What’s your Four Minute Mile?

Disclaimer: I hijacked the lead on this story from a recent INC magazine article by @HarveyMackay:


A college student arrived a few minutes late for his final exam in mathematics. The room was quiet, with everyone working hard, and the profes­sor silently handed him the test. It consisted of five math problems on the first page and two on the second. The student sat down and began to work. He solved the first five problems in half the time, but the two on the second page were tougher. Everyone else finished the exam and left, so the student was alone by the end of the time period. He finished the final problem at the last second.

The next day he got a phone call in his dorm room from the professor. “I don’t believe it! You solved the final two problems?”

“Uh, yeah,” the student said. “What’s the big deal?”

“Those were brain teasers,” the prof explained. “I announced before the exam that they wouldn’t count toward your final grade, but you missed that because you were late. But hardly anyone solves those problems in so short a time! You must be a genius!”


The other students believed the questions was too hard & impossible for the time allotted, but this student thought they must be solvable of else they wouldn’t have been put on the exam. He didn’t know, so he didn’t put up that mental barricade.

We’ve seen this before in history. Remember the story of the 4 minute mile? It had never been accomplished, but when Roger Bannister ran it, many others followed shortly behind. In fact, his record was broken just 6 weeks later.

The story of the Orville Brothers is another classic. Wilber and Orville taught the world it was possible for humans to fly, and soon many others followed, significantly improving aircraft, the art of flying, and changing the world’s concept of transportation.

We like to think this way in our business too. For example, the SalesLoft team recently applied for acceptance in a 3 month startup accelerator named Techstars in NYC. This is basically an unfair advantage for startups but it’s apparently “harder to get into than Harvard or Yale”. They say that over 1500 apply and only 10 get in but in our minds, we didn’t even hear that. We just walked into the exam late and never learned any of the limiting details, so we’re just focused on being the one.

I haven’t read his bio yet, but I get the feeling that this is the same way Steve Jobs behaved. I’m reminded of the story of Jobs not having a license plate. He just didn’t believe that the rules applied to him, whether legal or in the world of computing. It’s this kind of thinking that makes big stuff happen in the world.

So what’s your 4 minute mile?

    1. Awesome Jeff! Thanks so much for reading & for the Startup Riot support. We had a blast yesterday.

      I’m looking forward to your post. You tell great stories that really connect with your readers!

Submit a Comment