Career Advice: How to Stick With It (While Others Don’t)

With all the challenges and uncertainty, how do I hang in there when times get tough?

Eddie Izzard is one of my favorite comedians. He also knows a thing or two about pursuing an impractical career.

He didn’t start off his career performing at comedy clubs in Los Angeles and New York City in front of thousands of fans. The opposite – he was a street performer. During the 1980s, he did his routine in front of anyone who would listen, barely scraping by for many years. Then he moved into stand-up comedy, where he continued to hone his craft. Eventually, when a big opportunity finally came his way, he was ready.

Izzard’s story is captured in the 2009 documentary “Believe.” But it’s not just about believing. The more important lesson in this story is persistence – the grit and perseverance needed if you want to succeed, especially when you’re charting your own territory. Izzard never gave up, even though 99% of people would have thrown in the towel.

That’s not just an inspiring story – it’s a principle worth taking to heart. Logically, people understand they won’t succeed at something if they fail to stick with it. But, still, the vast majority give up on pursuing an ideal career. Things get scary or tough, so they pivot to a conventional career.

I define an “ideal career” as one that: (1) gives you a deep sense of meaning and purpose, (2) provides a comfortable income, and (3) can be pursued in balance with other key elements of a happy life – strong relationships and good health.

Pursuing an ideal career starts with identifying your North Star – a general direction of interest. Then you step in that direction to begin developing the key “career assets” of knowledge, skills, and network that I discussed in my last post. And as you take a step forward, your North Star becomes even clearer.

This increased clarity helps you to identify and navigate the next career opportunity in line with your North Star – and you use that opportunity to build even more knowledge, skills, and network. The cycle repeats itself again and again. But it can take some time before you’ve honed your knowledge, skills, and network to the point that you’re ready to identify and seize the really big opportunity.

The process is like compound interest in an investment account. You have to put in steady contributions early on, reinvest all of your gains, and keep reinvesting long enough to realize the big rewards. But, like an investment account, you only reap the big rewards if you have the patience and perseverance to stick with it.

It’s always tempting to hope that the dream opportunity you’ve always wanted will fall in your lap. But that’s like winning the lottery – it’s a fantasy, not a strategy. Sure, sometimes a person just gets lucky. Most of the time, however, “luck” is simply having done the work. As Louis Pasteur says, “Fortune favors the prepared.”

One of the challenges with persistence is that many people don’t believe it works. They think of talent as being something you’re born with, not the product of hard work. This is bogus.

In her excellent book Mindset, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck describes two different types of people: those with a “fixed mindset” who think talents are simply fixed traits and those with a “growth mindset” who think abilities can be developed over time. Not surprisingly, people who believe talents are fixed don’t work as hard and give up more easily. Why bother with the effort when it’s all for naught?

The growth mindset, on the other hand, spurs people to constantly strive to improve themselves and their abilities. These people stick with it.

Cultivating a growth mindset strengthens your ability to learn and to persist on your path.

Another challenge is the CRAP – “criticism, rejection, assholes, and pressure” – you’re likely to encounter many times on your path.

Here, again, mindset is key. Most people view CRAP as something that’s stopping them – some outside force making them a victim. But the key to overcoming CRAP is simply realizing and accepting that it’s an inevitable part of the work you have to do along the way. CRAP is not the thing getting in the way of your career; it’s part and parcel of it. Once you appreciate that, you’re no longer the victim; instead, you’re in control of dealing with the CRAP – whether by pushing past it, ignoring it, or circumventing it.

The default 99% of the time has to be to keep building, to keep investing. You should only bail on your path if it’s absolutely clear that you aren’t gaining sufficient knowledge, skills, or network in your current efforts (that is, your investments have stopped gaining interest). In that case, and only in that case, you have to find a new path.

Without the default of “building, not bailing,” it’s too easy to quit when things get tough or scary.

Einstein wrote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Success on your path toward an ideal career is not about being the smartest, most-popular, or most-talented person; it’s about whether you’re still on the path when the next opportunities arises.

Chad Thevenot is executive director at the Institute for Humane Studies and a member of the AFF Advisory Board. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn

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