Running Through Product Development: What Running Taught Me About My Job

At Brooks Stevens, we have some of the coolest jobs in the world (apart from Beach Patrol in Australia, duh).  We get to develop product from a twinkle in a client’s eye, until fully functional prototypes are created.  And not just any product, but almost every product!  If variety is the spice of life, then we are a five-alarm fire!

This work is not for everyone though.  It takes a special type of person to handle the intermittent long days, tight deadlines and the responsibility to perform at a high level for each of our clients.  I have been working at Brooks Stevens for almost 15 years now, and I know I would not have lasted 2 without being a runner.

Running is the balm the releases my stress, the outlet for my frustrations, and the milieu for clear thinking.  It is during my runs that my mind is allowed to wander freely, much like in my nightly dreams.  Above metronomic footfalls and rhythmic breathing, the issues and challenges of the day are mulled over.  I first realize, “These problems have answers.”  Eventually, ghosts of solutions start to appear.  These specters are then evaluated with possible solutions becoming plausible.  I frequently need to jot down notes after my longer runs because, much like dreams, the answers can be fleeting once awake.  Running puts you in your head for a long time; might as well make good use!

There is a great quote I read in a book called Born to Run (if you haven’t read this book, go do it.  Like, right now.) that states “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.  It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed.  Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up.  It knows that it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle when the sun comes up you’d better be running.”  This just screams business metaphor, doesn’t it?

The age of “Me Too” products is gone.  Manufacturers must know both themselves (lion or gazelle) and their customers, and then, armed with that knowledge, provide an experience others do not, or cannot.  Our customers are forced to run very fast nowadays to stay ahead of the lions planning their demise.  Whatever they are planning, Evolution or Revolution, they must run, and quickly.

George Sheehan said , “To keep from decaying, to be a winner, the athlete must accept pain–not only accept it, but look for it, live with it, learn not to fear it.”  So true!  During a particular race in 2012 in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest, I started to feel nauseous and began cramping near the half way point.  Now this was a stupid-long race with stupid-far to go.  And (of course) the hills were just beginning.  As the cliché goes, quitting was not an option.  I had mentally prepared for this type of pain.  I taught myself that what I was about to feel for the next four hours was not really pain, but discomfort.  And discomfort can be overcome.  I did power through the remainder of the race, got a second wind, and ended up winning my age group.  That was worth the discomfort any day.

Anyone who develops product designs for a living understands the difficulty of the task.  The challenges presented by our customers can be daunting at times.  Sometimes, if we knew what lies in wait, we wouldn’t want to start.  But of course, if it were easy, anyone could do this.  True innovation is hard.  There is discomfort involved.  We accept this and move forward.  We know that our process breeds innovation, and we need to give the process a chance.  There is no better feeling in my job than providing solutions to my customers that gets them excited and energized for what is possible.

Besides, “Have you ever felt worse after a run?”  Not me. Plus, I get to wear Lycra.