I was talking to my son the other day about his schoolwork and some frustrations he was having. He is a good kid and is in all honors classes. I have noticed though, as the years go on, that school which was once relatively easy and fun for him has become much more of a chore. While not commenting on the varying degrees of teacher quality we have encountered along the way (which is troubling), I believe he is going through something we all go through in life. Rarely is our individual curve always upward sloping and everything comes easy for us. Sure, some people are seemingly blessed in certain aspects of life, but for the most part we all hit periods of frustration, disappointment, and/or low motivation. When you have a passion or care about something it is much easier to marshal the energy required to work through the rough patches. When it is something you have to do rather than want to do, it isn’t always so easy.
During the conversation with my son, we discussed four things that help you get through these difficult periods: Ability, Humility, Effort and Attitude:
You can’t operate at top gear all the time. Even “Type A” people need some downtime or they will eventually burn out. I watch people all the time push themselves to the limit. You can see it in their eyes and read it in their body language when they are exhausted. And, tired people tend to underperform, make less than optimal decisions, allow their people skills to slip and if they are not careful begin to resent heir work. It’s very important for leaders to learn to pace themselves and set a good example for others to follow.
One of the interesting things I find with high performing people is that they are usually harder on themselves than anyone else could be. Sure there are some exceptions – leaders who just self-confidence, but this is rarer than you think. There is usually something that drives an individual to excel. You hope the motivation is a positive one; however this isn’t always the case. I still remember one of my top clients saying several years ago that fear of failure is a good motivator and he didn’t know what he would do if ever actually embraced and enjoyed his success. I found this to be sad and he couldn’t understand why.
Most things of importance and value in life require some level of effort. Some people get lucky and have success, happiness and self-fulfillment fall in their lap, but they are few and far between. In life it has always been that little extra effort that makes the difference. We all must accept that there are many people who will be more intelligent, better looking, more talented, have more advantages, and be more capable than us, but only you as an individual decide if they will outwork you. I’ve found that when you are tired and/or feeling lazy and could easily talk yourself out of doing something, but do it anyway, that’s what separates you from the pack. Success in life and business requires consistent, focused, sustained effort.
I don’t know when the shift started to happen in my lifetime, but we have changed from a nation that gets results to one that seems to accept a lack of performance and then bemoans our lack of progress. You see evidence of this everywhere you turn: 1) structural economic issues that never get fully addressed; 2) traffic problems that never get solved; 3) infrastructure needs that are constantly put off until there is a crisis; 4) schools that turn out less than stellar results; 5) a widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else; 6) a health care system that is broken and too costly to maintain; and 7) wars that are started but never end, etc. Each group of leaders claims they are doing their best given the circumstances and/or blames their opponents for not doing their part. They then have the gall to rant on about our “exceptionalism.” It is a vicious non-productive and self-deluding cycle.
It always bothers me when someone complains about another person’s good fortune by saying they were just lucky. Sure some people get lucky but pure luck is much rarer than you think. Very few people ever win the lottery. Even those that do win big usually play the game for many years before striking it rich. Of course, some people do start out with more advantages than others, but as someone who knows a number of people born into wealthy families; this advantage comes fraught with its own different set of problems. Resenting the success of others is a waste of time and energy. It is also an unattractive character flaw and if you are not careful leads to a victim mentality.
You need more than talent to succeed as a leader. You will have lead when it’s hard not just when it’s easy. Your mettle will be tested. You will be under a constant spotlight and have no shortage of critics. Sometimes it will feel like the cards are stacked against you and your options are limited. You will get knocked down repeatedly and have to get back up. Others will look to you to solve problems they cannot or will not handle. You will need to be resilient in the face of adversity and give your people direction and hope. You will need to be the calming influence in the midst of a storm. You must learn from your mistakes (there will be many) and use this knowledge to get better. You will be humbled and sometimes lose even when you do your best. You will have to regularly outwork, outthink and outperform your competition.
I come across a lot of books, magazines, TV shows these days that are selling simplicity and the quick fix to life. The main contention is that all of our lives are too busy and complicated and if we would just scale back and reprioritize what’s most important to us then everything would be better. The focus is squarely on the individual and what he /she feels they want or need. All we have to do put ourselves first and everything will go our way. Moreover, we shouldn’t settle for anything less than regular happiness and self-fulfillment which in my opinion is an unrealistic and often damaging perspective.
Talent will only ever get you so far in life. You have to regularly exercise that talent and push yourself to do better. The moment you start getting too comfortable in your role is the moment you become vulnerable to someone else who wants it more. As all high performing athletes instinctively know the difference between success and failure can literally be measured in inches or seconds. This doesn’t mean that you have to become a workaholic but it does mean you should take nothing for granted. The landscape of leadership history is littered with countless numbers of talented people who never fully realized their potential and/or settled for being “good enough.”
To be a leader that truly matters you must first seek, then tap into your passion(s). Caring deeply about what you do rather than seeing it as a job or a responsibility will make all the difference in the long run.