On a hazy Saturday morning in October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human in history to finish a marathon in less than two hours.
A day after his historic record, Brigid Kosgei broke the women’s marathon world record by more than a minute. And a few weeks later newcomer Joyciline Jepkosgei won the NYC marathon beating superstar Mary Keitany who was trying to win for the fifth time. 1
Kipchoge, Kosgei, Jepkosgei, and Keitany were all born and raised in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. Runners from this region seem to be “superhuman” and have dominated long-distance running since the 1960s. Many scientists wonder how do they do it? How did Kenyans from the Rift Valley region achieve unparalleled dominance in long-distance running?
Genetics alone can’t be the answer. Runners from the Rift Valley win over 50% of all long-distance races and they make up just 0.14% of the world’s population. 2
Besides marathon running is hard work and one of the most demanding sports in the world. Runners can run out of energy, suffer dehydration, or get injured on their way to the finish line. There are many things that can go wrong.
Running as a Need and a Way of Life
One reason the Rift Valley has so many world champions is that people there develop the habit of running long distances as children.
Like most kids born in rural Kenyan villages, Kipchoge discovered running while in primary school. While growing up, running long distances for him was simply a way of life just to make it to class on time. Kipchoge said, “You don’t know you are running because it is a must.” 3
Jepkosgei too spent most of her childhood running, “I would run to school in the morning, run home for lunch, run back to school and then run home again – each and every day of the week.” 4
Runners born in the Rift Valley develop the habit of running as children. But it takes a lot more than a habit to become a champion. What truly makes this place so special is that world champions like Kipchoge return there even after becoming famous and earning millions.
The Mindset to Become a Champion
Athletes like Kipchoge can live anywhere in the world but choose to live a simple way of life in the Rift Valley training and mentoring young runners.
Meeting these athletes transformed Kosgei’s life. She said, “My school was 10km from home and sometimes to avoid getting late I would run. On my way, I met athletes who were training and said to myself: I can be like them.” 5
Kids born in the Rift Valley are raised in an environment where everyone learns to run as a necessity. Over time running becomes part of their identity. And they soon believe it is possible to be the best in the world.
They are not superhumans after all but regular people like you and me. What sets them apart is that they developed the mindset of champions as children.
“Right Mindset + Good Habits + Focus = Potential”
This means you and I can also fulfill our potential in life with the right mindset, good habits, and focus.
Mindset is More Important than Talent
According to Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck, the way we think about our skills and talents affects what we achieve in life.
If you believe that your abilities can be developed through effort and learning then you have a growth mindset. On the other hand, your mindset is fixed if you believe your success is accomplished solely based on your talent and little effort.
In Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success she writes:
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time.
In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
People that have a growth mindset put in the time necessary to learn a new skill. They accept that failure is a part of the learning process and see mistakes along the way as lessons to learn from and master.
Likewise, if you are going to fulfill your purpose in life you must also first believe that you can be successful by working hard and developing your talents. Change the way you think and you will be able to grow your mind.
Your Brain has the Ability to Grow
The brain is an amazing organ more efficient than a supercomputer. It contains about 86 billion nerve cells called neurons that are constantly changing and making new connections.
If you challenge your brain, it will create new and denser connections of neurons and become more powerful. This is the science behind a growth mindset. And why your mind grows when you develop your talents and skills through effort, learning, and experience. 6
Even if you grew up believing that your intelligence, talents, and abilities are fixed traits that cannot grow you can develop a growth mindset.
Neurologist Dr. George Wittenberg explains, “We used to think adults can’t form new brain connections but now we know that isn’t true. The adult brain is like a muscle and we need to exercise it.”
The more you challenge your brain the stronger it will become.
Challenge Your Brain to Grow It
Your brain is designed to adapt to a challenging environment by creating new and stronger connections. Neuroplasticity refers to its ability to change and grow as a result of experience.
The more you challenge your mind by learning new skills, the more powerful it will become. Tiny connections between neurons multiply and get stronger every time you try something new. 7
This is why adult animals living in a challenging environment are better at solving problems and learning new things. In fact, scientists found that adult animals who lived with toys and other animals had a 10% heavier brain than animals who lived alone without any toys.
While testing humans, scientists also found that “learning causes permanent changes in the brain.” People who learned how to juggle and practiced for a long time grew the parts of their brains that control juggling skills. The visual and motor areas of their brains got larger with new and stronger connections. 8
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Your brain cells lose their function if you don’t use them.
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
The phrase “Use it or Lose it” was coined by neurologist Marian Diamond to refer to what happens to the brain if it is not exercised. Her research shows that the brain continuously shrinks and expands depending on our experiences.
When brain cells are not used they lose their function. If you don’t sufficiently challenge your brain by learning new skills it will eventually deteriorate and shrink with age.
Having a growth mindset will help your brain stay healthy and continuously develop your skills and talents.
By making learning a lifelong habit, you can give your brain the exercise it needs and achieve your potential in life just like the kids born in the Rift Valley. Read this article to learn 7 powerful ways you can grow your mind every day.
Sign Up for Free to Get Life-Changing Ideas
Thank you for reading. You get evidence-based ideas that can potentially transform your life in my email newsletter. Sign up below for ideas, quotes, and questions that will inspire you to do the meaningful things that matter.
- Brigid Kosgei destroyed the women’s world record at the Chicago Marathon. Faith Karimi (November 2019), The reasons why Kenyans always win marathons lie in one region.
- Rift Valley region is the most populous with a total population of 12,752,966. Census 2019: Rift Valley most populous region.
- You don’t know you are running because it is a must. Tom Reynolds (April 2020), Eliud Kipchoge: The humble home life in rural Kenya behind remarkable athletic success.
- Going to school and coming home was all about running. Simon Hart (October 2021), With London Marathon win, Jepkosgei writes the latest chapter in her road running success story.
- On my way I met athletes who were training and said to myself: ‘I can be like them. Celestine Karoney (October 2019), Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei: School dropout, mother of twins and world record-holder.
- Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity refers to the ability of our brain to change throughout our life. Betsy Ng (January 2018), The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation.
- A typical healthy human brain contains about 200 billion nerve cells. ScienceDaily (November 2010), Stunning details of brain connections revealed.
- New research shows that the brain is like a muscle – it changes and gets stronger the more you use it. Health & Science, You Can Grow Your Brain.