“To finish first you must first finish.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re racing cars, bikes or lawnmowers; to finish first, you must first finish. These are famous racing words for every team, driver and their fans in motorsports. These words also matter in leadership, faith and life.

I’ve discovered there are three phases to finishing, and finishing first. They are:

1) Preparation. 2) Execution. 3) Processing. Below is a series of questions to ask in each phase. I don’t proclaim these to be the only questions to ask, but I’ve found them useful in fielding a racecar, and also useful in leading The Rock Church.


He who fails to plan; plans to fail. Preparation must be made for any endeavor in life. In fact, scripture even speaks to this forthright when it proclaims, “The plans of the diligent lead to reward.”

Three questions when planning.

1.  What does the “win” look like?

In racing, the win looks like finishing first at the checkered flag, but in life, winning takes on many forms. It could be winning the affections of a new friend or finishing the day with good thoughts when bad circumstances overshadowed the many hours before. Knowing what it means to win helps the preparation. Ask yourself, what will the results of these plans be? Is it finishing first, or first finishing? Define what it means to win, in the phase of preparation, and then examine what is required.

2.  What is required?

At the end of the day we can’t finish on “theory!” We have to do certain things. Theory sounds good when you read it, scheme it or write it; but finishing (in any endeavor) has baselines. For example, a Christian preacher needs to know the Bible, a CEO needs to know leadership, and a salesman needs to know their product.

In racing, a really good set up is required to win. The setup determines how the car responds to weight transfer under acceleration, braking and cornering (I realize this is an abbreviation). When I was a race fan I thought as a fan, I didn’t need to know about setup, but as a driver I’ve realized there are minimum requirements, setup being one of them. These requirements are not theories, but real tangible requirements. In racing these practices, like tightening all the nuts and bolts, are necessary to first finish. Other tasks, like fluids and lubricants, are minimum requirements for the moving parts in the engine and drive train. These are just two very important preparations to first finish, let alone finish first.

When planning, know what’s required. Ask yourself, what is required to fulfill the defined win? And then, examine what might be missing.

3. What is missing?

The planning process requires a constant scrutiny of what’s missing. It’s impossible, if not arrogant; to think a first draft has the ingredients for finishing, let alone finishing first.

For example, if you’ve prepared for a talk you’re going to give, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Sales presentations, blog posts and vacation plans are all things limited by constraints, like length. With the available space given, make your preparations and then ask, “What am I missing?” Those discovered missing ingredients will be mission critical to the success of the bigger more obvious pieces. From the preparation we move toward the execution of the plan.


I’ve heard this many times, “Plan your work, and work your plan.” It’s good advice. It’s important advice on winning. When we’ve done proper preparation, we can usually prevent poor performance, while executing the plan. By asking the above questions, we can usually remove blind spots, create a culture for success and define the win. The next step is execution.

Execution requires a couple ingredients to finish strong.

  • Confidence in the preparation.

Without a strong sense of confidence in the preparation, it’s hard to execute. If you are like me, you’ve got to really believe, at a heart level; the defined win is worth the work, sacrifice and energy. This is where confidence comes in. Confidence enables us to push through the slow and hard parts of the execution phase, to the finish. Confidence allows us to remain when it’d be easier to throw in the towel.

Ask yourself, “What would it take for me to have confidence in this planned mission?” The answer will help you in the preparation, but also keep you focused during the execution phase, when adjustments need to be made.

  • Adjustments

I lived a long time with the “burn the boats” mentality. I had read there was a general who assaulted the shores with his army. Upon landing, he told the soldiers to “burn the boats.” Upon the command some of the men asked, “Sir, if we need to retreat, what will we use?” His reply, “There is no retreat.” I was so inspired by that story I applied it to everything, but I’ve learned alternatives are acceptable, in good solid execution.

Frankly, like the Spanish General noted above, most of the military victories in the last 100 years have included these do or die moments, where there was no plan b. But let’s face it; winning a race on a racetrack, a sales presentation in a boardroom or a friendship with a new acquaintance usually doesn’t cost us our life, if we lose!

