Three years ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on my book Dare, Dream, Do, a friend sent me a link to a contest sponsored by Oprah. The prize was your own talk show. Immediately, I was thrilled by the giddy fear I feel when I know I’ve got to take something on.
Almost simultaneously, I began to explain to myself why this audition was a no-go: I would have to take a day off of work, drive from Boston to New Jersey, fill out a lengthy application, get up long before dawn to be one of the first 500 people in line, and subject myself to the humiliation of a cattle call in a Kohl’s parking lot. As I told all of this to my friend Liz, she gently observed, “I find it ironic that you are writing a book daring people to dream, but you won’t.”
That was all I needed. I pride myself on not giving up. So I went. As you may have surmised, I didn’t win my own talk show. I didn’t even make it past the first cut. After all the work of getting to the audition, waking up early, thinking about what I was going to say, and carefully selecting my most Oprah-worthy outfit (!), I stumbled. While I gave my elevator pitch, my nervousness made me note-dependent, my affect flat, and my voice monotone: there was nothing about my thirty seconds that would inspire people to dream and disrupt. Afterward I was deflated. Disappointed. I’d suited up and shown up (at 3 o’clock in the morning, no less) to my dream, but some small part of me held back. I made myself go, but I didn’t pour my whole soul into it. I hadn’t given up, but I hadn’t really shown up, either.
I’ve always repeated the mantra “never, never, never, never give up.” These words of Winston Churchill’s have rallied me for years; they are a core tenet of our family motto, and hang, framed, on the wall just inside the front door of our home. But I’ve started to wonder if not giving up is sufficient. Of course persistence is essential. But I wonder if the pluck of true grit embodied by the words “never give up” has morphed into a euphemism for something more fatalistic: I won’t give up… but I’m still sort of waiting to get picked by life’s lottery.
Last year, for example, I was approached about a senior management role at a fast-growing Boston start-up, but ultimately they didn’t offer me the job. There are likely a variety of reasons why things didn’t work out, but I have since learned that my not “showing up” was a contributing factor. There was nothing in my behavior that would indicate that I passionately wanted in. As with my Oprah audition, I’d really, really wanted it – so much that my instinct was to hide just how much.
Jules Pieri, who was recently named one of 2013’s Most Powerful Woman Entrepreneurs by Fortune Magazine, is a woman who is now reaping the rewards of standing up. Pieri is the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet, a retail site devoted to promoting innovative, undiscovered products and the stories behind their makers. In 2012, Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten invested in The Grommet and the company has been soaring ever since. But her path has not been scattered with rose petals – for years the site survived on a slender budget, living from one desperately needed cash-infusion to the next when no VCs would invest major capital during the 2008-9 recession. Pieri made many personal sacrifices to keep her dream alive: she did not take a vacation for three years, she was unable to regularly visit her mother in Detroit who was battling cancer, and her son had to get emergency financial aid to stay in college. Jules never gave up—but she also fully showed up, day after day.
A look at some of the research has convinced me that 80% of success really is just showing up. According to Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at UC Davis, the odds of a scientist writing a groundbreaking paper (defined as the number of citations in other works) is directly correlated to the number of papers that the scientist has written — not to how smart the scientist is.
Rob Wiltbank, professor of strategic management at Willamette University, tracked the returns of the Angel Oregon Fund and found no material difference in the returns of the winners and the finalists in various pitch competitions over a 10-year period.
We all dream about winning, but it’s the showing up that counts.
Even though we can’t necessarily control the outcome. Sarah Ban Breathnach said, “When you use expectations to measure a dream’s success, you tie stones around your soul. Dreams may call for a leap of faith, but they set the soul soaring.” There are no regrets when we invest ourselves fully and show up to ourselves. Happily, we get lots of chances.
I’ve recently had one of those chances. Another opportunity has come up that I’m well qualified for, and I recently learned that I made the short-list, largely because I raised my hand and said, “I want this.”
Dreaming is at the heart of disruption. Whether we want to disrupt an industry or our personal status quo, in order to make that terrifying leap from one learning curve to the next, we must dream. The good news is that the causal mechanism for achieving our dreams is always, always, always showing up: and as we show up, our future will too.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review
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