Most of us grew up taking classes, doing homework, and passing (or failing) tests. Then we found a job, got trained for the job to do the job and we succeed in the job! Schools are good that way. They train us to be good trainees.
There is another kind of learning however where you have to design your own course, make up your own homework, choose your own standards and hope you survive reality’s tests. Whether we’re forced to do it on the job or we are thrown into an unexpected crisis or we choose to start our own pioneering project, there are no clear teachers and no clear direction let alone a clear path. Worse, success is chancy and giving up is a real temptation.
School does not train us for this kind of learning.
If you are on an important new adventure with a murky destination and doubts about your ability to get there (wherever there is), the path you will follow will look very different from what society normally teaches us. Not to worry… you are not alone. Others have explored the frontier before. Although the details are different, their struggles have a similar feel to them that will help you become more aware of the types of challenges you will face.
Based on the patterns identified by the Action Studies Institute research on adaptive persistence, here are six places in the pioneering journey where you might run into trouble and give up.
I. The Splat Start
For the most part, someone usually tells you where to start. Teachers provide us with the textbooks. Companies provide the job description. Society shows us how to behave. And it can be a good thing because it is more efficient to learn from someone who has done it already.
If on the other hand, you are starting something new, there’s a good chance you’re going to start in the wrong place. It can be deflating to be so excited about your new adventure just to trip before you get out the door! You’re passionate about this new business idea, but it gets shot down right away. You envision the career you want, but you don’t know how to get it going. You catch on really quickly to a new skill and then you realize you’re really not that good. Splat, splat, splat… this is the easiest and most common place to give up. After all, nothing has been really lost by this venture except our expectation of a quick and easy success.
Recovering from Splats
The Wright Brothers spent eight years to design the plane they envisioned. Edison went through thousands of prototypes. Newton took twenty years to develop his theory of gravity.
The story behind these commonly quoted examples is that false starts are a necessary part of early exploration. You don’t know what you don’t know… and that includes not knowing what you want.
Instead of being the adult who must get everything right the first time, be the newborn baby who flops around the first hundred attempts at walking.
Every flop is another little muscle learning how to do it right.
Every splat is another reason to learn and try again.
* * *
Things I’ve said during a false start…
I tried five times, five different ways. It doesn’t work.
I was so excited to get started but when I did, it wasn’t what I expected.
Well, I never really wanted to do it anyway.
* * *
II. The Cold Realization
The real work begins when you realize the actual effort it would take to get started. It is like when you get to the base of that mountain and you look up. You may have prepared for the hike and planned for it, but nothing quite prepares you for the sight of it. This is also a place where you can turn back. You might not be prepared to start. But then again, you might be as ready as you will ever be.
Recovering from the Cold Realizations
The sooner you face the actual amount of effort you need to put in, the sooner you can prepare for it and get started. So often we do everything else to avoid the thing that most needs doing.
Serial entrepreneur Martin Eberhard admitted, “If we had faced reality three months earlier, we’d be much further today”. If a successful entrepreneur like him can make mistakes, then surely we can forgive ourselves for not always facing reality.
Look into the demon’s den,
Take a deep breath,
Enter knowing that the unexpected will always find you
But also have faith in your capability to understand.
* * *
Things I’ve said when I realized how much work it was going to be…
Ha, ha, ha… I signed up for this?
This is going to take a lot more work than I thought.
* * *
III. The “DOH!” Experience
A “DOH!” experience is spending hours putting together IKEA furniture, realizing you misplaced one piece, and needing to take apart the whole contraption. A “DOH!” is spending a year investing your heart and soul into developing a product and finding out that people wanted something different. “DOH!” is a setback in your journey forward that stops you cold.
You can give up here too… when the pain of losing, of being rejected, or of failing yourself can be too much. Will you stay broken at the bottom or will you find the will to get back up?
Recovering from Setbacks
Consider that soccer players spend 95% of the time on the field NOT scoring and hence messing up. With every failed play, athletes exercise the ability to recover and return to playing the game. With every setback, we have the opportunity to exercise our ability to bounce back and continue.
There will be this incessant voice that tells you how you disappointed yourself and disappointed others. Take a moment to acknowledge the disappointment, but then ruthlessly close the door on that voice. Open instead the door of learning.
