The inspiration behind the marathon not a sprint analogy

As the most successful investor in history, Warren Buffett is, unsurprisingly, a highly sought after individual when it comes to business and financial expertise. But as a master in longevity (he’s running one of the world’s largest companies well into his nineties), he also has a lot of life wisdom to share.

Every so often he shares this wisdom in talks to students and young people. For those lucky enough to attend in person, they’ll likely hear Buffett’s infamous car analogy which goes as so:

Let’s say that I offer to buy you the car of your dreams. You can pick out any car that you want, and then when you get out of class this afternoon, that car will be waiting for you at home.

But there’s a catch: It’s the only car you’re ever going to get…in your entire life.

Now, knowing that how are you going to treat that car?

You’re probably going to read the owner’s manual four times before you drive it; you’re going to keep it in the garage, protect it at all times, change the oil twice as often as necessary. If there’s the least little bit of rust, you’re going to get that fixed immediately so it doesn’t spread — because you know it has to last you as long as you live.

“You have only one mind and one body for the rest of your life, if you aren’t taking care of them when you’re young, it’s like leaving that car out in hailstorms and letting rust eat away at it. If you don’t take care of your mind and body now, by the time you’re 40 or 50, you’ll be like a car that can’t go anywhere.

Marathon Not A Sprint Car

Buffett’s analogy encapsulates a sheer reality that everyone shares no matter their background: we each only have one body and one mind in this life and we can’t afford to waste away either of them.

Inspired by Buffet’s car analogy, I came up with my own analogy about the development of skillsets and more broadly, the journey of life.

A skill is a marathon not a sprint: an analogy

In one of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meetings in Omaha, Nebraska, Buffett was asked a question about how to go about living a fruitful life by one of the attendees. In his response, Buffett stressed the importance of doing what you love remarking that nobody is going to win the race that you elect to run.

Most of the races we run in life are marathons, not sprints. This includes life itself—life is a marathon not a sprint.

It seems to me that so much of success and achievement in life is simply down to perseverance. Not quitting in running those marathons when the majority of others do so.

So many of the marathons we run are not even races per se. You can run them at your own pace and no arbitrator particularly cares what time you finish the marathon as long as you’re not littering along the way. The only one who knows your timing is you and that’s good enough as long as you don’t give up but keep plodding forward and cross the finish line. If you keep going in a race you elect to run because it’s important to you and other runners eventually drop out, then by virtue, you’ll be one of the winners.

One of my own examples is in the art of language learning. Without a doubt, learning a foreign language is a marathon not a sprint. Attrition rates in language learning are very high: more than 90% of people give up learning a language some period of time after they start and never pass the beginner/elementary phase. The shelves in bookshops speak for themselves – the vast majority of books, CDs and courses are aimed at beginners because that’s where the market is for companies selling these products. In fact, any company who solely targets the intermediate or advanced markets will likely go bankrupt no matter how good their sales team is.

When running the marathons of each language I learned, I didn’t compare myself to other runners nor specify an exact time that I had to cross milestones. Language learning has never been a race for me. If I tried to make it a race, I would have been a fool which wouldn’t have pleased my mother who doesn’t want her maternal record stating that she raised a fool. I would have been a fool because as far as I’m concerned, I have absolutely no talent in learning languages and only a fool enters a race in something they have no talent in, foregoing entering a race that they may actually have talent in.

I set goals but my sheer focus was on putting one foot in front of the other, the processes I was following daily knowing that at some point, I’d be able to look back and realise that I’d progressed for miles and miles despite the slog of a journey the marathon can sometimes be.

While I’m still in a language learning marathon, perseverance not talent has gotten me over the lines I’ve crossed in the races I’ve run. I recommend the same for others.

Marathon Not A Sprint Language

Why life is a marathon not a sprint

Just as skillsets need time to cultivate, so too does a good life.

Life is a marathon not a sprint in many ways.

You don’t want to dash out of the blocks too fast as in a sprint. You might shine for a short while but you’ll burn out before you know it. A good life is about quality, not speed.

You can’t tell everyone to stay in their lane as you would during a sprint. In life, some people cross your path, others ignore you. But as it’s a marathon, you can always adapt where you are on the course, focusing on your progress and not the positions of others.

The terrain of life isn’t always smooth and flat as in a sprint. The ground we cover is at times non-linear and bumpy but as long as we keep putting one foot in front of the other, we progress along it nonetheless.

Then there’s age. If you’re lucky enough to go far in your marathon, you’ll reach old age, a phase which usually results in a slowing down of some faculties. Yet as life is a marathon not a sprint, this doesn’t matter. All that matters is consistency—that you keep your wits about you as you go along your course, your mental endurance never fading even if your physical endurance does.

You’ll encounter tonnes of people during your journey. Some will help you, some won’t. A few will compete with you, others will leave you alone. An unfortunate handful will give up but most will persevere.

The only people who are at the start of your marathon are your parents but they won’t be there at the end of it. No-one will, apart from you.

Everybody finishes in the same place at the conclusion of a marathon: the end of their lives. Any high you get at the end of the marathon depends upon the way you ran it. What’s important is how you experienced your run as you undertook it: the highs, the lows, the struggles, the elation, all of it. Life is the journey, not the destination.

How rewarding that conclusion of your marathon will be is down to you.

Marathon Not A Sprint Life


Life is a marathon not a sprint. A good marathon is a race that we elect to run, not one worried about the positions of others. If we persist in a race we elect to run, we’ll be winners as our success is self-determined and not through the opinions of others.

In most cases, a skillsets we acquire in life is also a marathon not a sprint. We all want to learn X knowledge fast, perform Y skill best, and master Z domain well. We forget that cultivation of mastery takes time and that speed for the sake of it hinders quality. Most of the skills we learn in life are not races with others—all that matters is that we make progress on our own journey instead of comparing ourselves to others.

A marathon has huge parallels with a good life. A good life is one where you’re neither going too fast nor too slow. One where you’re adapting to the challenges of the course, overcoming the ups and downs of the terrain and persisting with your mental will, even if your legs go.

Most importantly, like a marathon, a good life isn’t about the finish line, it’s about all those innumerable present moments you experienced once you started. At the heart of it, life isn’t the finish line, it’s the journey itself.