The Magic of Thinking Big – How to Break World Records in Times Square

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Preface from Tim

The following is a guest post by John-Clark Levin, Joe Luchsinger, and Jason Soll.

I’ve been waiting for the perfect time to publish it, and today is that day. Why? I have big battles coming next week, and they make me want to tackle the world.

By the time you finish reading this post, you’ll learn how they:

• Booked the heart of Times Square for three days for only $20
• Brought together teams of elite competitors from as far away as Nepal and New Zealand
• Organized a record-breaking competition as full-time college students…from 3,000 miles away
• Received a promotion on every page of YouTube.com, ultimately receiving over 800,000 webcast views and tens of thousands of comments during the course of the event
• Landed extensive coverage by the Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, CBS, and AOL News
• More than doubled the previous Guinness World Record for the Longest Continuous Handshake

After telling the crazy story behind this event, called “Shaking History,” they’ll teach:

• How systematically studying both your successes and failures can take you to the next level
• Why taking on charitable projects allows you to make astounding breakthroughs in the size and scale of your endeavors
• How to achieve spectacular results by defining your own “best practices”
• Why you can be the best in the world at something

Now, on to the story…

Enter John-Clark

“This is Jason, leave a message after the beep.”

I pressed the cellphone to my head, trying to be heard over the hubbub of JFK’s Terminal 4.  “Jason, this is John-Clark.  Still no sign of the Nepalese, but they should have arrived more than an hour ago.  But listen–I’m starting to really feel sick here.  Call me back when you can.”

The arrivals lobby swam in and out of focus.  I steadied myself on a steel railing, scanning the crowd of unfamiliar faces for two people I had never met in my life.

Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina had never been to the United States–Santosh, the younger one, had never been outside Nepal at all.  Yet they were about to appear on the way out of customs, and my job was to ferry them safely to their hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  The eyes of their home country were upon them, and thousands waited eagerly for news of their safe arrival.  The Nepalese government had seen them off with great fanfare.  The Brothers Timilsina had flown here from the other side of the world for a simple handshake.

It had all started almost two years before.  One of my lifelong goals had been to break a Guinness World Record and make it into the bestselling book, but I had always dismissed that as something to attempt in some future time and place.  But one night during my Freshman year of college, a startling idea came to me: now was the time.  I quickly researched records that might be possible to break, in search of the entry that would fulfill my childhood dream. When most people think of what it takes to set a Guinness World Record, they imagine holding insects in their mouth, juggling chainsaws, or pulling jumbo jets across a runway.  There is a different record, though, that all of us have experience with.  It is a gesture of good will, peace and friendship the world over: the handshake.  I found a college friend to shake hands with, and we started practicing to achieve the world’s “Longest Continuous Handshake.”  Guinness World Records sets incredibly high standards—the standing record was 10 hours, and even the slightest pause in our handshake could nullify the attempt.  With a great sense of urgency, we secured the use of our college’s main auditorium and directed well-wishers to make donations on our behalf to the Cancer Research Institute.  Two weeks to the day after the idea first came to me, we had achieved the longest handshake in human history: 10 hours, 10 minutes, 10 seconds.  But that was only the beginning of the story.

The following summer, an Australian team broke our record, and less than a month later, we took the record back with an even longer handshake.  The following year, I was doing research for an article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal about my experience breaking the handshake record, when I learned that my record had been broken by a pair of brothers from Nepal.  My second record, 15 hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds, had been easily broken by the new attempt in Kathmandu, which clocked in at 19 hours, 35 minutes.

And it wasn’t just the Nepalese who were interested in this record.  As I researched, I found that teams from Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the UK had also notched record-breaking handshakes–each time to raise money and awareness for various charities.  What was lacking in these attempts, though, was the motivating pressure of direct competition.  Even in my own attempt, my shaking partner and I had simply decided on a time and paced ourselves until we got there.  Not much drama in that.

I talked over the problem with two college friends, Jason Soll and Joe Luchsinger.  They agreed that if there were some way to bring these teams together for a head-to-head competition, not only would the world record likely be shattered, but the impact for the charities was almost certain to be magnified greatly.  Jason could manage the event, while Joe would be my shaking partner.  It sounded like a great plan.  It was, of course, completely crazy.

Even tracking the teams down was harder than we’d imagined.  We spent countless hours scouring the internet to find contact information–and many more on the phone with journalists and editors who had covered the other teams’ previous record attempts.  The dead ends piled up throughout September and October of 2010, but eventually we had enough tentative commitments to try to find a sponsor to fly in the international teams.

To be sure, there’s room in the world for all kinds of obscure extreme sports. Skysurfing, BASE jumping, parkour–each has its own fans and its own sponsors.  But competitive handshaking might be just a little too far out there, we learned.  We spent months trying to secure sponsorship, but week after week ground by with little progress.  Energy drink companies turned us down.  Sporting good companies turned us down.  Hand sanitizer companies turned us down.  It was starting to look like the handshake competition would remain a pipe dream.

Then one of our pitches fell on the right ears. A Fortune 1000 CEO was intrigued by the idea and agreed to sponsor us personally for part of the total budget. The next week, Jason and I met with Pamela Gann, the president of our college in Southern California.  Claremont McKenna College is known for its emphasis on leadership, government and economics, and President Gann saw that handshakes were a natural fit.  She enthusiastically supported our enterprise and agreed to financially support the event as a primary sponsor.  A few other private donations rounded out the budget, and our project suddenly had life.

