How to defeat average during times of uncertainty

Learning from challenges in some of the toughest deserts in the world, an ultra marathoner and high endurance athlete teaches us to embrace adversity and uncertainty, and to come out on the other side mentally stronger and resilient.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

During times of uncertainty, we all need to train like marathoners, but be able to run like sprinters. We need to develop a physical and mental capacity that is defined by grit, persistence, self-confidence, optimism, speed and courage. We have to face our fears, looking at uncertainty in the eye with an empathetic and forgiving smile, and then move forward with gusto. We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to be informed, knowledgeable, relevant and most importantly teachable. Great athletes achieve their full potential by questioning the impossible, reaching higher than most, and developing the discipline and mindset to find winning opportunities during times of uncertainty. 

Colin Nanka has tackled rigorously the process of re-invention by working hard towards defeating average. Nanka is the senior director, enablement for North American Sales and Leadership Development at Salesforce. He leads a team of experts who work with the biggest and most successful companies around the world as they embark on their digital transformation journeys. In his spare time, he competes in multi-day, self-sustained, adventure races in the world's most treacherous terrains, including the Sahara Desert, Gobi Desert, Iceland, Grand Canyon, Atacama Desert, and Antarctica. Most recently, Nanka challenged the notion of being average by running multiple back-to-back marathons in Patagonia. Nanka has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, raising money for a local school. 


Colin Nanka, senior director at Salesforce

I asked Colin Nanka to share advice on how you can build a predictable learning framework that allows you to reach your full potential and how you can see crisis as an opportunity to grow. 

"Sitting with my back against the wheel well of a jeep in the Sahara desert, I knew I had a choice to make. I had just mentally pulled out of my first Ultra Marathon and was facing regret, frustration, and disappointment. Would I put my tail between my legs and sulk during the next four days of the race, or would I be proud of the effort, and bring a positive attitude to support my seven teammates while they finished the race? Instantly, the lifelong learner in me knew the answer. I wanted to help, learn, and see if I could figure out how to complete one of these races. Here is how I learned how to address failure, build capacity everyday, and leverage mentors through the marathon of life," said Nanka. Nanka shares three things to think about as you position yourself to find opportunities in a crisis. 

Failure Is Not a Permanent State

World-class climber, photographer, and cinematographer Jimmy Chin recently said, "Failure is not a permanent state. Embrace it as a means to grow and move forward." He failed to climb Mount Everest on his first attempt, but he was able to apply that learning to future expeditions, including finally getting to the top, skiing down the side of the mountain, having an iconic picture from the top of the World Trade Center in National Geographic, and filming acclaimed documentary films Meru and Oscar-winning Free Solo. If he would have given up, none of that would have been possible.

If you treat failure as the tuition to your success, you can leverage it as the north star to achieving your audacious goals.


Winning during times of uncertainty is a team sport - Nanka and team running an ultra marathon 

Establishing a Daily Practice

People often ask, 'What is the first step to getting past failure?' The answer is a mindset shift. It's re-framing that failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. Right after a failure, ask yourself: What is the learning opportunity here? What is possible?

This helps get you out of a fight-or-flight response in the back of the brain and allows you to use your prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain, so you can access your creative wisdom and resourcefulness. Science shows that when you ask yourself good questions daily, the answers have a long-term impact on staying positive and performance. 

"In 2008's tough economy, I was paralyzed and opted for inaction over action. Talking to a mentor brought objectivity to my situation and helped me see crisis as an opportunity. He recommended I get a high performance coach, and she helped me focus on building a daily practice," said Nanka. Here are some of the questions that Nanka asked himself:

  • What am I happy about?
  • What am I excited about?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What is possible to create today?

You can't perform if your head is not in the right place. Asking these questions daily focuses your mindset toward positive action. At the end of each day, review these two questions to reduce anxiety and journal to build a learner's mindset.

  • What are two things I'm grateful for?
  • What is one thing you could improve today, that would impact doing it better tomorrow?

When you make small improvements every day using powerful questions through a deliberate daily practice, you are growing the capacity to take on exciting new challenges.


A long and hard journey can lead to opportunity to find new paths 

Establish Your Mentor Model

Nanka: In my younger days, I played squash. Similar to any racket sport, it takes practice and commitment. In my first lesson, my instructor told me: Play someone better than you, someone equal to you, and someone worse than you every week. Better to stretch your skills, equal to drive competitiveness, and worse to sharpen your skills and master your craft. It's a lesson I've used for mentorship and life. I would not have achieved much without mentorship and guidance.

Mentors can help bring objectivity to frustrating and emotional situations. This was the case both in 2008 after a tough professional year and in 2011 on failing in my first race.

As one example of peer mentorship, a group of four other Salesforce employees and I met every Wednesday morning at 7AM for 60-90 minutes to share best practices and support one another in our goals. We did that consistently for two years. It took discipline and accountability. This was a critical part of leveraging my three-prong mentor model of driving competitiveness and camaraderie with peer mentors. 

Play the Long Game

Nanka: In that first race in the Sahara, I only completed 60 miles out of the 160-mile race. But like Michael Jordan missing "more than 9000 shots, losing almost 300 games, and missing the last shot of the game 26 times in his career," I kept shooting. In 2012, I finished my race in China walking. A year later, I finished a race in Iceland hobbling to the finish, and in 2015, I finished my race in Chile running all the way. The next year, I ran in Antarctica, and the following year, I competed as part of a team that took 3rd place. We created this film Defeating Average to document the journey and share back with our community. 

If Nanka had not taken the first steps toward growth and mentorship, he would have let failure define him in 2008 and 2011. Establishing his daily practice, using powerful questions, and asking for help were critical for playing the long game. We are all on a journey, navigating this current crisis and the marathon of life one step and one day at a time.

This article was co-authored by Colin Nanka, Director of Sales and Leadership Development at Salesforce.

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