. Every time I run, it’s a competition against myself that often ends in dry heaving. Every workout is an attempt to do more pushups pull-ups or sit-ups than I did the last time.  Goals that I set for myself are no longer suggestions but requirements.

Last week, after a long run, I decided to run 400-meter sprints, something I haven’t done in months.  My best time then, well rested, was just over a minute. This time, I ran my first sprint in 1:25, a dismal time at best even in my tired state. I knew I could do better. Returning dejectedly to the starting line, I told myself that if I could run that sprint in less than 1:15, I would throw in the towel for the day. I gave all I had for the duration of the sprint, and then, for some reason, just as I reached the finish line, I slowed down. A second was all I lost. But it was the second I needed to attain my goal. When I checked my watch, I saw 1:16:02 staring back at me. I was exhausted. And I was angry. I could have quit there, knowing that, had I pushed myself in that last meter, I would have gained back that second. I had proven to myself that I was capable of 1:15.  How many people, maybe even you, would have called it a day at 1:16:02? But here’s the point: Don’t.  Because everything is a test. A test of your conditioning, yes, but more importantly, of your willpower. Of your commitment to meet the standards you set for yourself.  I could have thrown in the towel with little/no impact on my overall conditioning. But conditioning wasn’t the point; the point was that I had made a promise to myself, and once you break that promise once, you are certain to break it again. Failure is not always a single, powerful thrust of the sword through the heart. Sometimes, it’s death by a thousand cuts.  It’s not always a sad, resolute voice saying “I quit.” Often, it is the tired, half-hearted promise that you make to yourself when you fall short that you will do better next time. The voice in your head that says, “I deserve a rest. Tomorrow I will meet my goals.”

While 1.02 seconds on a 400 meter sprint sounds like a stupid thing to get hung up on, I can assure you that it is not. For while it starts there, it doesn’t end there.  I’ve learned in the army that when you cut corners when it comes to the small things, it affects the big things. It starts with not shining your boots in the morning. And then it’s not making your bed or shaving, and soon enough it’s taking off your helmet when your not supposed to. Sneaking a nap in during a shift of guard duty. Walking instead of creeping, creeping instead of crawling. It’s a domino affect, and in the army it can be a lethal one. And it can all be prevented by a simple decision: To finish what you start. To meet the standards you set for yourself.  So I did.  Kicking myself for my failure to follow through, and still panting from the previous run, I dragged myself back to the starting point. I would break 1:15 if it took me all night. I hit the stopper and began pumping my legs, focusing only on the next step. On the final 100-meter stretch, I suddenly felt a burst of energy that I didn’t know I had in me. I reached within, and with all of the energy in my body, pounded my legs into the pavement and willed my body forward. Long after my lungs had failed me, long after my legs had grown too weak, I found that I somehow still had the strength to continue. To persevere. When I crossed the finish line, and promptly collapsed onto the pavement, I had just enough energy to lift my right hand and look at the stopper: the time read 1:12:00

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While perusing a book called “Stumbling on Happiness,” I came across some interesting facts on the “average person.”   Social scientists and pollsters have a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most consistent finds is that the average person thinks they are not average. The average persons believes that he will find a job he loves, never get divorced, and build a happy home. And yet the average American moves more than six times, changes jobs more than ten times, and marries more than once.  90% of the people on the roads consider themselves safer than the average driver and a whopping 94% of college professors consider themselves to be better than average teachers. So what do we do about this? In short, we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, in order to sort out the cognitive dissonance that results when we fall short of the above-averageness we assume we possess.

One of the main takeaways from this fact is that we must realize, individually, that we don’t have any inherent advantage against the person next to us, because we are the average person. All that can truly set us apart is our recognition of this fact and our resulting commitment to succeed, and work harder than the person next to us. There is no inherent advantage.  Only a commitment to yourself to finish what you start. So don’t push the vegetables to the side of the plate. Help yourself to a second serving.

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