Eliud Kipchoge in search of new barriers … DeepMind’s AI outperforms the world’s best … and billionaire Jack Ma goes back to teaching

January 18, 2019

The passion to be better

Eliud Kipchoge rises just before 5am each morning in the small village of Kaptagat in western Kenya. He rolls out of bed, wipes the sleep from his eyes and gets ready to run. By the time the sun rises over the ochre-red, dusty roads of the Rift Valley, he is well into his stride. Joined by dozens of other equally ambitious young runners, he pounds past farmers heading for their fields, children waiting for their school buses.  This is just his first 20km, his first run of the day. Every day.

On returning to his training camp, it might be Kipchoge’s turn to make breakfast. Most likely it will be a simple bowl of ugali, a Kenyan staple made each day in a big pan from maize flour and water. Plus whatever fruits are in season. Afterwards, he will probably take a nap, before getting up to hand-wash his running kit, ready for the afternoon session. On other days, it might be his turn to head to the local farm for provisions, or to clean the communal toilets.

It is a frugal existence, particularly for a self-made millionaire.

Yet for Kipchoge, the Olympic champion and world record holder, it is the only way of life that he has known. His wife and young children live in a much more spacious house in the town of Eldoret 40km away, but during his most important training periods, he prefers the simplicity of his spartan camp.

For 15 years, Kipchoge has been chasing a dream. I remember first seeing him run as a teenager, his beaming eyes fixed on the path ahead, always with a smile on his face. He showed early promise, beating Kenenisa Bekele and Hicham El Guerrouj to become the 1983 5000m world champion whilst only 18 years old. Over the next decade he won many medals, but probably couldn’t call himself the best. As he reached his 30th birthday, he decided to move up to the marathon. To astonishing effect.

In the marathon, he became virtually unbeatable.

In 2017, his sponsors Nike created a project seeking to see if it would be possible to break 2 hours for the marathon. At the heart of their project was the new Olympic Champion, Kipchoge. They searched for the world for the perfect location, choosing Monza’s Formula 1 track in Italy, the perfect conditions, the perfect pace set automatically by a Tesla car, and the perfect shoe. In the cool dark morning he set off, slip-streaming in behind a squadron of world-class pacemakers.

As his colleagues succumbed to the brutal and relentless pace, one man continued alone against the clock, although missing the historic barrier by 25 seconds. Kipchoge was unphased, delighted but determined to do better. He went back to Kenya and set about improving himself.

He is perhaps one of the most thoughtful, intelligent athletes you will ever meet. Constantly seeking to challenge himself as a way to progress. Always curious and listening, wanting to read more and learn from others. He is even a fan of motivational business books. not least Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Why does he think he has become the best? Because of his mental toughness. “Many of my peers train just as hard as I do. But success is more about having the right attitude”.

A year later, he returned to the start line, this time in the unpredictable conditions of Berlin’s annual city marathon. He broke the world record by almost 2 minutes. As I watched him stride underneath the Brandenburg Gate, with only 200m to go he raised to a sprint. The smile on his face was still there, the eyes bulging with the sight of the finish line, yet no sign of stress or fatigue. He crossed the line euphoric. Within minutes he was telling the TV crews that he would be back again, to do even better.

XO. Be extraordinary.

The power of technology

Whilst we marvel at the extreme feats of human performance, be it in running a marathon in under two hours, we also know that technology has the potential to outperform humanity in many ways. The ability to process huge amounts of data at incredible speeds, to learn through repetitive process, and to harness the strength and agility of robotics, challenges many of the ways in which humans used to excel.

Eliud Kipchoge loves to play chess.

The game of chess has long served as a benchmark for artificial intelligence researchers. John McCarthy, who coined the term “artificial intelligence” in the early 1950s, once referred to chess as “the Drosophilia of AI” and comparing it to the use the fruit fly in the pursuit of understanding genetics.

In 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer embarked upon a series of chess games against Garry Kasparov, the world champion. Deep Blue eventually beat Kasparov, marking the first time a machine had defeated a world champion. Within a few years computing technology was consistently beating chess grandmasters.

”It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go – maybe even longer.” Taking up the challenge, computer scientists turned their attention to this ancient Chinese strategy game, which is both deceptively simple to play, yet extraordinarily complex to master.

