Start-up lessons from Roger Bannister

by Vanja Przulj October 02, 2019


On 6th May 1954 Roger Bannister became the first person in the world to run a mile in under four minutes. The exact time was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Previous to this, experts had thought it was impossible - they believed the human body was simply not capable of doing it. Over the years many tried and many failed. 

After Bannister’s feat, it took just 46 days for another runner to break the sub-four minute mile, this time it was Australian John Landy. The record has been broken many times since.

Although Bannister’s achievement was an incredible physical accomplishment, it was an even greater mental one. 46 days was not long enough for Landy to become a significantly better runner. For example, he couldn’t change his training program or diet to such an extent and in such a short amount of time to give him a physical edge.

The change was mental. Once he had seen Bannister do it, he knew it was possible. 


The Power of Deliberate Action

Bannister didn’t just decide to one day run a mile in under four minutes. He had been running for eight years before breaking the record. In 1947 he managed a time of 4 minutes 24.6 seconds - this was accomplished with a training regime which consisted of just three weekly 30 minute sessions. 

He then decided to take running more seriously, but was still only doing it part-time alongside his studies and eventual training as a junior doctor in London. 

By 1951 Bannister was winning races and his time had come down to 4 minutes 7.8 seconds. But after a disappointing Olympics in 1952, he had set himself a new target: run a mile in under four minutes. 


Chances by wrdbnr

Chances by wrdbnr


In 1953 he recorded a time of 4 minutes 3.6 seconds. “This race made me realise the four minute mile was not out of reach” said Bannister. 

In 1954, aged 25 and still only treating running as a side-project (his training was light, even compared to the standards of the day) Bannister did it. He would retire from athletics later that year to concentrate on his studies in Neurology and would eventually become a highly respected Neuroscientist. 

The four minute mile was not an accident. It was a deliberate effort that took years to come to fruition. But more importantly it showed the power of belief and taking deliberate action towards achieving your goals. 

After running for several years Bannister grew to believe what everyone else had claimed was impossible, was indeed possible, and in 1954 he proved it.

But the fact that he did all this while training part time, treating running as a side project, makes it even more remarkable


Forge your own path

In startup land, founders face doubt and criticism all the time, sometimes from ourselves on the inside and sometimes from others. We are regularly told our ideas won’t work, or what we're trying to accomplish is too difficult. Sometimes from those closest to us which can be painful to hear. 


Street Walker by Kevin Russ

Street Walker by Kevin Russ


But there is a fine line between vision, belief and delusion. Bannister built up several years of experience which underlined his belief. He had proof of sorts when he came close in 1953, and this drove him on. 

What made him believe in himself came from a mixture of real world experience and internal instinct. He didn’t have an example he could follow, but the belief he built up over time helped him forge his own path and ultimately set an example for others to follow. 

I think too often as startup founders we look to others for guidance, when using our own instincts and experiences would do us more good. I know I do this myself. Although it’s important to learn from others, Bannister is a reminder to try and forge our own path, no matter what uncertainty lies ahead.

If you’re building a startup and have competitors, how often have you found yourself copying their features for no real reason other than just because they are doing it


Compare by wrdbnr startup wall art

Compare by wrdbnr


Scott Belskey (founder of Behance, a platform for discovering creative talent) has previously talked about wasting several quarters copying a competitor product ( purely out of fear. Belskey eventually realised this was a fool’s errand and shifted back to building his own vision. Behance went on to be acquired by Adobe for a reported $150m.


Embrace Uncertainty

Uncertainty is scary. Seeing an example we can follow helps us remove doubt and strengthens our beliefs. Sometimes without it we wouldn’t be able to make the first move.

But if we always follow this template, it will stop us innovating and doing something truly amazing.

The story of Roger Bannister has shown us that with enough regular action, the small wins you make will compound your belief and set you up mentally to create truly original work. 

Bannister went on to become a celebrated neuroscientist, making breakthroughs in the field and once again forging his own path. He clearly had an interest in the human mind early on, and I’m sure the mental aspect of his running went on to inform his career in neuroscience.


Brain anatomy by The New Black Design

Brain Anatomy by The New Black Design


For anyone that is interested, Bannister’s biggest achievement in his medical career came in the field of autonomic failure - more precisely an area of neurology focussed on illnesses characterised by the loss of certain automatic responses in the nervous system. 

In an interview in 2014 Bannister said: 

“I'd rather be remembered for my work in neurology than my running. If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the autonomic nerve system, I'd take that over the four minute mile right away. I worked in medicine for sixty years. I ran for about eight”.

Roger Bannister passed away on 3rd March 2018 aged 88.



Set specific goals - after a disappointing 1952 Olympics Bannister set a specific goal of breaking the sub 4 minute mile. In 1954 he’d done it. If he hadn’t set this goal would he have still made history? Possibly, but goal setting has been linked to higher achievement in multiple studies. Setting very specific goals is even more powerful.

Take consistent action over a long period of time - Bannister broke the sub 4 minute mile running part time, but he did this consistently over 8 years. Don’t underestimate the compounding effects of regular action over a long period of time, even if that action is relatively small. 

Power of side projects - Bannister treated running as a side project, yet still accomplished something professional runners couldn’t. Side projects aren’t new, they remain a great way of starting something life changing that might otherwise be overwhelming or difficult. 

To create truly original work you have to forge your own path - looking at what others are doing / have done can be inspiring. Sometimes without having an example to follow we would never get started. But if you always look to others for guidance you will never create truly original work. At some point you have to have the courage to let your own experiences and self-belief guide your vision.


Vanja Przulj
Vanja Przulj

Founder of arthaus, bootstrapping a b2c art marketplace.

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