29 October 2013

What You're Probably Getting Wrong

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Self-development, career advancement, or just trying to make a positive difference in the world are hard things to do. Much of the difficulty comes from articulating what it even looks like to make progress in these areas. They're nebulous and ill-defined.

Advancing your career can seem like a hodgepodge of luck, connections, and hard work. I won't argue that all three of those variables can play a role in whether you find yourself moving toward your sense of an ideal work situation. I will argue, however, that there are two major mistakes most people make when it comes to advancing their career, developing themselves as individuals, or trying to make a positive impact on the world. They aren't fancy or flashy. In fact, this advice is pretty boring (which is why most people don't do it).


Looking around at the influential leaders and historical figures that populate our textbooks, magazines, and water cooler conversations can be a profoundly demotivating experience. They can all seem larger than life and have achievements that back up that description. However, even the household names we all know and admire for their ability to be creative, ship remarkable products, and make an impact on the world didn't just spring up over night.

For example, Charles Darwin was fifty years old when On the Origin of Species was published. He started making the detailed observations that became that book in 1838. The voyage on the HMS Beagle, the trip where he first started collecting the data and ideas that ended up in On the Origin of Species, in 1831. Whichever way you look at it, Darwin spent over twenty years working on the book that became the largest part of his legacy.

A more contemporary example is author Steven Pressfield who published his first novel in 1995 at the age of 52. He didn't just spring to existence with the publishing of Bagger Vance. He struggled and worked on publishing his first novel for a long time.

For both of these examples, we lose the sense of time that it required for them to create what we all know them for today. We remember their novels and scientific break throughs because that's what's fun to talk about. We don't remember or talk about the years and years of slogging it can take to create something like On the Origin of Species or Bagger Vance or The War of Art or the Mona Lisa.

In fact, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton has systematically researched contemporary and historical geniuses to better understand why and how they became famous. The main take away from much of his research is that these geniuses don't necessarily create remarkable ideas at a greater frequency than other people. Instead, they create more ideas in general. It's not the objective quality of the ideas that seem to predict whether or not someone becomes famous because of their creative output but the number of ideas they produce.

You need patience to keep creating new ideas even if previous ones fail. You need patience to keep slogging away on a meaningful project. And, unfortunately, patience isn't sexy. When it comes to your career development, patience with steady progress may not be flashy but it worked for Darwin, Pressfield, and nearly every other historical creative figure you can name.


Patience without persistence looks a lot like a bump on a log. Without persistence you may be tranquil but you certainly aren't doing much to improve your situation.

Persistence isn't the steady habit of slamming your head against the metaphorical wall. Persistance comes from having a bias toward action while being tied to a willingness to step back and make adjustments. I'm a huge believer in having a mindset like a scientist in that using data from your environment, and past "experiments," can drive you in the right direction. However, doing the same thing over and over is likely to produce the same data over and over. Making adjustments to how you act and then relentlessly applying those adjustments in your daily life let's you hone in on the best way to improve.

Tweak your daily routine. Tweak the way you approach certain types of tasks or projects. Modify your diet, modify your sleep schedule, modify your hobbies or habits.Take careful note of how these modifications affect your productivity, mood, energy, or other outcomes of personal interest. There's nearly an infinite number of alterations and modifications you can make to your life and work that will eventually move you closer to your goals.

It can be easy to lose track of the fact that the people we look up to struggled just as much, if not more, than we do. However, they more than likely took the best approach to making any kind of long term impact on the world. They were patient with themselves and they were persistent.

Not the flashiest two words in the world, but accessible to all of us if we care to listen.

Top image from Imgembed.

This is a cross-post from SamSpurlin.com.

Sam Spurlin is a PhD student and personal coach fascinated with the nature of work. He writes about positive psychology, personal development, and conscious living at SamSpurlin.com.