Banish the voice that accuses you.
Find the supportive voice that encourages you.
Together explore the ruins of your setback.
Take what you need and return with new power.
* * *
Things I’ve said because of a major setback…
…. <stunned silence> ….
This cannot be happening to me.
* * *
IV. The Never-Ending Prairies
Grade-school science taught us that if you add heat to ice at sub-zero temperatures, it will steadily rise in temperature until it hits zero degrees. Then it will stay at zero even as you continue to add heat until finally the ice melts into water.
There are many kinds of learning where we see great gains initially, but then our apparent progress flattens out even though we’re putting in the same amount of work. Weeks at the gym does little to improve strength, months of marketing yield few if any new customers, or years of research produce no breakthroughs.
The lack of results may cause you to give up, or you might look for an easier way and change tactics before the previous ones became effective. Or you might be lured into complacency where things do not get any worse, but they do not improve either.
Recovering from the Prairies
Like the germination of a seed, there may not be any visible results for weeks or months, but that does not mean progress has stopped.
Jim Collins (Good to Great) discusses how Alan Wurtzel spent nine-years developing the concept of Circuit City before it exploded in growth generating stock returns greater than Intel or Wal-Mart. From the outside, it appeared as if nothing was happening in those nine-years. On the inside, the idea was being nurtured, tested, and grown. Like the ice, the inside was being transformed!
When you find yourself on the plateau of life, the question “Am I getting anywhere?” is only one kind of measuring stick for progress. Try some other ones on:
“Am I being complacent about my own development?”
“Am I strengthening my abilities and skills?”
“Am I building the roots for the next phase of life?”
“Am I improving the quality of my character and conduct?”
Find the right questions for your journey.
V. The Boom and Bust Cycle
As much as we enjoy variety in our lives, we generally don’t enjoy chaotic instability. Imagine that just as you have finished climbing your way to the top, you find yourself sliding back down… and this repeats itself on and on and on. It is as tiring as a volatile economy that oscillates between prosperity and recession, plentiful job opportunities and layoffs.
Instead of continuing, you may crave stability or something to grab on to. You may get off the roller coaster ride altogether. It’s not the first setback that gets to you. It’s the hundredth one.
Recovering from Boom and Bust
An effective way to exercise your cardiovascular system is through interval training (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interval_training) where you alternate between sprints and walks.
Boom and bust cycles are like interval training for your life. It forces you to adapt to new situations and stretch your capabilities.
Ride the chaos with glee,
Take a break when needed.
To create your calm centre
Do something you’re good at,
Be with good friends.
Meditate in nature.
Then return to the venture.
On the other hand, the boom and bust might indicate something you are not paying attention to.
VI. The Arrival
The event you spent months planning is now done, but the joy of finishing it never quite measures up to the work you put into it. Somehow we expect that arriving at the destination will fulfill everything. The exhausted and hurt soul that arrives can decide it isn’t worth the sacrifice and give up on all future projects.
Recovering from Arriving
One can glibly say that it is the journey not the destination, but what does that mean? Two men from different eras speak to this question.
Seymour Tilles, a Harvard Business School professor, wrote in the 1963:
“If you ask young men what they want to accomplish by the time they are 40, the answers you get fall into two distinct categories. There are those—the great majority—who will respond in terms of what they want to have. There are some men, however, who will answer in terms of the kind of men they hope to be. These are the only ones who have a clear idea of where they are going.”
Meaning to say that what you want to have cannot be a guiding light for who you are. Surely it matters whether you build a business that enhances the human spirit rather than tears it down. Epitectus from over a thousand years ago describes this and more:
“True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.”
– Epitectus The Art of Living
Just as no single frame of a film makes sense without seeing the whole film, no single point of time in our lives is more important than the entire flourishing life.
So when you arrive, take a moment to celebrate the person you have become rather than only the final outcome. Celebrate all the false starts, the setbacks, the ups and downs, and plains that has made who you are. Above all, remember Churchill’s declaration “Never give in!” and like all famous quotes, don’t forget the rest of the message:
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
– Winston Churchill in Speech to Harrow School (1941)
Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching
Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.