Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

The Long Haul

“I’ve just heard about a great new ______ that will solve the ______ problem!”

And so goes the optimistic, well-intentioned refrain. The blanks can be straws or a well or a hospital on a boat or a cheap rugged laptop or or or….it doesn’t matter, because the trope is the same: there’s a thing that someone has invented (usually in the West) and it will finally solve such-and-such problem for good. (And, implied, it will be quick and easy!)

I’m torn about how to react to this. There’s a version of this story that I find hugely energizing, and another that feels like a modern, techno-optimistic belittling of a faraway problem, one that creates a caricature of the problem and of the people living with it…and this is never a good thing.

On the plus side, I deeply, emphatically believe that one of the biggest opportunities in the world is to get our best and brightest minds focusing on solving the most important problems of our generation. I don’t need a toothbrush that might deliver caffeine, or “mega” and “mini” sized M&Ms (thanks Tim), or a razor with 22 blades.

But just because we (sometimes) turn our attention to the big problems in the world doesn’t mean we will flip a switch and easily solve them. That great idea may be great, but after it’s made into a great product, that product will still have to be manufactured, it will have to get through customs, it will have to survive contact with customers and distribution and dealer margins and fraud and theft and warranties and repairs…usually all of this far away from reliable sources of power, good roads, good anything that makes things easier to pull off. That’s a long-term play.

The notion that any big, thorny problem will “just” be solved by a better gizmo not only runs the risk of pouring resources into the wrong initiatives, it also belittles the problem and, in so doing, belittles the people who are struggling to live without access to safe water, to affordable, reliable power, or to decent, affordable schools.

Yes, we are desperate for breakthroughs, the kinds that leverage technology platforms to deliver better information and banking services, or ones that capitalize on and accelerate declining cost curves for solar to engineer all sorts of products in new and better ways – ways that cut the costs by 100-fold while not sacrificing quality.

But achieving these sorts of breakthroughs gets us to the starting line, not to the finish line, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or is angling for a fast buck.

Getting whatever that miraculous invention is to a few billion people is always going to be a long road, one with twists and turns and endless surprising pitfalls along the way. Navigating this road will take grit and determination and perseverance beyond the capacity of most people. Indeed, this is the “sacred trust” of leadership that Chinua Achebe speaks about so eloquently, it’s what we must look for in all leaders who are making real change in the world.

The problems they are working on are not insurmountable. Not by a long shot. But there are also no quick fixes.

Indeed, everyone I know who is changing the world is in the long-haul business.

Attaining excellence

Continuing on the theme from last week’s post from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, I also appreciated the book’s inquiry into how we attain excellence.

American families are obsessed with having their kids play organized sports, so Feiler took to investigating where great athletes come from.  He turned to research by psychologist Benjamin Bloom who, in the 1980’s, analyzed the trajectories of world-class performers in six different areas, “concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists.”

Bloom’s results, documented in Developing Talent in Young People, are surprising:

The child who ‘made it’ was not always the one who was considered to be the most ‘talented.’  Many parents said another one of their children had more ‘natural ability.’  So what distinguished the high achiever from the underachieving sibling?  ‘A willingness to work and a desire to excel,’ Bloom wrote.  The most common words used were persistence, determination, and eagerness.

While I’m not specifically interested in what makes star athletes, I’m hugely interested in people reaching their full potential, and Bloom’s observations ring true.  Time and again, the people I meet who are exceptional are the ones who have decided that they are going to be great at something.

Recently I heard Maria Popova, the now-famous Brain Pickings blogger, describe her path from college to where she is today.  Maria hated college but discovered that she loved discovery, she loved self-directed learning.  And so she started exploring and writing about what she was learning and sharing it on a blog.  It was hard work, it sounded pretty lonely, and it didn’t pay anything.  For four full years Maria gutted things out, barely getting by, and doing her work.  In just one telling illustration, Maria decided she needed to take a computer course to learn how to code for her own blog.  The only problem was that she was broke.  So Maria chose to eat beans and tuna for weeks to save up the money she needed for one HTML course.  And that was just one step on her long journey to becoming Maria Popova.  One of a thousand decisions she made to do the work she needed to do.  Maria didn’t spend four lonely years waiting to get discovered, she spent four years honing her craft to become someone worth discovering.

In some ways Maria’s story is familiar: the heroic figure who toils in obscurity for years and then breaks through.  But there’s a danger in this heroic narrative.  It insulates us from the story, it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking that because we are not heroes, because we’re doing what we’re doing and not what they did (*gasp* because we JUST have a job) that we don’t have the potential to transform or the right to be great.

Part of the problem, I think, is that when you have a job you see all the signposts of title and official job responsibility and, yes, how much you are paid.   The concreteness of those external markers supersedes the much more important personal reckoning of discovering who we are and where we are in our own development.  Instead, we play by the rules of whatever system we are in, and in the process we create a numbing separation from the work we do.  We make an uneven exchange of “persistence, determination and eagerness” for doing what needs to be done to get the kinds of rewards bestowed by the system we are in.  And then we get frustrated because the system doesn’t give us what we really want AND we aren’t growing the way we hoped we would grow.

One way to break the cycle is to wake up to the fact that we have greatness inside of us and to find the joy in creating what we are meant to create in this world – even if today we are creating just a small part of it.  The simple act of caring and making personal investment transforms the quality of everything we do, big and small.  Suddenly we put ourselves into the things we create, and we create them as part of a broader undertaking of daring and learning and failing and picking ourselves up again.  The ultimate power of this broader undertaking, this broader narrative, is that we begin for the first time to see that our own growth happens in long cycles.  We trade in “where am I going to be 12 months from now (job, title, etc.)” for “what’s the real work I need to do now to be a transformed person in five or 7 or 10 years’ time?”

Reflecting on my own growth and development, I know that if I can make just one real, substantive change in how I work each year then I’ve had a transformational year.  Think, then, of the shape of the arc that gets me from where I am today to where I need to be.

Of course it is hard to see, looking forward, that we will only become who we are going to become in the long run, and that in fact we have the time we need to get there.  The easily quantified, externally-recognizable stepping stones to get from here to come at the pace they are going to come.  But there’s no escaping the real work we need to do to become the person we are meant to be.

Persistence, determination, and eagerness.