Most pieces of writing will give you a long list of habits that highly successful people employ to maintain their day-to-day stride, but I’d rather talk about basic behaviour than getting mired in confusing rules that change depending on who you ask. Good articles are out there by very qualified people like Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Gary Vee, and I will use these guys later to back me up. In fact, I highly recommend them for guidance once you understand your endgame, but let’s take a step back and simplify things with the big picture. There are only two basic things I see successful people do that the rest of the world is not willing to do. If there is a job or skill you would love to have, whether it’s becoming a scientist, playwright, architect, teacher, nurse, athlete or public speaker, the process is very simple.
Show up. Wow, what a revelation! I know, I wish it were sexier but let’s be real here. The first step is to show up, turn up, pick up the tool, be in the place you intend to work, prepare to do it, and move your body through each part of the process. This is the opposite of what most of us do when there’s an obligation. We procrastinate, think of other commitments or things we could be doing that distract us from what we really need to do, reasons we can’t be there, projects we need to get back to. The psychology of the fear of failure and the pressure of performance is well-documented and I already wrote a long article on my thoughts of how and why it happens here, no doubt you can find a hundred more. What you need to know is that whatever happens, the only way that you develop the skill you want or get a job done on the way to building something is to physically show up in the first place.
Now I could digress on a tangent about the digital age and how we’ve all become less comfortable meeting strangers and speaking publicly without the help of emojis, but that will only be important to some of you. What I do think is important is pointing out how many times I’ve decided to just show up to something (regardless of my comfort with strangers), put my name down in a competition or application, look for free skill development sessions, volunteering opportunities, educational seminars and networking spaces via meetup or eventbrite and had the advantage of being one of the few who said yes and then showed up. In each case I showed everyone there that, regardless of the level my skills were at, I was one of them by the simple action of putting myself in the space that I want to be. Like anything else, I learned much faster by throwing myself in and learning on the job, improving my chances of getting more out of each session exponentially instead of waiting until I was an expert before even trying.
Are you ready for this? The second gold nugget is… keep showing up. Pow! Mind blown. Ok I’m sorry for the anticlimax but this is real advice, not a get rich quick scheme. I said it was simple, not quick or easy. Gary Vee talks 24/7 about patience and grinding (no, not that kind of grinding), which when taken together you might realise that it means to do the work and to expect nothing out of it for a long time. In simple terms it means showing up to your tools or your job and practicing over and over until you’re the expert. For years. We all see great actors, scientists, teachers, comedians, artists, boxers and we imagine they were born with some natural propensity for their chosen field. Logically we know that’s not true, how could someone become that smart, quick-witted or strong without trying? But we lie to ourselves so we can feel better about not practicing regularly. Nowhere is this clearer to me than Brazilian jiu jitsu (sorry to bring it up again) where a black belt takes an average of 10 years, or three undergraduate degrees worth of time! Only a small percentage of black belts are world champions, but every one of them tells you the same ‘secret’ of their success: they showed up and they did their practice every day. They were willing to prepare for the moment they had to perform, and there’s literally no other answer that would make more sense. Having said that, there are a few things you can do to make this easier.
The first useful tactic is to have a reason for doing what you do. Simon Sinek is a big proponent of the idea that we ‘start with why’ which he made the title of his first book, go figure! Without a reason for doing something, we really won’t get far. The philosopher Nietzsche said that ‘if we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.’ But let’s go further and say that having a ‘why’ is not optional, it’s really the only motivation behind anything, and to be missing a higher purpose is to invite depression. Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl noted that a person can only go on living if they have something to look forward to, sub specie aeternitatis — ‘under the aspect of eternity’. I’ve written about how to find purpose using Simon’s ideas here.
The second thing we can fall back on is our process. Ryan Holiday credits psychiatry professor Lionel Rosen with the idea of ‘trusting the process’. Only thinking about the next step, the one you can control. Spending time thinking about all the variables, distractions and obstacles is overwhelming and confusing for our simple primate minds. It’s why we write lists and journals, why we learn visually, trying to keep every piece of information in our heads is unrealistic. To overcome that limitation, practice an extremely purposeful form of mindfulness: focus on the present, on what’s in front of you, and consider the next logical step, act on that, repeat.
Let’s add a final tactic to make our work even better, the other half of mindfulness that enjoys every moment. It’s Holiday again that preaches the ancient stoic idea of ‘amor fati’, a love of fate and echoes Nietzsche’s words not to simply bear what is necessary but to love it. Our friend Gary Vee always talks about the same thing, enjoying what you do, loving the difficulty of the process, overcoming the struggle and appreciating it for the opportunity to make yourself better and better every day. But perhaps there are few, if any, more qualified to talk about struggle than Viktor Frankl again who said that ‘when a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task… His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden,’ ‘which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.’ [this includes ladies too, it’s just old fashioned language]
On your bad days fall back to the process. As Seth Godin advises, don’t just do something badly for the sake of getting it done, merely do the small task required of you to get to the goal, remember why you’re doing this and do what you can.
If you want credentials for this instead of just advice, I offer myself. For much of my life I’ve been a low confidence underperformer with anger management issues and no social skills, alienating close relationships and burning bridges with loved ones. All I knew is that I wanted to be better than that and that was my basic ‘why’. Just by showing up for 12 years I’ve ended up being able to find purpose, write articles, create visual art, perform public speaking, get good grades, develop relationships and create an extremely supportive social circle. To get there I showed up to study martial arts, science, speaking skills, strategy, mindset, cooking, social issues and solutions, arts and literature through books, video and podcasts. My willingness to say yes, show up once and then continue to do so have given me the skills to be selected to travel to Fiji, become a society vice president at university, become a high school mentor, make connections in a wide variety of industries, understand a world of self-defence, help with my lecturer’s PhD research, speak in front of schools and doctors, develop socially impactful businesses, and more. I’m not making millions, I’m not the greatest of all time, I’m not even an extremely efficient person, but that’s not my goal. I’m fulfilling my purpose of helping others at my own pace.
The process is simple: keep showing up, keep critically assessing, keep adjusting and improving with better data. You will suck on your first try, and if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll plateau by your 20th. You will have to deal with financial hardship and imposing obligations, it will suck but that happens to everyone, you’ll have to learn resilience. What you want to be good at takes practice and if small things put you off your game then maybe you don’t want it as bad as you think, maybe you’re scared, or you haven’t figured out why you’re doing something (hint: it should be for the greater good). You’ll need to keep finding weaknesses to bring up to a competent level without the judgement of being good or bad or useless or amazing. If you’ll indulge my platitudes, get back on the horse, stop complaining[big language warning] and do the work.
If you want to succeed you need to become an eternal student and consistent performer. Let your challenges be an opportunity to grow and show what you’ve learned so far. Most importantly, keep giving yourself chances, neither one setback nor a thousand defines you, every successful person has had the same challenges and they only got better by overcoming them. It’s resilience, heart and the willingness to grow that tells everyone what kind of a person you are. All you have to do is put that into action by showing up at the place you need to be, at the time you said you’d be there and starting, over and over with a smile on your face.