Over the course of the past three weeks, the International Olympic Committee and this year’s host Japan have doled out hundreds of bronze, silver, and gold medals – symbols given to athletes for reaching the height of human achievement in whatever sport they’ve dedicated years to being the best. Long ago the Greeks chose something simpler: a wreath of laurel bay leaves. Though absent precious metals, it represented no lesser honor. The Greeks didn’t limit the honor to sports either, giving it for exceptional performance in many walks of life, including the military and the arts. But what made the ancient honor more valuable than gold, silver, and bronze was that it was temporary. Inevitably, leaves dry, crumbled, and fade away, even in crowns. The most valuable part of the ancient Greek honor was a reminder: No matter the field of play, success is never-done work – something leaders and organizations would be wise to remember.
The Truth About Success: It Isn’t a Moment
Pure and simple, working at something grand –progress, innovation, a competitive edge, the creation of new value – takes effort, lots of it, and ongoing. The marketing messages of the world would have you think otherwise. They promise the elusive quick, easy, and lasting. But anyone who’s ever achieved anything of substance knows better. Deep inside all of us we know this to be true. But the heroic moment atop the medal stand is an image we wish we could attain and hold onto. Even those who achieve at the highest level have to keep reminding themselves that true success is a never-ending cumulative thing.
For my second book, The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity, I interviewed exceptional achievers across sectors – more than five dozen winners of the MacArthur Fellowship, the prize infamously known as the ‘genius award.’ Most Fellows I spoke with cringe at the popular moniker. To them it’s not only inaccurate, it has a cost: the risk of losing the perspective of innovation, leadership, and achievement as never-done work. “The praise that can come from a great idea realized,” Fellow and visual artist Gary Hill told me, “can cause you to ignore the trials and tribulations you’ve just been through, and the new and necessary ideas rising even as the current ones have just begun to bear fruit.” That’s the thing about big successes and breakthrough ideas. They simply aren’t stationary – like some pinnacle reached after which you can relax and, as the saying goes, rest on your laurels.
The factors that feed our success – creativity, innovation, good strategy, good leadership – aren’t simply tools or tricks to be pulled out now and then or when we’re in trouble. They are part of a mindset and a practice, one that celebrates achievements along the way, but quickly readies to keep going.
The Truths About Ourselves: We Like a Big Finish, but Not to Be Finished
Still, it’s a fact: We humans like a good finish. The Greeks knew it to be true. We like the victory lap, the crowning achievement, and the tangible outcome. Indeed, we need it. We also like the idea that all that hard-earned good stuff will last forever. This is where we get in trouble and risk working against ourselves and our ongoing success. Here are two important reminders to increase the odds you won’t fall into that all-familiar trap of ‘my work is done here.’
The first reminder is an expansion on the never-done lesson. The unavoidable truth is that any big idea, solution, or advancement is a result of calculating the variables that exist in a moment. Inevitably, those variables, per their name, do just that: they vary. So too must our plans, practices, and often even our expectations of the permanence of the outcomes we seek. Declaring victory isn’t really a thing; it’s a wish.
The second reminder concerns who we really are, collectively, as human beings. We often tell ourselves that we want the outright victory. But that’s not what makes us human, and it’s not what leads to ongoing success. Here’s what’s really true: Each of us in fact likes change, indeed needs change. We are built to ponder and pursue ‘better.’ Environmental geographer and MacArthur Fellow Ruth DeFries put it succinctly: “Even though we create the status quo, staying in it runs counter to our DNA.”
The True Secret to Our Success: Pursue. Achieve. Pause. Repeat.
Pursuit and achievement are the twin pillars of our reality. It’s never just one or the other. Ideally then, they ought to be treated as equal partners in our daily mindset. How do you do that? You have to pause to see how. Literally.
“We need to be interrupted and not just carried along with the flow,” said Fellow and conservation biologist, Steve Goodman. “We need to be jostled out of the immediate.” And we need to turn pausing into a practice, Goodman said. Smart leaders, repeat innovators, and those who seem to have success after success, all consciously make room for this ‘jostling out of the immediate’ by forming the habit of taking a deliberate pause. While each does it in their own way, they all do it as a matter of course. They pause when they are critically thinking, when they problem solve, when they innovate, even as the trophy is being handed to them. They use the practice to honor and take note of the fact that what won the game today, might not tomorrow. The best leaders don’t simply do it themselves, they make the habit cultural and facilitate it across their teams.
There’s no denying that success isn’t the fleeting awards ceremony we often picture it to be. Consciously embracing that is a good first step. Pausing in such moments to contemplate a better move still is an even better one. But cultivating an environment in which the long view and the pause are integral habits, ongoing and for everyone, where a cycle of pursuing, achieving, pausing, and repeating is unending, is the real secret to success.
Written by Larry Robertson.