When he was in middle school, my editor, Jesus Jimenez, attempted to break the world record for most clothespins attached to the face. When you’re 14, this sort of ambition is not just logical; it’s essentially the only reason to do anything. The goal is to get people to pay attention to you in a crowded cafeteria, and if that involves a little facial pinching, so be it. Jesus reports, with no small degree of pride, he applied nine clothespins to himself, by all accounts an impressive figure but one not remotely close to the actual world record of 51. I wasn’t nearly as ambitious in middle school—or college, or after college. I wasn’t in danger of breaking any records of note, unless the longest stretch without a date counts. Actually, I should research that.
When you get older, things change—including your ambitions. You may still find yourself inclined to reach for lofty goals, but you redirect your energies. You aim less at absurd feats and more at smaller-scale, achievable ones that will push you a step or two toward your major goals. You work incrementally and that can be wise. But sometimes acting as if you’re still in middle school can be fun, too. With that in mind, and at the behest of my editors, I set out to break a world record—any world record.
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Jumping right into the book of Guinness World Records with the mission of finding one to break is daunting. You’re not simply trying to decide how to order your eggs or which project to launch, you’re trying to be remembered for something incredible—something that will etch your name into a metaphorical mountain that will endure time, memory and erosion. Have you ever sat down and said, “All right, at what thing should I become the best in the world?” It’s scary. Big ambition can be.
I go at it in steps. First I need to determine what records are available and, most important, achievable. To do so, I go to Ashrita Furman, the man who owns the Guinness world record for holding the most Guinness world records, including records for longest underwater Hula-Hooping, most hopscotch games in 24 hours and fastest time pogo-ing up the CN Tower in Toronto (the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere). If anyone can help me decide how to chisel my name into the walls of history, it’s a guy who’s really good at pogo jumping up the CN Tower. Furman, a spry 62-year-old who owns a health food store in Queens, New York, says he breaks dozens a year. “Some people watch TV. Some people go to parties,” he says, “This is what I do in my spare time. By God’s grace, I’m pretty good at it.”
At the time of this writing, Furman holds 195 records, although he says they come and go constantly. He never takes money or sponsorships for his work. He weaves the record-breaking process in with his daily meditation, using both to make spiritual progress. “It’s a philosophy about self-transcendence, trying to push past your limitations,” Furman says. “It’s about quieting your mind’s doubt and using your inner strength to achieve spectacular things.” His first record came in 1979, when he performed 27,000 jumping jacks over five hours. His hardest was probably the time he did forward rolls for a very nauseating 12.25 miles. “My advice is: It has to be something you really enjoy doing,” Furman tells me. “You’re going to have to spend time practicing, so it must be something you have a passion for.”
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Find passion—got it. The next step is the process, in which you submit your idea to Guinness. The ideas come from anywhere and nowhere; Furman says he’ll see a kid skipping down the street and wonder if there’s a skipping record. “Some of these records take months of training,” Furman says, citing the record for Most Apples Cut in Mid-Air with a Sword in One Minute. Guinness then gets back to you—usually in a few months—often with rules. They would go for the skipping record, for instance, only if Furman did a full 26.2-mile marathon. (He did.)
Guinness receives 50,000 applications every year, although only about 1,000 actually make it into the book. It’s free to enter, but it can take 12 weeks for Guinness to review a record, so you’ll need to plan ahead before attempting to jump from space. The upside is being in the same book as Neil Armstrong and Usain Bolt. The downside is you’ll probably be in there for something involving lengthy fingernails or chewing gum sculptures.
This process discounts some things immediately, including Oldest Person Ever—for which I am not eligible for another 82 years—or Highest Parachute Jump, for which I am not eligible because heights make me panic-sweat. (For similar reasons, I immediately dismiss records involving spiders, clowns, the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and being enclosed in dark spaces. For a guy trying to break a world record, I’m pretty high-maintenance.)