AI developers needed to raise their bar, searching for more complex games to test their increasingly sophisticated algorithms. They turned their attention to the ancient Chinese strategy game, which is both deceptively simple to play, yet extraordinarily complex to master.

It took another decade of machine learning developments until scientists were able to create a truly competitive AI-based Go player. In 2014, Google’s Deepmind team started working on a deep learning neural network called AlphaGo.  Two years later a mysterious online Go player named “Master” appeared on the popular Asian game server Tygem. The mysterious player dominated games against many world champions. Eventually it was confirmed that the “Master” was in fact created by Google.

AlphaGo embraced a revolutionary algorithm designed to learn as it progressed through games. The system simply plays against itself, over and over, and learns how to master whatever game it has been programmed to work with

Within just a few hours, it could become a grandmaster.

XO. Be extraordinary.

The transformation of business

Technology, of course, is not everything. Whilst machines might eclipse 30% of the human jobs of today, there will still be a need to achieve more than speed and efficiency. This demands that humans rise up to harness their more unique assets, to be creative and intuitive. Going beyond the technology.

Go is actually a favourite game of Jack Ma.

Ma began studying English at a young age, spending time talking to English-speaking visitors at the Hangzhou international hotel near his home. He would then ride 70 miles on his bicycle to give tourists tours of the area to practice his English. Foreigners nicknamed him “Jack” because they found his Chinese name too difficult to pronounce his Chinese name.

In 1988 he became an English teacher earning just $12 a month, and describing it as “the best life I had”.

However he soon had ambitions to do more. He applied for 30 different jobs and got rejected by all. He wanted to be a policeman but was told he was too small. He tried his luck at KFC, when the first franchise came to China. Famously he recalled at the World Economic Forum “Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy who wasn’t.” He applied to Harvard Business School, but was rejected 10 times.

However he persevered, seeing every step as a learning experience. In 1994, Ma heard about the Internet. One day, when searching online for the different beers of the world, he was surprised to find none from China. The world’s most popular brand, Snow beer, is of course Chinese. So he and a friend launched a simple Chinese language website called China Pages. Within hours investors were on the phone, and within three years he was generating over 5,000,000 Chinese Yuan.

Over the next two decades he built Alibaba into a $500 billion organisation. In 2017, to celebrate the internet giant’s 18th birthday, Ma appeared on stage dressed like Michael Jackson, turning the event into a ‘Thriller’ performance. His passion for his company, and for his audience of employees, shone through.

Yet a year later, at a mere 54 years old, and personally worth $40 billion, he decided to retire saying “teachers always want their students to exceed them, so the responsible thing to do for me and the company to do is to let younger, more talented people take over in leadership roles so that they inherit our mission ‘to make it easy to do business anywhere’.”

“Having been trained as a teacher, I feel extremely proud of what I have achieved,” he wrote to his colleagues and shareholders” before adding “I still have lots of dreams to pursue. I want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do. This is something I want to devote most of my time to when I retire.”

He spoke passionately about the challenges for the future of education at the 2018 World Economic Forum saying: “A teacher should learn all the time; a teacher should share all the time. Education is a big challenge now – if we do not change the way we teach 30 years later we will be in trouble. We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter – we have to teach our kids something unique. In this way, 30 years later, kids will have a chance.”

XO. Be extraordinary.

The magic of humanity

The power of our imagination, to drive creativity and innovation, to engage people with empathy, and to inspire their dreams, was the theme of  Joanne K Rowling’s graduation speech at Harvard University in 2008.

The bestselling author told how she used her experiences of working as researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International to field the stories that became the much loved books. She conceived the idea for the Harry Potter series while on a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990.vThe seven-year period that followed saw the death of her mother, birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband and relative poverty until Harry Potter and the Philosopopher’s Stone was published in 1997.

Her own story, a little like Jack Ma, was one of rags to riches, as she progressed from living on state benefits to being the world’s first billionaire author. She lost her billionaire status after giving away much of her earnings to charity, but remains one of the wealthiest people in the world.

