Move through Your Life with a Sense of Urgency (Part I)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Note: This article is part 1 of a series on finding the motivation to achieve success.

Recently, my wife and I watched the hit show “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda on Disney+. In the musical, which tells the underappreciated story of one of our nation’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, there was a particular song that really resonated with me.

The song is “Non-Stop.” In it, Hamilton’s contemporaries are marveling at his feverish passion and limitless energy in authoring the essays that would eventually guide the structure of the United States government. And the hook of the song goes, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time? Every day you fight, like you’re running out of time.”

Through these words and many others in the musical, I found myself relating to the story of Alexander Hamilton on a deeply personal level, which caused me to reflect on my work as an instructor and mentor to my students.

Students often ask me what advice I can offer them for success in their academic and professional pursuits. The average traditional college students of 18 to 22 years old will sometimes look at my curriculum vita, do some quick math and realize that I am not too much older than they are.

They then want to know how I managed to do what I’ve done with my career in what seems to be not a whole lot of time. To what do I attribute my own success? What strategies did I employ in my own career path? And how can they be successful in their own right? My answers are always the same.

First — and this is absolutely critical — I do not believe that I am smarter or more gifted or more talented than any student I’ve ever taught. Rather, I attribute my own academic and professional successes to a compelling need to move with a sense of urgency.

Part of that sense of urgency is a competitive drive. Will Smith was asked in an interview years ago about the reasons for his own success as an award-winning musician and blockbuster actor. His response was humorous but insightful:

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”

I identify with this sentiment. A lot. And it’s something I don’t hesitate to share with my students. It’s great that students make friends, work together and help each other in school. But they should also remember that, after graduation, they will enter a job marketplace where all of their “classmates” will then become their competition.

This obviously doesn’t mean we should treat them with hostility, but I never let myself forget this basic truth I learned when I was in school. I absolutely hated the idea that any of my peers might have an advantage on me in a future job interview because they were willing to work harder or longer than I. So I resolved to make sure that would never happen. Yes, it’s really that simple.

I Worked Harder than Anyone Else around Me and Did Things No One Else Was Doing

And so I worked. I worked harder than anyone else around me and I did things no one else was doing. I enrolled at two different universities and took classes at both simultaneously — sometimes as many as seven or eight classes at a time — so that I could expedite the completion of my degrees and move on to the next challenges.

I had numerous people in my life — including mentors and academic advisors — tell me that I was crazy for taking on so much. And that brings me to another point, which has been tackled by famous bodybuilder, actor, and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger: Ignore the naysayers.

In a speech on his “six rules to success,” Schwarzenegger said one of his rules was to ignore the naysayers:

“How many times have you heard that you can’t do this and you can’t do that and it’s never been done before? I love it when someone says that no one has ever done this before, because then when I do it that means that I’m the first one that has done it. So pay no attention to the people that say it can’t be done. I never listen to, ‘You can’t.’ I always listen to myself and say, ‘Yes, you can.’”

Arnie speaks the truth here. There will be many people in your life who will tell you that you can’t do something because they can’t do it, so they therefore believe you can’t do it either. But the only person who can define your limitations is you.

Treat Your Time with the True Respect that It Deserves

A word of wisdom: treat your time with the true respect that it deserves. This point is really at the heart of the “sense of urgency” that I’m trying to describe.

Time is one of the very few things we can’t buy more of. The richest people in the world might have nearly unlimited financial resources, but they can’t buy more time. Like it or not, we are all prisoners of the slow march of the clock. But this is precisely the reason why you should make the most of every moment you have.

People are often amazed at how much time they squander when they really stop to think about it. The late Muhammad Ali was interviewed once about how he managed his time. He gave a really thoughtful answer that began with the following observations:

“…life is real short….add up all your traveling, add up all your sleeping, add up all your school, add up all your entertainment, you’ve probably spent half your life doing nothing…out of 30 years, I might have 16 years to be productive. So that’s how we can break our individual lives down.”

Ali’s point is that the amount of productive time we truly have at our disposal is painfully limited. All the more reason to make the most of it.

These principles all seem fairly obvious and sensical, yet so many people fail to heed them. In the second part of this article, we’ll talk about whether this “sense of urgency” can be taught and learned.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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