By now it was December, though, and our event was scheduled for January 14th.  As students all around us crammed for final exams, we worried about final votes.  Our dream venue was Times Square, New York City, but what were the chances?  Most blocks in Times Square would have cost at least $19,000 a day–far beyond our modest funding.  There was one block, though–Father Duffy Square–which was administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation instead of the Mayor’s Office.  Parks would give us the space for a nominal fee, but only if Manhattan’s Community Board 5 gave its approval.  On December 9th, a full board vote confirmed our permit overwhelmingly. Yet despite the approval, Father Duffy Square typically charges around $60,000 a day for events. But, in the 4-Hour spirit, we wanted to see how low we could take the venue fee. Because the event served to benefit charities, we were able to secure the venue for three days for only $20. I have to admit, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

My phone grated in the darkness.  I rolled over in bed and squinted at the bright screen.  The call was coming from a number with many more digits than I was used to seeing.  “Hello?”

“This is Rohit Timilsina from Nepal,” said an accented voice over the faint connection.  “Is it night there?”

The clock on my nightstand read 3:52 AM.  “Sort of,” I said.  “What can I do for you?”  Rohit told me that I would need to supply information to the United States embassy in Kathmandu, and soon.  Otherwise, he might not get his visa in time to fly to New York.  I made a call to the U.S. consular in Nepal, and the process went smoothly.  As I came to learn, the whole country was swelling with excitement about the upcoming competition.

Each team was competing on behalf of the charity of its choice.  The Nepalese, for example, were shaking on behalf of the Women’s Foundation of Nepal.  I was shaking on behalf of Teach for America.  By the rules of the event, the team that continued its handshake the longest would get a majority of the total event proceeds for its charity.  The rest of the funds raised would be divided among the other charities represented.

The final weeks before the competition were a blaze of details.  The competition site would need heaters, barricades, tables, chairs, and dozens of other essentials that we knew still weren’t everything.  Because we planned to stream a video feed of the event live around the world, we would need a high-speed internet link and a generator to power it.  Then, a real sucker punch.  Unbeknownst to us, Father Duffy Square closed every night at 1AM and didn’t reopen until the early morning.  We knew that we would now have to pack up the whole venue and move the contestants to an indoor venue during the wee hours of the morning, all while maintaining seamless handshakes.  Still, the city wanted us to arrange for private security to protect the generators and heavy equipment during the night.  As costs spiraled upward, it seemed as though the red tape was closing in around us.  Working with the bureaucracy of Gotham is always tough, but for three college students 3,000 miles away, it was maddening.

And then there was Guinness.  Guinness World Records Ltd. has a very stringent application process to ensure the rigor and safety of all record attempts, and “Longest Continuous Handshake” is one of their most unforgiving records.  Even a second’s pause in the handshake is enough to disqualify an attempt, and every moment must be carefully recorded on video.  Already perilously close to the limit of our budget, we had to recruit an all-volunteer crew of videographers.  Additionally, Guinness requires that witnesses and trained medical observers monitor the event from start to finish.  On top of all that, we would have an official Guinness World Records adjudicator on site as the records were broken.

Reams of paperwork consumed my last few days to departure.  The night before my flight, I was starting to come down with a nasty virus.  Worse, the weather forecast was looking shaky.  New York was going to be slammed with up to a foot of snow just two days before the start of the event.  A few days afterward, another blizzard was expected to batter the city.  The handshake–outdoors, as I confirmed to scores of incredulous friends and family–was wedged into a 48-hour break in the weather.  We could only hope it stayed open.

Two days after my own arrival, I was back at JFK airport, waiting for the Nepalese to arrive.  Again my phone rang with a call from a number with many digits.  “Hello?”

“This is Chandra Sharma from Nepal,” an unfamiliar voice said, clearly very close.  I whirled around.  A big man in an overcoat was waving, joined by two smaller figures who I knew had to be Rohit and Santosh.  We shook hands warmly and exchanged greetings.  Chandra, it turned out, was an American citizen who had flown out from Kathmandu at his own expense to help the Timilsina brothers cope with life in the Big Apple.  We packed into a taxi–avoiding several predatory gypsy cabs on the way–and set off for Midtown.

When we got Rohit and Santosh checked into their hotel, we began to realize just how strange and wondrous New York City must have seemed to them.  They hung back at crosswalks, quite naturally intimidated by the rush of honking cars–until Jason explained that the white walking man in the signal box meant that it was safe to cross.  Taking them into a pizzeria for dinner that night, their mouths fell open.  Rohit’s voice fell to a panicky whisper.  “What is this?”  With everything else on our plate, Jason realized that introducing the Nepalese to Neapolitan cuisine just wasn’t in the cards, so down the street they went in search of Indian food.

The next night, Team New Zealand was scheduled to arrive after being held up in San Francisco due to weather delays.  It had been a major coup to bring them out.  Alastair Galpin is the number two Guinness World Record-breaker in the world, with dozens of records to his name–including “Loudest Clap” (113 dBA, louder than some jet aircraft at 100 meters), “Most Gloves Worn on One Hand” (24 gloves), and the slightly disturbing “Most Cucumbers Snapped in One Minute” (a total of 75).  More importantly, he was the first person to set the “Longest Continuous Handshake” record.  Alastair’s partner, Don Purdon, was a triathlete and business consultant with a background in sports psychology.  With Don’s help, they had gained the advice of more than a dozen scientists and experts on how to maximize their performance.  Alastair had spent the past week with ice packs strapped to his bare arm, shaking a bottle of sandwich spread from morning to night.  Together, they made a formidable team.

As I guzzled Emergen-C in my room, Jason got the Kiwis settled, and Joe arrived with the videographers.  Reports began to drift in from home about media that had featured the event.  Excited relatives called after seeing a segment on ABC back home in Los Angeles.  Even better, the Wall Street Journal was interested in covering it.  The competitors were stunned to hear that they had 30 minutes to get dressed and travel by taxi to News Corp.’s huge steel-and-glass headquarters on Corporate Row.  Each one of them took great pleasure in initiating the business reporter interviewing us into new facets of the strange world of competitive handshaking.  “Look, I’m in it to win it,” Alastair told the Journal’s videographer, demurring on the subject of his secret techniques.  We all knew he meant it.

I awoke very late on competition day.  Jason and Joe had insisted that I get as much rest as possible, so it wasn’t until almost 4:00PM that I joined the others in the hotel lobby.  The competition was scheduled for an 8:00PM start.

Then, a worried call from Jason, who had gone down to the venue.  “We’re trying to get the heaters working, but something’s wrong.”

The sand in our hourglass was rapidly dwindling.  Sponsors, media and supporters in at least a dozen countries around the world had all been told that the live webcast would begin at eight o’clock sharp, and we couldn’t keep everyone waiting.

At the same time, with temperatures hovering several degrees below freezing, it would be very risky to start without heat.  When I arrived at Father Duffy Square, I saw the problem.  The heating unit was a new radiant model that we were told would be far better than the older liquid-fuel burners.  Trouble was, it was only glowing a feeble red–enough to keep roast beef warm, maybe, but hardly enough to overcome the full blast of a Canadian cold front.

Then the internet went down.  Jason and the volunteers were fighting to stay calm and keep the competitors warm and busy.  A crowd was beginning to form around the circle of stanchions that had been set up around us at the center of the plaza.  I checked my watch.  7:30.  Then 7:45.  Still no internet.  We were supposed to be live by now.

“Jason?” I asked as he hunched over a laptop, trying to will our WiFi to life.

“Yeah?”

“Are the paramedics all signed into the medical observer logbook for Guinness?”

“We have a problem with that.”

A problem?  He said it so neatly that it could only be a catastrophic one.

“Even though we had the contract all signed, they’re saying they won’t let the paramedics stay out in the cold like this.  They’re pulling the plug.”

Were I given to under-breath profanity muttering, this would have been the moment. Unless we could find a medical professional in–I checked my watch again–three minutes, we wouldn’t be able to start the event.  The internet was still down.

Jason called for all the teams to get into position.  The video checks were clear.  Joe and I stretched our hands, enjoying the last minutes of freedom in who knows how long.

We were late.  It seemed like the crowd was murmuring impatiently, but I’ll never know how much of that was just my own fears.  By 8:15, it was clear that the event couldn’t be delayed any longer.  Jason had found a doctor against all odds, so we decided to start the handshake and bring up the video feed once it was already underway.  The crowd–dozens of people lined the barricades now–joined in the countdown.

“Five…  Four…  Three…”  Joe and I clasped hands.  “Two… One…  Go!”  Almost automatically, we were off.  The energy of the moment wiped away any chance for reflection.  Our whole world had tunneled down to one set of pumping hands.

We began the set of protocols for controlling who was “powering the shake” at any given time.  Each hand in a handshake is like a wave, with crests and troughs running down the length of the arm.  If my crest (the top of my upward motion) lined up with Joe’s trough (the bottom of his downward motion), they would cancel out, and the shake would be interrupted.  Even if that happens twenty hours in, it’s curtains.  So we devised a set of code words and commands so that exactly one person would always be powering the shake–giving the other person a chance to go limp, relax, and maybe even catch a few winks.  Other code words governed our responses to various emergencies.  If one of us spotted an interloper trying to climb over the barricades and disrupt the shake, we would shout “Yankee!  Yankee!  Yankee!” and drop to a crouch that protected the handshake between our torsos.

The other teams had different protocols.  Behind me, I could hear the Nepalese talking quietly in their native language, while Alastair’s voice periodically cut above the crowd with reports delivered in clipped staccato: “Alastair: shaking.  Alastair: shaking.  Alastair: relaxing.”  Ahead, a team from San Francisco was chatting in English.

It’s strange how time flies when you’re shaking hands.  Before I got myself into this most unusual of sports, I had imagined that minutes would creep by–that I would have a chance to read hundreds of pages and exhaust an iPod’s worth of music in an effort to stay sane.  Instead, the motion is strangely meditative.  Keeping the shake going without the slightest pause is actually so absorbing that even conversation is often difficult.  Next thing you know, one or two or even three hours have slipped by.

About two hours had passed when I heard concerned voices behind me.  Rohit’s shoes were not warm enough, and his feet were getting dangerously cold.  If conditions didn’t improve soon, he’d have to drop out to avoid serious frostbite.  Team New Zealand was warm, though, and plugging away with scientific precision.

The volunteers tried to warm Rohit’s feet with blankets, but nothing seemed to work, and his condition was worsening.  Then, one of the Nepalese onlookers at the barricade learned what was happening, and without hesitation removed his own boots and socks and gave them to Rohit, whose feet quickly warmed.  I was stunned to see the barefoot man stay for hours more, cheering his countrymen on with a smile on his face.  The live stream was working at last, and the large Nepalese contingent waved flags and sung songs without rest.  Chandra walked the inside of the barricades, working the crowd and leading cheers with unbelievable energy.

It was around midnight, and we made the decision to go indoors an hour early due to the problems with the heater.  We had a banquet room at the Marriott Marquis, less than a block away, but the transfer would still be frighteningly complex.  The teams would be taken inside one at a time, along with two videographers and the required witnesses and medical observers.  Times Square security and NYPD would help us keep the crowds back, but once in the hotel, we were on our own.  Everyone knew that all it would take was one lunatic to ruin everything.

Just as plans for the move inside were being finalized, I started feeling very sick again.  The strange numbness in my face and hands that I had felt in the terminal at JFK returned, and I found myself shivering and short of breath.  They hustled me into the Marriott, and as I warmed up, the symptoms faded.  The other teams were brought upstairs, and the live video feed switched to a shot from inside the room.

Joe and I were taking hour-long shifts–I would power the shake for an hour and then he would take it for an hour.  Keeping up a steady diet of Power Bars and Ricola, I was starting to feel decidedly better.  Then my stomach turned.

“Joe,” I grunted while powering the shake.

“What’s up?”