When Rowling was at school her parents didn’t want her to pursue her dream of being a writer because they worried it wouldn’t pay a mortgage. She ignored them, saying listen to your friends, family, and those who care about you, but remember it is your life. If you have a gift, talent, dream, then pursue it. There’s no way anybody knows how it will turn out, but if you love it and you put all your energy into it, your chances of success are great.

Passing examinations, she said to the new Harvard graduates, does not determine your success. Whilst she admitted to having a knack for taking tests and passing examinations, she also said that it was her failures that had taken her further. “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously, you might as well not have lived at all– in which case, you fail by default.” Rather than seeking to avoid failure, we must be willing to accept that it is going to come and be ready to build our lives off it.

To get through life without failing, she said, would not be a life worth living.

“Imagination is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared” says Rowling, proclaiming that imagination is crucial for life. Without it, we ignore the one truly unique quality that differentiates us from all other species, effectively claiming that we are human.

Perhaps we should remember the words of the Rowling’s great wizard Dumbledore, headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is the greatest wizard of our time, who said “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

XO. Be extraordinary.

The new book

XO … Rise up to be extraordinary

Peter Fisk’s new book is about rising up to lead the future of business:

  • to rise above the chaos of today to see the opportunities of tomorrow, making sense of today’s incredible new world
  • to rise above the power of technologies, their intelligence and capabilities, to add distinctive value in more human ways
  • to rise above the concept of business as a profit machine, to capture a higher purpose, guided by the desire to make life better
  • to rise above the pursuit of progress through incrementalism, to go beyond product improvements, to innovate more radically
  • to rise above what we each contribute separately, to harness the power of collaboration and community, and achieve more together
  • to rise up to be the leader of the future business, to step up to the challenge of change, to the opportunity of reinvention, and find your magic.

Part 1. Aurora … Rise up to lead the future of business

aurora /ɔːˈrɔːr / the dawn


  • We live in the most incredible time. What will you do?
  • Look forwards not backwards
  • Have a growth mindset, because perfection is not enough
  • Live for today, and for tomorrow
  • Be the radical optimist. How will you inspire people?


  • Eliud Kipchoge, the philosopher king of the marathon
  • Hans Rosling, the facts of a fast-changing world
  • Satya Nadella, from Hyderabad to Hit Refresh


  • Growth Mindset … developing a winning attitude and altitude
  • Megatrends and Margins … finding the future business drivers
  • Analysis and Intuition … looking forwards beyond the facts

Part 2. Komorebi … Rise up to see the best opportunities

komorebi  (Japanese) / the interplay between light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees


  • Sensemaking as your competitive advantage
  • Technology as rocket fuel
  • Asia and robotics, women and entrepreneurs
  • Finding the hotspots for growth
  • Getting started by thinking from the future back


  • Elon Musk, to Mars and beyond
  • Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s 300 year plan
  • Hoi Ling Tan, Grab’s Asian deliveries


  • Change Radar … seeing the future first
  • Space Jam … experimenting to find hotspots
  • Future Back … mapping the horizons back to today
  • Scientific Hypothesis … using intuition matched with analytics
  • Customer Maps … pattern recognition and cultural mapping

Part 3. Incandescense … Rise up to find more purpose

incandescence / ɪn.kænˈdes.ənt/ extremely bright


  • Making life better, changing the world
  • Framing your future space
  • Defining your purpose, your reason for being
  • Being a force for good in the world
  • Storytelling that engages and inspires people


  • Brian Cheskey, Airbnb’s desire to belong anywhere
  • Donna Karan, fashion is more than frivolity
  • Yves Chouinard, Patagonia’s world of nature


  • Space Framing … redefining your context to be more
  • Paradoxes and Polarities … understanding your options
  • Making better choices … deciding what and what not
  • Purpose
  • Social impact

Part 4. Syzygy … Rise up to create a better future

syzygy /ˈsɪzɪdʒi/ a conjunction or alignment, especially of the moon with the sun

  • Shaping the future in your own vision
  • Disrupting the disruptors
  • Challenging the possibilities, dreams into reality
  • Redefining how markets work
  • Innovating beyond your own business


  • Jean-Claude Biver, Hublot’s luxury futuristic watches
  • Sheila Lirio Marcelo, caring for the world’s family
  • James Watt, the irreverent and irrepressible Brewdog
  • Piyush Gupta, making Singapore’s DBS the world’s best bank