I spend weeks brainstorming and revising my list. Longest Hug is out because the current record is more than 26 hours, and I do not like anybody that much. Longest Continuous Moonwalk is out because I tried that once in 1984 and messed up my knee. I think about Most Eggs Cracked in One Minute with One Hand, but it sounds gooey. Opening the Most Beer Bottles with a Chainsaw in One Minute seems like a questionable thing to do in front of the children, and Most Prolific Mother Ever is out for what I hope are obvious reasons.
You can go down a pretty serious rabbit hole of people who have gone certifiably insane trying to break records, including an Indian man who got 366 flag tattoos and had his teeth removed so he could jam 496 drinking straws in his mouth. It could be argued that success is fueled by a spark of madness. I enlist help. My cousin suggests Most Eggs Cracked with the Head in One Minute (80), which seems like a solid idea but would be hell on the carpet. To keep my face out of it, I could try Most Eggs Cracked with One Hand, and that’s looking like a solid contender. There’s Shortest Time to Arrange a Chess Set, except it turns out my children have been pursuing the record for Most Chess Pieces Stuffed Into Other Games and Forgotten, although now I’m wondering if there’s a record for Fastest Game of Hungry Hungry Hippos That Partly Contains a Bunch of Chess Pieces—I’m feeling pretty good about that one.
All of these are excuses, of course, which is the problem here. It’s very difficult to sit at a desk, stare out the window, and think of something at which you will become the best in the world. Frankly, it seems insurmountable. I try to break it into pieces, and think about what I am good at, what I can offer that others can’t, where my natural strengths and passions lay. It is surprising how much time I spend not doing that. You can spend lots of time looking at other records, trying to come up with variations, trying to think of brand-new things, trying insanely lofty and ridiculous ideas. Or you can go with what you’re good at. I decide on Most Bruce Springsteen Songs Identified From Their Lyrics in One Minute.
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This becomes my goal for two reasons: 1) Over the years, I’ve dedicated much of the brain space that others use for entrepreneurial ideas and investment strategies into Bruce lyrics. 2) This is easy. The current record is 12, which converts into one Springsteen lyric every five seconds—piece of cake. I figure I can get at least twice that. But Guinness is, not surprisingly, very specific about its guidelines, so to make this official I need two experienced timekeepers and two independent witnesses. I find them all at a health club in my hometown. One witness is to read an opening lyric drawn from a random list of Bruce’s top-50-selling songs while I answer with the full, unabbreviated title—essentially a Springsteen lightning round.
Is it a hyperbole to say my whole life had been leading up to this moment? No. No, it isn’t.
Still, for an attempt at a largely frivolous record that will remain anonymous to nearly everyone, this is oddly nerve-racking. There’s being silly, and then there’s being timed by four strangers in a giant conference room and checking rules to make sure I have the approved documentation.
The countdown begins, the two stopwatches start, and after a blur that went something like, “Badlands The River Brilliant Disguise Out in the Street Darlington County,” someone yells stop, and someone else says, “20.”
I beat the record by eight iconic American song titles. I don’t care what record you’re breaking, breaking it by eight feels pretty good. I don’t want to say I’m happy about it, but after I’m done writing this I’m calling my sculptor. There’s still the matter of waiting for Guinness’s approval, a process that takes a few months, and to be honest I’m sitting here awfully nervous about it, worrying that someone’s going to jump on this and get 21 before I get my certificate—or statue.
I’m kidding about the statue. Despite how niche this is, how narrow this is, how incremental it is, being the best in the world at something is an awesome feeling. And not to oversimplify it, but it wasn’t the hardest thing in the world to do.
Identify your strengths and passions. Seek out and evaluate need. Find the opening. Position yourself to maximize it.
Identify your strengths and passions. Seek out and evaluate need. Find the opening. Position yourself to maximize it. Then cross off anything on the list that has to do with spiders or clowns. (This is not a problem faced by many business owners, but I’m just covering my bases here.) The idea isn’t breaking silly records but reaching some measure of self-transcendence. It’s not, “Hey, cool, I can name a box set of Bruce lyrics.” It’s that I engaged in the process, planning and execution needed in naming a box set of Bruce lyrics. That’s the real lesson. The other is not to attach a bunch of clothespins to your face.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.