I felt bad.  He had been resting.  “Joe, I’m not feeling so good again.”  Bad nausea now.  Joe powered up, and powered me down, all according to our protocol.  He called the volunteers to prepare the cameras and witnesses for a bathroom run.  I figured if I could just get to a toilet and vomit, maybe I would feel better.  “Please hurry,” I whispered.  My face was alternately prickly and numb again, and it felt like someone was squeezing my hands.  Come to think of it, someone was squeezing one of my hands.  But my left hand had no excuse.  The numbness was spreading to my back.

The camera crew was ready, and Joe and I carefully got out of our chairs and stood up.  I was more nauseous than I’d ever been in my life–and having once had a run in with tainted mussels, that’s saying something.  I was starting to think I’d throw up right there in the room, all over the expensive patterns in the carpet.

“Loosen his clothes!  Loosen his clothes!”

I was on the ground, looking up at my empty right hand.  In books, I’d always read about people waking up from losses of consciousness with a “Where am I?” sort of feeling, and a certain period of gradual reorientation, but not with me.  The vision of my open hand said it all.

“The paramedics are on their way.”

Soon, a crowd of men in coveralls tromped into the room and started taking my vitals.  I figured all this was at least making good TV for everyone watching the webcast.  It was just after 4:30AM in New York, so night owls in Nepal and early birds in London were watching everything unfold live.  I didn’t want to go to the hospital, so I was ordered to go to sleep.

By the time I awoke in the morning, everyone else had left the room and set up again in Father Duffy Square, where the heater had finally been fixed.  The night had taken its toll, though.  One team had lasted only fifteen minutes–but even Joe and I had only made it eight and a half hours.  As I crossed the barricades after breakfast on Saturday, it was down to just the Nepalese and the New Zealanders.

At eleven o’clock, the Guinness World Records adjudicator arrived.  Sara Wilcox was quick to ensure that everything had gone by the book thus far, but much to our relief, she seemed quite pleased.  The standing official Guinness World Record would be broken just after 11:45AM.  The previous Nepalese attempt, which was still technically under review, would be surpassed at 3:50PM.  Just over an hour later, they would break the longest documented attempt, a recent Canadian effort, and start out into uncharted territory.

Our webcast was part of the beta test of new live stream features for YouTube, so the event was featured in a banner that appeared over every page on the website that afternoon. YouTube, along with all of the other event partners, had rallied behind the charitable nature of this event and offered to help promote the competition. As the records fell, one by one, interest ramped up to the point that we were getting several YouTube comments every second.  Many, of course, were scatological drivel, but we were at least glad that the charities were getting so much attention.

The Nepalese were still out there, indefatigable Chandra at their head, singing encouragement to Rohit and Santosh, who seemed to be keeping up an unsustainable pace–nearly twice as fast as the New Zealanders, who were maintaining their strict regimen of vitamins and high-nutrition foods.  “Alastair: shaking.  Alastair: shaking.  Alastair: shaking.”  There weren’t as many Kiwis in the crowd as Nepalese, but Alastair and Don were making up any morale deficit with iron discipline.

Volunteers rushed in every few minutes to spoon feed them mashed potatoes or hand them bottles of Vitamin C.  The Timilsina brothers, meanwhile, were eating irregularly, and having spicy foods brought to them.  Trips to the bathroom just to urinate were difficult enough, and Jason and I feared that an attempt to make “number two” might lead the Nepalese to disqualification.  They had already had a very close shave when Rohit had put his hand under the soap dispenser on his first trip to the toilet.  The motion sensor automatically discharged a spurt of foam, and Rohit had recoiled in alarm, nearly breaking the shake.  The vagaries of what we delicately referred to as an “excretory maneuver” were scary to even consider.

It was getting into the evening again.  The sun set, and the crowd soon chanted off the final seconds to the 24-hour mark.  Donations and messages of support were pouring in from every corner of the world.  As organizers, we alternated between incredulity that the competitors could go on for another second, and terror that the contest might go on for weeks unabated.

The numbers were beginning to come in from YouTube.  More than half a million people had been watching the web cast.

Night had fallen and the massive jumbotrons lit the canyon of Times Square. As Jason and I narrated the live video feed for the growing global audience, we watched in awe as Team Nepal and Team New Zealand continued to extend the world record. Periodically, Alastair and Don would send for bananas, potatoes, and triple-shot espressos. We stirred electrolyte-enhanced beverages, placed energy candies in their mouths, and adjusted their clothing frequently. They were intensely focused, never letting their emotions take hold. They were in it to win it, and any moment now, Team Nepal could fall. Alastair and Don kept peering over their shoulders, waiting for their young, inexperienced opponents to crumble.

But Rohit and Santosh, with their country behind them, were still going strong, and were constantly smiling and laughing. Meanwhile, they were still shaking hands far too fast. Team Nepal was doing everything wrong: their clothes, nutrition, and technique seemed unsustainable. Beyond doubt, though, they were blessed with the magic of smiles, community, and heart. Chandra would occasionally hold his cell phone next to the brothers as family and friends sent words of encouragement from home. Theaters in Nepal were filled as people gathered to watch the live stream projected from an internet feed.

Before we knew it, the night had run out, and it was time to go back into the Marriott.  Guarding the two remaining teams like Secret Service agents flanking a sitting president, we managed to get them safely inside.  The Nepalese spectators formed a cordon around us, still in buoyant spirits, and led us safely to our banquet room, where many stayed for hours.

The night ground on.  Even though both teams were still going strong, the strain was beginning to tell.  By thirty hours, the body begins to physically break down, as lack of sleep causes tissues to start consuming themselves for energy.  Hallucinations can creep up almost unnoticed.

Our reservation of Father Duffy Square only went through Sunday.  If one of the teams didn’t quit soon, we would need to find another venue, and fast.  And Don’s flight back to New Zealand was Sunday afternoon, we realized.  The teams had already far outstripped even the most generous projections we had made when booking the flights, and it was coming down to the wire now.  We would have to make a decision some time in the early morning whether to make the arrangements to continue the competition into Monday.

