A world-renowned athletic coach was asked once what the difference was between the best athletes and everyone else. In other words, what do really successful people do that most people don’t? Of course, there were the typical responses of genetics, luck, and talent. But there’s an added element that most don’t think of –– it’s the ability to handle the boredom of training every day and doing the same lifts and drills over and over again that separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Think about it this way: it’s not that the best athletes have some insane passion or willpower that others don’t have, it’s the exact opposite. They feel the same boredom and lack of motivation that everyone else feels. They aren’t immune to the daily grind. What sets them apart is their commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, with the repetition, and with the plan in front of them.
Therefore, if you want to be a starting quarterback, you have to be in love with running drills and studying playbooks. If you want to be a New York Times bestseller, you have to be in love with the process of writing. If you want to get in better shape, you have to love the practice of eating healthily and exercising consistently. You have to love the grind if you ever hope to turn it into the achievement of a goal.
So, how exactly do you develop this passion for the process to strengthen the qualities of a successful leader? Here are a few strategies that can help.
Fundamentally, one feels a level of joy when they love the process of what they do. Here are a few ways to identify if this happiness is evident for you in your career:
Now, there is a chance that our society may have overdone the need for the above to be true all of the time. We have been told that if you do what you love, money and success will follow. We have also been told that if you are not changing the world in bold ways, it is because you are too afraid to find your passion and follow it. This is not necessarily true, and it is important to self-evaluate your situation to determine how you can find happiness and meaning in what you do.
Author Cal Newport has emerged as one of the more vocal critics of the only-do-what-you-love movement, and says it is time to end the professional guilt trip. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport argues that following one’s passions can be a dead end. He maintains that it’s better to identify which skills you have that could be unique and valuable in the workplace, and then hone those skills until you have career capital that you can spend in the way you choose.
Developing career capital requires a carefully balanced mix of deliberate action and patience. If you are in a self-directed professional environment and are responsible for carving your own path, take responsibility for the direction in which you are heading, and identify what you need from others to get there. You should not wait for someone to come along who can help, but rather be proactive in seeking out those who can provide mentorship and guidance along the way.
If you are responsible for developing career capital in others, incorporate this exercise in ongoing or annual reviews. Always be aware of the following question: “What am I doing to help others identify their competitive advantages, and how am I providing opportunities for those strengths to turn into eventual career capital.”
Most roles have tasks that are required to engage in repeatedly, but knowing the natural progression of a profession can help you identify when you are getting stuck doing tasks that are draining your energy and attention from more fulfilling work.
How many partners at a law firm still do all their own research? Does a surgeon want to spend more time in surgery, or in pre-op or post-op care? In these examples, practitioners outsource the less challenging work to junior staff that is not only capable of performing the work at a lower cost but also challenged by the work itself. In the case of lawyers, they have paralegals, legal secretaries, and associate lawyers they entrust. While each of those tasks are important, they will neither provide the doctor or lawyer with the challenge they need nor the financial rewards necessary to justify their time.
The lesson we can learn from both is that outsourcing certain tasks to other team members is not only more financially rewarding but also allows for greater challenges.
So, ask yourself: what is the natural progression of your profession, and have you done a successful job of institutionalizing outsourcing? By doing so, you bring awareness and understanding to when the grind is necessary for the achievement of a goal, and when the grind must be alleviated to avoid turnover or burnout.
If you want your organization to collectively embrace the philosophy of “the grind” you must support the process from within. Look for ways to give top performers time to do what they do best, fostering a culture of learning, growth, and encouragement.
If you would like to learn more about how you can achieve this, download our free white paper, Steps to Identifying & Developing High-Potential Employees where we discuss:
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This content was originally written by Karen Schmidt for the Sanford Rose Associates Executive Search Network in November 2015 and reworked by Kinsley Sarn in August 2022.