In light of this less-than-dying-if-we-lose perspective, a plan B can be very strategic, if not healthy. You and I need to make concessions to first finish. Many times things don’t go as planned. When that happens, are you willing to flex in order to finish? Making adjustments is a part of any successful endeavor. Remember to execute what’s been prepared, but be ready to make necessary adjustments. It’s completely okay if it doesn’t go according to plan. Sometimes the win is first finishing. Other times it is finishing first! And while you are executing the preparation, don’t give up.

  • Sticktoitivity.

Walt Disney invented this word, but it wasn’t until I was 24 that I discovered it. It affirmed my life in many ways. I grew up knowing if I wanted to win, I had to never, never, never give up.

However, there are times you and I should throw in the towel; here’s how to know the difference. Decide in the preparation phase what is too much to endure for this win. For instance, if I crash the racecar into the fence and the right front wheel is hanging off the car, I will call it good for that day! If you’ve tried and tried and the defined finish is out of grasp, then know when to say, “It’s okay to get off this ride.” Go back to the drawing board and start the preparation phase again.

BUT in all other conditions stick it out! This is why I love the Bible so much. It tells me, “In the end, you will reap the reward, if you do not lose heart.” My relationship with God has principled me in this, I’m only a loser when I quit. As long as I’m committed, no matter the circumstances of life, I will experience my win. And when the sun has settled on the execution, and the event, project or objective is complete processing is next.


There’s nothing worse than climbing the ladder of success to find out it’s leaning on the wrong building. I’ve seen many men do this with their careers. They thought providing material things were the essence of being a man, yet when they got to the top of the money pile, they found themselves with struggling marriages, kids or otherwise.

I like to coach men to take their families with them to the top. Imagine if you climb the ladder of success with your spouse? She gets to the top with you, and then sees brighter horizons for herself. Also, when you take your kids with you to the top of the ladder, they anchor their ladder at a new elevation and begin to climb up from there.

The only way you will know if today is a win is if you take the time to process what happened; how it played out. If life is only about the tangibles of winning, like trophies and prize money, people may find their lives full of stuff, but empty of fulfillment. Even as I write, what is known as Minimalistic Living is gaining ground because we are discovering more money and stuff is not necessarily winning. Square footage no longer determines success anymore, but rather the beholder determines success. To get there, I’d encourage you to process everyday.

In processing ask yourself.

  • What did we do well?
  • What moved us toward a good finish today?
  • What could we have done different that may have given us greater progress toward a strong finish?
  • How were the people surrounding us affected by today’s events?
  • What adjustments to make going forward?


I’ve found the real victories in life are not necessarily the most obvious. It’s easy to see the degree on the wall, or the trophy on the shelf. But along the way, “finishing first” in the race of life is often less of the objective, and more of the benefit of “first finishing.” It’s often the small daily experiences which bring the greatest victories.

Even in racing cars I love to finish first. The thrill of victory is intoxicating, but I’ve found it’s the preparation, execution and processing, week in and week out, day in and day out, that gives way to first finishing.

And when we first finish, there will be these high moments where first finishing leads us to finish first.

How do you finish strong?  I’d love to hear about your thoughts and additional question in the comments section for this post.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.


  1. Regarding planning, my favorite quote is from General Eisenhower: “Plans are useless, but planning is everything.”
    More often I appreciate the details in the planning phase, because you begin to understand what all you are really getting into. What was before a napkin sketch is now a big gorilla that needs to be wrestled down.
    And yet it seems the plan is the first thing to go into the trash bin as things get rolling. Situations change, understanding grows, and so on, forcing the plan to change and change again.
    Your post also echoes my favorite decision process, the OODA loop – Observe, Orient, Plan, Act, and then repeat the loop ad nauseam. The two O’s at the beginning are just as important as the Plan and Act phases, and each cycle is going to see the situation differently as things progress, and so the plan changes, the acting changes, and so on, as you achieve your goal.

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