It was pointless, though.  If the handshake continued into Monday, it could just as well go on through Tuesday, or Wednesday, or the Wednesday after that.  And changing the flight reservations would be painfully expensive.

Jason and I had a hushed conversation in one corner of the banquet room.  On the other side, a hardy contingent of Nepalese were still awake, keeping up Rohit’s morale.  We tried to judge how much gas was left in each team’s tank.  Both were clearly in pain now, but their handshakes were as steady as ever.

“Can we ask if they’d be willing to declare a draw?” Jason asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “Like Alastair said, they’re in it to win it.”

We agreed that if one of the teams brought it up of their own accord, we would be in the clear, but the odds of that seemed fantastically remote.  We dreaded having to bring it up to the teams ourselves, but I didn’t see any way around it.

Miraculously, the New Zealanders brought it up first.

“Jason!” Don hissed across the room.  “Jason!  Can we talk to you?”

It was a quarter to four in the morning.  Thirty-one and a half hours.  Alastair’s eyes were glazed, but he was still grinding on–and the Nepalese incredibly showed no signs of slowing.  Jason and I sidled up to the table.  “What’s going on?”

“We’ve been talking,” Don said, “and there’s no end in sight here.  I’m dead tired–I’ll keep boxing on if I have to, but the Nepalese have got to be getting tired, too.  We think maybe they would be interested in some kind of a joint thing.  Do you know if that’s possible?”

As it happened, the Guinness adjudicator had mentioned this specifically as a possibility.  “Yeah,” I said, “Sara explicitly okayed it yesterday.”  Was it only yesterday?  I had lost almost all sense of time.  Out the huge windows, it felt like Times Square should just be cycling through the dinner crowd.

“Are you absolutely sure?”  Alastair asked pointedly, coming out of his funk.  “Are you absolutely sure that the record can be held jointly?”

“Positive,” Jason said.  “But it has to come from you.  We don’t want to impose this on either team.”

“Right.”

We slipped away, and the New Zealanders called Chandra over to propose sharing the record.  From a distance, I could see a tear running down Chandra’s cheek as they spoke.  He relayed the offer to Santosh and Rohit, who soon called us over.

They were overjoyed.  There’s something primal about humans bonding over intense physical exertion.  Maybe it’s just romanticizing to say that the immense respect the teams developed for each other was akin to the closeness shared on football teams or among soldiers, but I don’t think so.  They had pushed themselves beyond what the experts had said the human body was capable of, and emerged victorious.  Agreeing to share the record was the highest compliment they could pay each other.

Just before 5:00AM, Jason sprinted down to Father Duffy Square to fire up the generator and prepare the venue. Chandra told us that national television in Nepal was carrying our video feed from our indoor venue, and we knew that this climactic conclusion had to be seen by the world.  Once we had safely moved the teams outdoors, the cameras were rolling and the stream was live.

Jason explained the agreement to the global audience and announced that the shared world record would be 33 hours, 3 minutes.  He adjusted Team New Zealand and Team Nepal until they stood perfectly back-to-back. Raising his hands high, he began the countdown.

As Jason’s hands hovered in the air above the two greatest handshakes in history, the intensity of the moment dawned upon me: history was now in his hands. If the shakes were not broken at the exact same moment, one team would walk away victorious and the other empty-handed. After 33 of the most intense physical and mental hours of these competitors’ lives, it would all come down a fraction of a second. “Three! Two! One! Zero!”

Perfect.

Jason’s hands broke both shakes at the exact same moment, thus sealing for history an unprecedented, shared record between Team Nepal and Team New Zealand.

We all exchanged embraces and, almost reflexively, handshakes.  The Nepalese gave beautiful dhaka scarves to Alastair and Don, who reciprocated with warm wool caps from their home country.  There were many pledges of friendship and goodwill all around, followed after a well-earned sleep by heartfelt farewells the next day.

“For the first time in my life,” Alastair told me privately, “I’m so very glad that I didn’t win the sole record.”

That stuck with me on the plane back home to California.  The handshake may just be a symbolic gesture, but I saw just how real its effect can be.  I’ll always be pleased and proud that a handshake brought these inspiring competitors together first in competition and then in friendship.  It’s a lesson we can all stand to learn.

I know this won’t be the end of the line, either.  Rohit’s planning something big in Nepal, he says, and he’d like us to take part.  Something big.  In Nepal.  As I turn his words over in my mind, I realize that can only mean one thing.

 

 

Enter Jason, Joe, and John-Clark

Nearly two years after exchanging hugs and handshakes with the competitors and volunteers at 5:18am in Times Square, the three of us organizers find ourselves in many different places. John-Clark recently competed on Jeopardy! and is publishing a book on private navies this spring. Jason recently worked at Udacity and is pursuing his MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Joe is finishing his triple-major in Neuroscience, Psychology and Physics, minoring in both Chemistry and Biology, and is the co-author of The Gedanken Institute Book of Puzzles (to be released this winter). He is also a Senior Associate at the Baldwin Wallace Neuroscience Laboratory, which was just named Program of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience. The takeaways from the event continue to unravel. All in all, what this event demonstrated is the sheer power of the 4-Hour approach to motivation and dedication, with regard to both lifestyle and body hacking.

