In 2010, I had dinner with Madonna – Sister Madonna Buder, the “Iron Nun.” Sister Madonna’s story of success is amazing: She started training for Ironman triathlons when she was 48. In the Kona triathlon, Sister Madonna was knocked down in the windswept fields of lava where the road asphalt reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind literally picked her up and dropped her in the harsh, hardened lava rock. She broke her collarbone. The following year, she returned only to have race organizers tell her that they had new weight requirements due to high winds and that she did not qualify. She swam, biked and ran the course anyway. “This is the USA, it’s a free country,” she reasoned. The following year, they changed the rules and she competed again, legitimately.
When we met, it was my first Ironman Triathlon. It was Sister Madonna’s 36th. We had dinner just 2 days before the big race, Ironman Canada. The day after the race, I would turn 40.
In Ironman competitions and entrepreneurial ventures, the most inspiring words of wisdom and insight seem to come from those who have real operating experience actually doing things versus hypothesizing about them. Sister Madonna could tell I had the nervous jitters of a first timer Ironman competitor. It wasn’t about technical knowledge as much as nervous anticipation. “If an 80-years-young nun could do this race, certainly you gentlemen have to believe that you are capable! Pain is temporary,” she said. “Ironman is forever!“
Sister Madonna is still a force to be reckoned with. Now 86, she’s pushing herself to limits people not even half her age even dream of achieving. Meeting Sister Madonna left me with three big lessons valuable in both business and in life:
1. Dream Big
“The only failure is not to try.”
What defines greatness is not the ability to do something with ease, but the strength and audacity to keep going when something is really, really hard. In the four decades Sister Madonna has been competing, she has broken her hip twice, her right arm six times, her left arm twice, her shoulder, her collarbone and almost all her fingers and toes. She keeps going because, “the only failure is not to try.”
2. Strategy & Self-Mastery
“We have all been given different talents. We have to dig deep to discover them. And when we find them, we are obligated to use them for the greater good.”
Sister Madonna started running when she was 48 as a way to “harmonize the mind, body and soul.” Training for an Ironman and building a business mean learning to elevate all three – mind, body and soul. It’s an incredible process of self-actualization and you’ll need a strategy, tools and resources to reach your highest goals. I continue to discover better tools for measuring, learning and improving performance. Measure everything. Organize your data and glean insights to improve.
3. Work Hard & Achieve
“Your effort in itself is a success.”
All success begins with hard work and massive action. For years, Sister Madonna joked that she would train “religiously.” When she and all the Ironman competitors step up to the start line, we’ve already completed a longer race of preparing ourselves. People don’t run triathlons because they’re easy. The physical limitations and the emotional inner dialogue are all obstacles we choose to inflict on ourselves especially on the edge of an enormous achievement.
In business and in life, leadership and love are the highest calling for the life that is inside of us.