  • Moonshot Landings … by asking the impossible questions
  • Growth Factories and Innovation Labs … big companies get smarter
  • Future Portfolio
  • Ideas Fusions

Part 5. Ingenuity … Rise up to be more human

ingenuity /ˌɪndʒɪˈnjuːɪti / the quality of being clever, original, and inventive

  • Harnessing the unique talents of humanity
  • Technologies like AI and robotics that enable people to achieve more
  • Ingenuity, building on X and Y
  • Designing more human and empathetic experience to stand out
  • Be quirky, don’t be normal


  • Rene Redzepi, cooking up a fusion of food with Noma
  • Sebastian Thrun, learning to live 100 years with Udacity
  • David Kelley, how IDEO creates more creative companies
  • Sophie Le Rey, a passion for diversity and social impact


  • Human Talent Map … how to be more human
  • Man and Machine Interface … augmenting humanity
  • Authenticity Barometer … seeing what is real and fake
  • Creative Space … how IDEO drive creativity in teams

Part 6. Ubuntu … Rise up to achieve more together

ubuntu /ʊˈbʊntʊ/ South African / a quality that includes the essential human virtues, compassion and humanity

  • Reinventing organisations for a fast and connected world
  • Together we can achieve more
  • Harnessing the power of teams, partners and ecosystems
  • Engaging people with diversity and talent
  • Going further faster with networks and communities


  • Jim Hageman Snabe, turning crazy dreams into corporate details
  • Zhang Ruimin, building a business of a million entrepreneurs
  • Reed Hastings, creating a data-driven platform to entertain the world
  • Simon Mottram, capturing the passion of cycling with Rapha


  • Smart Teams … how to enhance the speed and effectiveness of teams
  • Innovation Accelerator … developing more ideas better and faster
  • Agile Organisations … balancing dynamic and stable action
  • Community Building … how real communities evolve

Part 7. Awestruck … Rise up to be the leader

awestruck /ˈɔːstrʌk/ filled with or revealing awe, filled with wonder

  • Finding your magic
  • Having the courage to lead the future you dream of
  • Stepping up to be the leader
  • Staying real for happy people and high performance
  • Epiphanies and euphoria


  • Javier Guyeneche, EcoAlf’s future fashion from fishing nets
  • Ayman Al Ghambi, Savola’s future food from global cultures
  • Khaled Bichara, Orascoms future cities from Egyptian desert
  • Paul Sinton-Hewlett, ParkRun’s future fitness for everyone


  • The beauty of ikigai … aligning the future you want to see
  • The power of gunxia … working with partners to achieve more
  • The courage of sisu … endurance to make it happen successfully

About the author, Peter Fisk:

  • Peter Fisk is an inspiring business author, keynote speaker, business school professor and strategic advisor. With a physics degree he managed brands like Concorde, led a strategy consulting firm, was CEO of a 400 person organisation, and co-founded a technology-based start-up.
  • Author of 7 bestselling books including Gamechangers which explores the innovative business strategies of 100 companies, Creative Genius on strategic innovation inspired by Leonard da Vinci, People Planet Profit on sustainability, and Marketing Genius, how to accelerate growth.
  • Works with the leadership teams of many innovative companies, including Aeroflot, American Express, BNP Paribas, Coca Cola, GSK, Koc, Microsoft, Nestle, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, PwC, Red Bull, Samsung, Savola, UAE Government, Virgin and many more.
  • Founder of GeniusWorks, a future strategy consulting firm based in London, working with business leadership teams to help them explore their future growth. He combines a stretching, inspiring, methodological and collaborative approach to help teams achieve more together.
  • Director of Thinkers50 Global, bringing together the best ideas in the world for business, ranking the business thinkers. He also founded and hosts the European Business Forum, held each year in the Danish city of Odense, which has become “the Davos of business thinking”.
  • Professor of Strategy and Innovation at IE Business School in Madrid, where he is also Academic Director of their flagship Global Advanced Management Program for senior executives. He combines leadership, strategy and innovation disciplines, driven by a new world of technological change.


More from the blog

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *