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Sometimes an analogy brings the point home better than anything else. Motivational speakers and charismatic leaders use metaphors and allegories to convey the message, provide food for the thought, motivate and inspire. The best-selling book Chicken Soup For The Soul harnessed the power of allegorical story-telling; it consisted of inspirational true stories about ordinary people’s lives. The book became a major best-seller and something of a social phenomenon. The most prolific motivational speaker and a life coach to presidents, Tony Robbins, uses a great many metaphors and allegories in his speeches and writing. One of the most famous ones is Tony Robbins’ 4-minute mile anecdote.

Tony Robbins discussed the 4-minute mile on page 84 of his 1991 book Awaken the Giant Within:

“Do you know the story of the 4-minute mile? For thousands of years, people held the belief that it was impossible for a human being to run the mile in less than four minutes. But in 1954, Roger Bannister broke this imposing belief barrier. He got himself to achieve the ‘impossible’ not merely by physical practice but by constantly rehearsing the event in his mind, breaking through the four-minute barrier so many times with so much emotional intensity that he created vivid references that became an unquestioned command to his nervous system to produce the result. Many people don’t realize though, that the greatest aspect of his breakthrough was what it did for others. In the whole history of the human race, no one had ever been able to break a four-minute mile, yet within one year of Roger’s breaking the barrier, 37 other runners also broke it. His experience provided them with references strong enough to create a sense of certainty that they, too, could ‘do the impossible.’ And the year after that, 300 other runners did the same thing!”

In other motivational speeches throughout the years, Mr. Robbins has also used other numbers, saying it was 24 in a year and 24 in a few years.

John C. Maxwell repeated that story of 37 and 300 other runners on page 106 of his 1993 book, Developing the Leader Within You. It also showed up on page 12 of the 2003 book Heroes: A Guide to Realising Your Dreams by Jim Stynes, Jon Carnegie, and Paul Currie. Michael Cioppa repeated it in 2003 on page 27 of his book Success is Not A Miracle: The Science of Achievement. Eyal Yurconi also repeated it on page 116 of his 2006 book Being Great: Winning the Battles Within. So, did William J. Nippard, on page 12 of his 2011 book, The Teamwork Ladder.

The reality is that only one other man, John Landy, ran a less than 4-minute mile in the next year, and just four people did in the 2nd year. It took 6 years for 24 athletes to beat the 4-minute mile record and 8 years for 37 athletes to do the same.

More data points are required

Speaking with BBC in his interview, the record-breaker Roger Bannister admitted that one of the reasons might be the mental barrier.

However, Bannister also noted that 9 years the record stalled were WWII and post-war times where food was rationed. Majority of countries that took part in World War II set their priorities on building back dilapidated industries instead, which is understandable. The food was still rationed in many countries and austerity was unprecedented.

Adding further layers of context

Other important points the motivational speaker omitted from his book, are the particulars of the anatomy of best runners’ bodies. Just like racing cars where perfect aerodynamics aid in breaking speed records, having the right anatomy to suit a particular sport can make the difference between success and failure.

“Top marathon runners tend to be lean and light, star swimmers are ‘gangly things’ with huge feet and gold medal weightlifters are solid blocks of muscle with short arms and legs.” Different anatomy/physiology is required for sprinters and marathon runners too.

Sprinting

The perfect 100m sprinter is tall, with a strong mesomorphic body shape. Top sprinters have slim lower legs and relatively narrow hips which gives a biomechanical advantage. They have a high percentage of fast twitch fibres (more than 80%). They use muscle fuel so fast that they are practically running on empty by the end of the race.

Marathon running

The perfect marathon runner has a light frame, slim legs and is of small to medium height. They have a high percentage of slow twitch fibres and very high maximal oxygen uptake. They can withstand dehydration, and training gives their muscles a high storage capacity for the premium muscle fuel, glycogen.

But Robbins’s anecdote is so fascinating that we want to believe it. Because we take someone’s authority without questioning, this ‘minor white lie’ lives in our minds and is being re-told and re-quoted in books of seemingly reputable authors ad infinitum.

Is Tony Robbins’ 4-minute mile anecdote a meaningful metaphor or unfounded fiction?

Tony Robbins' 4-Minute Mile – Meaningful Metaphor or Unfounded Fiction? Motivational Metaphors

The answer is – it is both and us, humans, are the meaning-makers. Do facts matter more than the inspiration? To me as a journalist, they absolutely do.

Understanding that someone uses occasional paltering and misreporting to present their story means that we can hold ourselves to more realistic standards. Mapping the reality adequately will provide us with tangible information we need to make calculated decisions and set achievable goals. Running a 4-minute-mile is not one of them for most of us.

As to public speakers, motivators or leaders of any kind, you will have two types of people among your listeners – those who care about facts and those who just want a beautiful tale to inspire them. Make sure to cater for both.