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How Desi won: The connection between selflessness and success


"Helping her helped me." Selflessness propelled Desiree Linden to a 2018 Boston Marathon victory.

I’ll never, ever forget Desiree Linden’s run at today’s Boston Marathon. Not just because she’s the first American woman to win since 1985. And not just because she proved to be the toughest competitor in a talented field on a miserably chilly, windy, rainy day. Along the way to her win, Desi displayed a level of kindheartedness and collaboration you might not expect from a fierce competitor during a race. When fellow American Shalane Flanagan peeled off for a porta potty stop, Desi slowed down, allowing Shalane to catch back up to her. A runner racing to win wouldn't normally slow her pace for anyone, but Desi told reporters conditions were so awful, she thought she might end up dropping out of the race. She figured she might as well help Shalane rejoin the pack of lead runners.


"When you work together you never know what's going to happen," Desi said. "Helping her helped me.”


Hold onto that thought, because that wasn’t the end of it. As the race progressed, Desi continued to help others, catching up with another American, Molly Huddle. She still didn’t see herself winning. Molly was in 4th place with two miles left in the race, but she faded with hypothermia, while Desi found another gear. “There must’ve been a positive mind shift for her just trying to invest herself in other people and it took the weight off,” Runners’ World quoted Shalane as saying. “I think she was reinvigorated.”


An insightful comment from the winner of the 2017 New York Marathon, whose “selfless acts of mentorship” New York Times columnist Lindsay Crouse called “The Shalane Flanagan Effect.” “You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you, while catapulting forward yourself,” Crouse wrote last year.


And that’s my point for this blog post: Traits like compassion, camaraderie, and collaboration are part of the reason Shalane won last November and Desi won today. We can’t discount the hard work in training plus a certain level of talent. But many of us—whether in sports, school, careers, or whatever—are single-mindedly focused on our own success. Desi and Shalane have both shown how, by focusing on others, we can also help ourselves. Helping her helped me.”


Colleges want to fill their classrooms, and businesses want to fill their offices, with people like Desi and Shalane, who work together toward mutual success and prop each other up. It may not be your natural instinct to put others before yourself, or at least to make their success an equal priority to your own. But it has been proven that people who are “givers,” invested in others’ well-being, are more likely themselves to succeed. I first became aware of this when I read a 2013 New York Times article about University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist whose research shows that helping others makes us happier and more productive. Grant has also written a book, Give and Take, explaining this phenomenon.

Is proving yourself to be a “giver” a magical way to ensure your admission to highly selective universities? No way. But here’s what I believe all students should do, no matter where they hope to go to college: In high school, work together with your classmates, study together for tests, and foster a collaborative, not competitive environment. Celebrate each other’s success. Outside of class, find service opportunities that are meaningful to you and that will have a positive impact on others in your community. These efforts will likely help you to be a happier and more successful student and person. They will help others around you feel good in your presence and be more successful themselves. As a side effect, they might—just might—help you get into college.


Be like Desi. Be like Shalane. By helping others, help yourself.