On 6 May 1954 Roger Bannister did something that would change the world forever. He became the first person to complete a mile in under four minutes. Before this seemingly simple feat – this moment in history, no one – officially – had managed to break the so-called “four minute barrier” for completing a mile run. It was proof that this was not a physical but a psychological barrier. There was, apparently, nothing limiting the human body from running those 1609 meters any faster, and yet, no one had been able to accomplish the task before that day in May. Then, almost as if some real barrier had been breached, more and more runners were successful where all others previously, save one, had failed.
Bannister did nothing that anyone else was not capable of, however. He just proved it could be done. Records are broken every day, and as each major competition nears, we can expect to see faster and faster times. Since Bannister’s world record-setting run in 1954, times for completing the mile or 1600 meter race have decreased. The four minute barrier is routinely crossed.
When we talk about milestones, we can also include events like sending people into space and landing on the moon. Naturally, there were technological barriers as impediments to achieving such monumental tasks, but there were mental barriers at the heart of the problem. It goes back many years to the invention of the automobile.
“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.”
– Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909.
There were many educated opinions that the automobile was a passing fad, one that would never take hold or even work. There were fears that travelling beyond 50 miles per hour could somehow be harmful to the human body. (Nevermind that it didn’t appear to affect other creatures like birds and horses.)
Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” He understood the power of believing in one’s self, the strength of the human spirit. When we look at a task – especially one that no one has ever succeeded in doing – we often say to ourselves, “impossible,” and walk away. Even things that have been accomplished by others seem to daunt us. But why do we our doubts and fears get in the way?
You have heard stories of people performing amazing feats of strength when under extreme duress. This is often attributed to adrenaline coursing through the body at times of unusually high stress, enabling muscles and tendons to exert unprecedented forces from a mere mortal. But adrenaline cannot be solely responsible for the things we accomplish. Indeed, it is thought that our efforts are mostly mental instead of physical. When NASA decided to send astronauts to the moon, the obstacles were so numerous that some scientists declared it impossible. The technological advances necessary to transport humans safely out of earth’s reach, through the void of space, and landing, and departing from the surface of the moon, were monumental. But the desire to make it happen, the belief that it could be done, that was the larger obstacle. Within a decade, NASA astronauts had advanced from barely being able to orbit the earth to playing golf on the moon.
Anything we set out to do as individuals or as a people is more likely to be a success if we have the confidence that it will happen. After Bannister’s record-setting run, suddenly, more and more runners were able to run a mile in under four minutes. It wasn’t because they were now stronger or had more stamina. Instead, it was knowing that it was possible. That’s all. The current world record is 3:43.12. In 60 years, humans have managed to chip away at what was thought to be an impenetrable wall. The women’s record for the mile is now 4:12.56. Someone will break this record someday. And she will change the world.