 

Why taking on charitable projects allows you to make astounding breakthroughs in the size and scale of your endeavors

For us, Shaking History’s emphasis on charity was always a driving motivational factor. Everyone knows that charitable events can go a long way to help charities and provide great personal satisfaction. What we also learned, though, was that doing something for a good cause is the best way to involve other people in what you’re doing. From booking Times Square for three days for only $20 to partnering with YouTube.com for promoting our live webcast to its millions of users, the dozens of times when luck tilted results in our favor were likely due to the charitable nature of the event. When cold-calling a corporate executive to ask for a partnership, discount, or personal favor, you will always have more success when calling on behalf of a charitable cause. Frankly, it is by far the greatest way to increase your odds of being able to do something huge. If you make those same requests to the same corporate executive on behalf of a startup, selfless favors are no longer an option. By combining the entrepreneurial lifestyle hacking methods from The 4-Hour Workweek with charitable projects, you increase the likelihood of gaining the skills, experiences, and relationships that will get allow you to succeed in future endeavors.  Centering your life around charitable causes makes it much easier to bring people on board to your vision, projects, and life.

 

How systematically studying both your successes and failures can take you to the next level

The three of us have always believed that in order to become successful in life, you need to be able to learn as much from your successes as your failures.  Say, for example, you’re driving your car through an intersection as the light goes from yellow to red.  A turning car comes within inches of crashing in to you, but thankfully, you drive away unscathed.  Most people will feel an overwhelming sense of relief that dwindles throughout the course of the ride.  The most effective people try to learn as much from the near miss as they would have from a collision.  When the next close call comes, they will be wiser.  All of life’s near misses grant us incredible learning opportunities: those who forcefully learn from them are at a significant advantage over those who don’t.

The three of us have spent dozens of hours carefully analyzing our event’s successes and failures. Many things went wrong during the event that we scarcely could have imagined.  It was only by careful planning and redundant logistics that Shaking History succeeded.  Some potential failures were averted in equally unexpected ways.  For example, if the Nepalese spectator had not removed his shoes, given them to Rohit, and stood out in the freezing New York winter barefoot, the entire event could have been compromised. Team Nepal would have probably called it quits early to prevent Rohit’s feet from getting frostbite. Thus, the competition would have been over shortly before 5:00am on the Saturday, January 15th. That, along with dozens of other moments, could have jeopardized everything. Talk about a near miss!

We also learned that you don’t have to have everything go right in order for an event to be a success. Despite the widespread global publicity the charities received, we were disappointed to find that only a small minority of spectators actually donated. We had used an experimental, open-ended donation platform whereby donors pledged a certain amount per hour as long as the competition ensued. We received reports that the donation form crashed occasionally and that many donors were unable to pledge. The SMS donation platform hardly brought in any funds at all. While the thousands of dollars we raised went a long way for the charities in Nepal and New Zealand, we know that we could have done a much better job. We’ve spent many hours on this subject alone and have come up with nearly twenty suggestions for improvement. When it’s time for the next event, whatever that may be, we will be much better prepared as a result of our thorough debriefing process.

 

How to achieve spectacular results by defining your own “best practices”

Launching a new company and transforming your body have an important element in common: you are stepping into the unknown world of complexity. Unlike training to become an Olympic runner or NBA player, Guinness World Records represent unchartered territory for human accomplishment. Training to become a star sprinter is easier now than ever before: this is because the techniques and training regimens have been defined and refined time and time again. Deciding to break a Guinness World Record is an entirely different animal. You have to be relentlessly committed to experimenting with new techniques and training methods, constantly searching for new ways to measure progress. Blindly following pre-defined best practices is not an option: breaking Guinness World Records requires intense creativity and persistence. Alastair Galpin, the #2 world record breaker that competed in our event, recounts his innovative preparation for the event:

A sports physiologist had drawn up a physical training regime for me to cover the short lead-up period, as well as given dietary and general advice. I had already begun shaking a sandwich spread bottle, which I then needed to pay more attention to. By the time Don and I left for New York, I’d shaken the jar for 165 hours. Doing so with ice packs strapped to the affected muscles had earned me strange looks in my neighbourhood, although I was more attentive to my increasingly sore right shoulder and forearm. My being left-handed and Don’s being right-handed meant we both had to learn a range of new skills with our free hand, which took perseverance.

I asked several local businesses with cold storage if we could practise in their freezers to help our bodies adjust. All said no. Don and I went to stand in a local snow sports centre where staff was helpful and where we quickly found the weak aspects of our planning coming to the fore.

An innovation consultant, hearing my fears about my hand freezing, suggested I slide a sheath of bubble wrap packaging around my right arm, which could be pulled down over Don’s and my grip in the event of extreme cold. I made such a contraption which was to the envy of the other teams. (For more information about Alastair Galpin, visit http://www.worldrecordchase.com)

Alastair is a perfect example of the power of personal best practices.  He was not born uncommonly strong or fast or dexterous.  He was not born with a particular talent for clapping hands or snapping cucumbers.  Rather, he approaches all these endeavors with a commitment to stretching the limits of his own ability.  When Alastair sets himself a new challenge, he studies and analyzes the problem rigorously, figures out what training methods work best for him, and constantly reevaluates how those methods are working.  Over time, the techniques he’s learned have evolved into a set of best practices that allow him to approach new problems with confidence and a solid plan for success.  Developing your own best practices is a key to breaking Guinness World Records and achieving anything else that’s difficult for you.

Why you can be the best person in the entire world at something

The most inspiring and empowering takeaway of our Guinness experience, ultimately, was just how easy it was.  Two weeks to the day after first getting the idea to break a world record during his Freshman year, John-Clark had completed the longest continuous handshake in human history.  Shaking History in Times Square was much more difficult, but it was still a sobering realization that as college students, we were still able to pull it off at all.  Recordbreaking, we found, was not about vast resources or natural talent.  It is about dedication and persistence.  There’s a real sense that anyone regardless of age, talent or disability, can look through the Guinness World Records book and find something that they can become better at than anyone else on the planet.  This is worth much more than bragging rights.  Rather, we like to think of recordbreaking as a metaphor for the process of accomplishing any difficult goal.  Recordbreaking requires the same mental habits and confidence that a person needs to start a business, transform their bodies or master a new set of skills.  Once you have broken a world record, you will approach each new challenge with a greater sense of who you really are and what you are capable of achieving.

