The 4-Minute Mile Barrier and other Glass Ceilings

Recently at a neighbour’s funeral, her son spoke with me about his mother’s positive attitude and how she had worked with Roger Bannister and had been so influenced by his positive mindset.  It got me to thinking about Bannister’s achievement in breaking the 4-minute mile in May 1954.  Perhaps like all of you, I knew his name and the achievement, but I never really understood quite how significant it was.  Inspired by my neighbour’s story, I read more about Bannister and grew to realise just how much his achievement can teach us all about breaking through our personal barriers and glass ceilings.

By May 1954, athletes and coaches in North America, Europe and Australia had been actively chasing the goal of beating the 4-minute mile for the best part of 70 years.  Many viewed it as an impossible target and the conventional wisdom was that if it was ever to be achieved it would require certain conditions and circumstances to be in place first:

  • there’d have to be perfect weather conditions, specifically the temperature would be 68 degrees and there’d be no wind! 
  • the race would have to be run on a particular kind of track: hard, dry clay; and
  • the race would need to be run in front of a boisterous crowd, whose cheering would boost the athlete to their best performance

Think about this in the context of your own life for a moment.  What is your equivalent of the 4-minute mile barrier.  What is the result you’d love to create, that feels impossible?  Maybe it’s the health changes you aspire to or the wellbeing you’d love to create but feels impossible in the face of a condition or diagnosis; maybe it’s the relationship you’d love to experience with a significant other; maybe it’s the promotion you’re chasing but haven’t landed or the professional qualification or degree you’d love to achieve?  Maybe it’s the holiday you’d love to take first class and with all the frills for you and your loved ones? 

And while there may be practical constraints around any or all of those desired outcomes, what’s the psychological barrier, the mindset that is contributing to it not happening?  Like the psychological barrier that Bannister had to overcome, all the medics and scientists who were saying it’d kill a person to run that fast, what version of “that’s not possible” are you dealing with in your thoughts and from others around you?

And to what extent are you telling yourself that the conditions and circumstances have to be perfect before you can have those results?  That you have to have a supportive boss or partner in order to be able to focus more on health or professional growth; that your kids need to be older or to have left home before you can focus on your health or your relationships; that your organisation needs to do something differently or have new policies and procedures in place so that someone like you can progress?

When it comes to glass ceilings of any sort, there are frequently both inner and outer barriers at play.  I’m not denying the outer challenges.  That said, it is my belief that the shift has to come internally prior to any external gains.  And I believe that this is borne out in psychology and in quantum physics as well as in Bannister’s story.

On that fateful day on 6 May 1954, none of the conditions were ideal, it was a cold day, the wind was up, the track was wet and it was a small meet with a smaller crowd than was considered essential.

Despite everything, Bannister crossed the line at 3.59.4 minutes to rapturous applause, and fell into the arms of his trainers.  The 4-minute mile barrier was broken and he was alive!

Perhaps equally interesting is that Bannister’s record held for only 45 days!  Once he had demonstrated that it could be done, athletes internationally started to achieve the same and better. 

Two academics, Yoram Wind and Colin Crook in their book, The Power of Impossible Thinking, explore how this could be?  That a community of runners who struggled with the 4 minute mile barrier for 70 years could suddenly start to overcome it? 

They argue that what changed was the mental model.  The runners of the past were held back by a mindset that said it couldn’t be done.  When Bannister proved the opposite, everyone saw that they could do something that they previously thought was impossible. 

Did Bannister and all runners have to do the training and the preparation? Absolutely, that’s a given.  For you and I to achieve great things in our lives (however we define that for ourselves), we also have to do the preparation and put in the effort.  My guess is that most of you are doing that already but for many it isn’t producing the results you want.  And maybe you’re even experiencing diminishing returns for the ongoing efforts you are making? 

So what can we learn from Bannister?  What’s the record you want to achieve?  For Bannister it was breaking the 4-minute mile barrier.  What’s your barrier that you want to go beyond?  The relationship you’d love to have with a significant other, the health and vitality you’d love to experience, the impact and recognition you’d love professionally, the time and money freedom?  It is all possible for you.  Hold fast for it, no matter if anyone around you is telling you otherwise:

Just because they say it’s impossible doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

Roger Bannister

And remember that nothing has to change on the outside first.  Don’t wait for the conditions to change or for circumstances to be perfect – it’s not necessary!  That’s not to say we don’t try to change things in the outer sphere, it’s just to acknowledge that we don’t have to wait until they have changed in order to progress and even achieve our goals.

If Martin Luther King or Rosa Parkes waited for things to change first, we’d still have segregation.  If the Wright brothers waited until they had all the resources in place, flight most likely would have been long delayed.  Indeed, Samuel Pierpont Langley, who by the measures of their times had all the money, resources and political backing, never achieved what the Wright brothers achieved and quit in the face of their success. 

It is in the act of believing in the possibilities and doing the things they could do that all successful people cause the changes to happen. Bannister put it this way:

“It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.”

And Wayne Dyer said it this way:

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

That’s the key to transforming results for all of us, hold for your vision, believe in the possibilities  and take the steps that are yours to take and you can cause it to come about.

If you’d love support to get clear on your goals and how to develop and sustain the mindset and strategy to achieve them join me live on Zoom for the Vision Workshop on Saturday 21 May or come to the in-person Live a Life you Love Yoga and Transformation workshop on 27 May.

You deserve to live a life you love and I’d love to support you in achieving it!

Cover Image source: AP via Alamay