How to Properly Sustain and Master Your Long-term Pursuits
Grit helps but there’s more you can do.
Posted Apr 29, 2019
Succeeding in your work and extracurricular efforts are not overnight deals. The roads you travel are long and winding, up and down. Grit—perseverance and passion—helps us make it through difficult journeys, but grit alone isn’t nearly enough to master a tough long haul.
Here’s some good news: even if you’d don’t have the grit of a world-class athlete, you can productively apply self-management strategies to help you persevere effectively through thick and thin.
Compared with hurriedly reading about personality traits—which most of us don’t possess at superhero levels, and don't tell a complete high-performance story—self-management strategies deserve much higher priority than most of us give it.
I wrote about this topic recently for GreenBiz, the journal for sustainability professionals, in the context of their uniquely challenging long-term work goals. The editors are permitting me to publish an adaptation of that piece for the broader context of any long-term goal pursuit. Here are some useful, actionable long-term self-management strategies:
Persevere thoughtfully, not with grit alone. Persistence, of course, plays a role in reaching your long-term goals. But there are crucial differences between intensely focused, exhausting stick-to-it-iveness versus adapting smartly along the way with well-chosen new strategies and tactics. The key to persisting over time on challenging tasks isn’t to just tough it. Instead, it's to periodically and systematically explore your many options and to know when and how to make course corrections.
Vanderbilt’s Bruce Barry and I investigated the thought processes that helped inspire working professionals who pursue challenging goals with extremely long time horizons. Our study participants were uncertain whether they would achieve their biggest goals in their own lifetimes, or even whether anyone ever would accomplish them. We found four actionable themes providing them with motivational sustenance and satisfaction over the years.
Two of the four themes involved envisioning the possible long-term futures they were working to create. Our masters of the long haul thought about what they might become and the many personal and professional benefits they would gain. They also considered often what their accomplishments ultimately could mean for others, both individuals and broader society.
The other two themes involved realizing the more immediate, near-term, positive consequences of their work. One was finding or developing an interest in the task itself (intrinsic motivation, often through learning and discovering new things). The second was a wide variety of other gratifications, including collaborating with others on meaningful work and receiving appreciation and other positive feedback from other people.
Use both progress and setbacks strategically, as catalysts. Intuitively, it would seem that making progress is reinforcing and motivating, whereas plateauing or backsliding is discouraging and demotivating. But the reality is far more complex; sometimes people respond in opposite directions. A person, team, or organization that takes even just a single step in the right direction can feel good and then relax, failing to continue the progress. The reasoning (conscious or unconscious) is, we’ve done our part, we can tell a good story, now we can deal with other things.
The opposite occurrence—a failure, setback or reversal—can be debilitating, leading to the same demotivating result. But alternatively, both emotionally and strategically, it can revitalize and redirect.
So neither progress nor setback works automatically in one direction or the other. You can identify your (and your bosses’, colleagues’, and organizations’) default reactions after successes and setbacks, and then consciously apply slower, deliberative, “thoughtful thinking” to generate the most constructive next steps.
Proper perspective is crucial. Productive tactics are to frame and view setbacks as reasons to change strategies, progress as a short-term win plus evidence that you can keep closing the remaining gaps, progress not as progress but as evidence of your commitment to accomplishing longer-term goals, and problems as opportunities (not a cliché, it’s true).
In other words, appreciate both what you have completed and what is still missing. Take time to deal with your emotions, but also think strategically and start tackling the next challenge. Use the proper and healthy combination of disappointment plus hope, and throw in new and renewed activities.
Adaptively lead and learn. Over time and across circumstances, long-term success requires changing and adapting in useful ways. If you need others' help, for instance if your goal is to create change, engaging and leading other people become part of your performance equation. In resilient, adaptive social systems, leadership is not rigidly top-down; it emerges and morphs as needed from everywhere. If your goal is to create (lead) change, it is okay that you don't know everything and don’t have all the answers. You can try new things, learn along the way, and adjust strategies and tactics over time.
A learning mindset is essential to adaptive leadership. Fully use what you know while also exploring for new knowledge. What is your core expertise and what are your employer's core strengths? How can you best leverage them? What new ideas and developments open up new possibilities?
Customize your personal T. T-shaped professionals assess the depth of their knowledge in a primary subject-matter expertise (the vertical line of a T) plus their breadth of knowledge across multiple domains (the horizontal). People can customize their own Ts; everyone can determine what shape they want their T to take.
In our world of specialization, many of us have longer and stronger vertical than horizontal components. However, complex jobs (and even single sports) require multiple skills, knowledge bases, strategic and tactical redirections, and working effectively with other people. Consequently, most long-term performance goals and broader ambitions are likely to demand and benefit most from continually expanding horizontal breadth (for individuals, teams, and organizations). Unless you work an unchanging job independent of other people, you can seek new and broader knowledge and strengthen your abilities to work productively with people of different expertise, backgrounds, beliefs, and silos.
Actualize your human flourishing. Human flourishing is a concept that takes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s long-ago work on self-actualization to the next level. Cambridge University psychologist Brian Little’s decades-long research offers valuable big-picture lessons. In Professor Little’s words, “What if we thought of human flourishing as well-doing?” Let’s change our goals and attention, he suggests, “from happiness and well-being to the activity that creates such states” (emphasis mine).
Flourishing emerges from the pursuit of personally-compelling “core projects” in one’s life. We can choose our own core projects, which become most sustainable when they provide purpose, meaningfulness, and vital direction to our personal or professional lives.
We have a never-ending supply of possibilities for envisioning and creating our desired futures, and for changing our personal and professional activities in ways that add variety, interest, new learning, more significant impacts, and both breadth and depth, professionally and personally. If you apply these self-management tactics, strategically and consistently, you’ll keep developing, improving, sustaining, and contributing through time.