 

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29 comments on “The Magic of Thinking Big – How to Break World Records in Times Square

  1. Love this. While breaking a world record is exciting and sexy, the dedication and persistence behind an achievement of that magnitude usually isn’t. It’s those long hours of monotonous practice, dealing with setbacks, and convincing yourself to keep at it for just one more day.

  2. Awesome article as always.

    Thanks also for the creativelive.com event! Learned a ton of great stuff from you, Noah Kagan and Neil Strauss!!

    Your session on writing with Neil really hit home and the way Noah dissected business plans were amazing. Hope you love your toothbrush!!!!

  3. Wow. Amazing article. I wish I would have been in NYC to witness it. Congrats guys and good luck with the next big event! And Kudos for getting everything done under pressure. All of this article speaks to the power of the human potential. The human potential is incredible!

  4. This was an awesome article. I really admire the positive and selfless nature of all the people involved. The takeaway on how much you can learn and accomplish by creating a project for the greater good is super inspiring. Much thanks -George

  5. Tim if you would distill the first few thoughts that come to your mind in the comments below or at my email. Thanks Nic!

    3.14 Your views on minimalism, loosing everything?

    6.28 Establishing a base-line.

    9.42 Practicing restraint.

    12.56 Meta-Motoavation, cycles, hertz, entropy, karma

  6. Inspiring, motivating, and a darn good read. I can think of a hundred areas in my life where I can put many of the lessons into practice.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  7. Does anybody know what donation platform they used? I am looking for something similar to do a long term fundraising project that would allow donations to be made on a per unit completed basis.

    Thanks!

    • This was a very challenging problem to solve, for several reasons: (1) we didn’t have enough time to form a 501c3, (2) no donation platform available at the time allowed per-unit pledges, and (3) we didn’t want to collect donors’ credit card information in fear of a security breach and colossal legal meltdown for the event. We eventually discovered that we could have people donate to our college, Claremont McKenna College, and have the college donate the proceeds to the charities. This would enable tax-exemption status for the donations. As for the per-hour pledge component, we decided it would be best to build a google form on the event’s website and collect people’s pledges and contact info. After the event, we calculated everyone’s final pledge totals and contacted the donors with a link to donate to our college, along with an explanation of the system we had devised. I also set up a SMS-based cataloging system via Twilio to collect mobile pledges. Virtually nobody used this option, surprisingly.

      • Hi! Thanks for sharing this! Very inspirational. I am hoping to run a couple questions by you! Mostly wondering about the business/administrative stuff, ie:

        a) in terms of the sponsors, was there anything legal or tax wise that you needed to make sure and follow as you got money from them and spent it on needed expenditures? Any reporting to do on your end?

        b) you mention having contracts for some stuff – assuming you had a law office help you draft them up, how did you figure out who to use and was the cost of that piece taken care of by sponsors as well? Did you completely let the law office start from scratch on contracts or how did you go about the whole process?

        c) did you have printed material that you presented to potential sponsors when you met with them (or that you e-mailed to them) to pitch your cause and ask them for sponsorship? Can you give more details in general on how you went about the sponsorship piece? (I’m sure you really did your homework ahead of time, but how did you get to a point of prepared enough to actually ask for specific amounts from sponsors? You mentioned that costs kept creeping up, did you just have to go find more sponsors as that happened?)

        d) anything else you did legally to cover your butt? Good intentions are the best, but I have a feeling the legal stuff is what can really wreck everything if not taken care of, so just wanting to do as much homework as I can on this piece (since I have my own idea for charity fundraising that I’m trying to get moving on!)

        e) any suggestions on how to get a mentor for this sort of thing? I am feeling a little overwhelmed by my idea…not about doing it, but feeling like there is a lot out there that I just don’t know about. (for example you mention the potential legal mess with taking payments online, say a person didn’t realize the security risk like you did. That one of course I know, but just things along those lines..feel like I need a little input from someone in the middle or something just in case something glaring is missing or standing out as a legal concern.) Any suggestions?

        f) Any additional thoughts on the donation platform from anyone? Does it not count as a charitable if a person acts as the intermediary and collects the money directly into a paypal or other account, and then cuts it directly to whatever charity is mentioned on the website that the cause is for? I am not a 501(c)3 myself, so just trying to think through the “smoothest” way to take donations and get them to the charity. I can’t just re-direct from my website to the charity website because things need to be able to be tallied on my end.

        Sorry if this is jumbled – I am not super technical or business savvy but got really inspired when I read this a couple months back so have been working on mapping out my own thing for awhile now!

        Once again, really great read, thank you for sharing! And thanks in advance for any input any of you can give!

        Karla

      • Hi Karla,

        Thanks so much for reading. We’re thrilled that the piece got you thinking about your own projects. We really appreciate the feedback. Here are our thoughts, point by point.

        a) in terms of the sponsors, was there anything legal or tax wise that you needed to make sure and follow as you got money from them and spent it on needed expenditures? Any reporting to do on your end?

        Fortunately, we had the very generous assistance of our school, Claremont McKenna College. CMC is already equipped to accept tax-deductible donations, and already follows all the relevant reporting rules. By acting as overall event sponsor, CMC was able to easily and painlessly collect donations, and then disburse them to the charities when the event was over.

        b) you mention having contracts for some stuff – assuming you had a law office help you draft them up, how did you figure out who to use and was the cost of that piece taken care of by sponsors as well? Did you completely let the law office start from scratch on contracts or how did you go about the whole process?

        A very generous lawyer donated his time in advising us on all our legal concerns. Some contracts were drawn up by our vendors — such as those for heaters and WiFi. We prepared the liability waivers for contestants in consultation with our advising lawyer, and subject to the need to protect our sponsors from any possible liability.

        c) did you have printed material that you presented to potential sponsors when you met with them (or that you e-mailed to them) to pitch your cause and ask them for sponsorship? Can you give more details in general on how you went about the sponsorship piece? (I’m sure you really did your homework ahead of time, but how did you get to a point of prepared enough to actually ask for specific amounts from sponsors? You mentioned that costs kept creeping up, did you just have to go find more sponsors as that happened?)

        Yes, we prepared a 5-page prospectus for potential sponsors, and sent it out to potential sponsors by email. Getting sponsorship is more an art than a science. As you said, it starts with homework. We brainstormed companies that might be a good fit, and then researched how to contact them. We talked to our friends and solicited feedback and potential leads. Whether one can ask for specific amounts depends on the sponsor. For some, we did. For others, we didn’t. In general, we tried to make very specific requests of our main sponsors, but with secondary sponsors, were just grateful for anything they could offer. As costs crept up, we had fortunately allocated breathing room in the budget to account for contingencies, and had funds set aside already.

        d) anything else you did legally to cover your butt? Good intentions are the best, but I have a feeling the legal stuff is what can really wreck everything if not taken care of, so just wanting to do as much homework as I can on this piece (since I have my own idea for charity fundraising that I’m trying to get moving on!)

        We’re not lawyers, so can’t give you legal advice here. Just speaking from experience, the most important component was foresight. We spent a lot of time trying to anticipate what could go wrong, and we asked mentors, advisors, and sponsors for feedback on these precautions. Getting lawyers and other people who do this sort of thing regularly to look at your plan should help identify potential trouble-spots.

        e) any suggestions on how to get a mentor for this sort of thing? I am feeling a little overwhelmed by my idea…not about doing it, but feeling like there is a lot out there that I just don’t know about. (for example you mention the potential legal mess with taking payments online, say a person didn’t realize the security risk like you did. That one of course I know, but just things along those lines..feel like I need a little input from someone in the middle or something just in case something glaring is missing or standing out as a legal concern.) Any suggestions?

        Do you know any lawyers, or people who work in the non-profit sector? If they can help you, great. But even if they can’t, they can probably put you in touch with someone who can. These sorts of projects often require following many leads like that. Most won’t pan out, but if a few do, you’re in great shape!

        f) Any additional thoughts on the donation platform from anyone? Does it not count as a charitable if a person acts as the intermediary and collects the money directly into a paypal or other account, and then cuts it directly to whatever charity is mentioned on the website that the cause is for? I am not a 501(c)3 myself, so just trying to think through the “smoothest” way to take donations and get them to the charity. I can’t just re-direct from my website to the charity website because things need to be able to be tallied on my end.

        We can’t say for certain, but to be safe, we’d advise against having donations go to anything other than a trusted 501(c)3. This will also increase the confidence of members of the public who might be hesitant about donating. It might help to contact the charity or charities you’re going to work with, to get their suggestions about what would be easiest on their end.

        Thanks again, Karla, and good luck!

        John-Clark Levin and Jason Soll

  8. Just ordered my 1 copy of the 4-Hour Chef! Can’t wait until it comes to my doorstep on Tuesday. Wish I could’ve afforded to order the 3. Really interested in those two PDF files. Will you be making those available some other way in the future?

    Pretty excited to see what other amazing things you’re going to be doing to get 4HC to #1, too!

  9. Hi tim, i just wanted to share some thoughts i have with you about your upcoming book, why not grab the bull by the balls on that ban thing and make your book exclusive to buy on Amazon?

    Im sure you have thought about this already since you are a master marketer, but as i see it you could play the underdog card and get a lot of buzz going your way.

    anyways, you and your guest bloggers inspire me, i just recently read Michael Ellsberg book which got me reading a lot of marketing books, and finally beggining to undersand the whole thing.

    wish you the best

  10. Wow. Beyond inspired…literally brought me to tears. Exactly what I needed to read right now, synchronicity exemplified. Thank you Tim, I am grateful for sharing this post, but also the contributions you’re making to society in the field of self-actualization. Although I’ve yet to finish your first book, (bought it spring 2011– problematic area of mine, follow through.) I have made it to page 153 (just checked) of your expanded and updated publication–last sentence I have highlighted is “time to find your muse.” I’ve found it but now I’m finally taking action to create it. It has taken me a long time to get this far in your book because my effort has been far from sustained and I haven’t shown the requisite persistence for success in any area. I’m learning though. Also really inspired by your features on apprenticeship with Robert Greene. Mastery and proficiency in many skills (becoming a renaissance man) is the ultimate goal I hold in my life. You were the first author I read that showed me the true value of time, and I’m committed to utilizing mine efficiently so that I may reach my goals.

    In the future I have a desire to meet you, and have you consult on my companies once they reach sufficient size. And who knows, maybe become amigos? When the time comes for me to formally contact you I will be ready and not disperse your time away from the dreamlines you’re pursuing at that junction.

    Again, thank you!

    Brendan

  11. Takeaway one.
    Hmm… a strum of the ‘guilty strings’ most people have within them used to ‘open doors’.

    Takeaway two.
    As big as the event was I never heard of it until it turned up in the bloglovin feed. As with the Austrian jumping from ‘the edge of space’, another thing that didn’t enter my world until it turned up on a guerilla marketing blog after the guy had jumped, it shows that size isn’t everything BUT to paraphrase Seth Godin ‘creating a tribe’ is.
    Tim is rather good at this.

    Takeaway three.
    Live don’t think, live outside the box.
    Tim is rather good at this as well!

  12. Hi, I bought your book, four hour body. I’m interested in why I became increasingly unavailable eg when I type fourhourbody.com / DeFranco. The first couple of days everything was great and now worked for a week just comes notice that it is not possible to find the page. Thanks for the response and all the praise for the book.can anybody help me?

  13. Hi, does anyone know if its possible to take donations on my personal website, say through paypal…and the website would say which charity they are for and the check would be cut directly to the charity. Would that process still make for a qualified tax deduction for those donating?

    Thanks!!