When our children were young, we decided to make a list of the values our family would live by. They include things like “Johnsons support each other” and “Johnsons stop eating when they’re full.” But the one that really stays with me is “Johnsons Never Give up.” The words of Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never, never give up,” have rallied me for years. I pride myself on not giving up.
Then, a few years ago my younger brother, Bryce, after long years spent battling mental illness, took his own life. My first reaction was fear; we share the same DNA. But I'll confess too, that I was angry –– how could he just give up like that? Of course, this was followed by guilt, regret, confusion, and deep, deep sorrow.
Mourning a loved one who commits suicide is a complicated process, involving lots of self-reflection. This included the realization that my “never give up” mantra needed some fine tuning.
Sometimes, it may actually be wrong, as in cases where staying our appointed course causes adverse mental or physical consequences. The work of associate professors of psychology, Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, demonstrates that continuing to pursue the wrong goals can increase levels of the inflammatory molecule C-reactive protein, which is linked to a wide array of health problems.
But in the end, the “never give up” mantra didn’t reflect the nuances of my own approach to life and career. Persistence is essential, of course, but I wondered— had pluck and true grit 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?
I wondered if ‘never give up' had morphed into something more fatalistic: I won't give up… but I'm still waiting to be picked by life's lottery.
Here’s my personal case study: about two years before Bryce’s death I was finishing my first book: Dare, Dream, Do. My friend Dana King sent me a link to a contest sponsored by Oprah. The prize was your own talk show. I was thrilled by the giddy fear I feel when I know I’ve got to tackle a challenge. Immediately, I began to explain to myself why this audition was a no-go: I’d have to take a day off 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 a humiliating cattle call in a Kohl’s parking lot. As I explained these obstacles to my friend Liz Economy, she observed, “I find it ironic that you are writing a book daring people to dream, but you won’t.”
That was the nudge I needed. I went — but I didn’t win my own talk show, or even make it past the first cut. After rising early, driving endlessly through the dark morning hours, rehearsing what I was going to say, and ransacking my closet for Oprah-worthy couture, I stumbled, stricken by stage-fright — ultimately the fear of failing. Nothing about my 30-second audition would have inspired anyone to dream and disrupt. Afterward I was deflated and disappointed in myself. I’d made an appearance, but I didn’t pour my whole soul into it. Fear of failure had circumvented my commitment. I hadn’t given up, but I hadn’t really shown up either.
I hadn't given up, but I hadn't really shown up either.
According to Dean 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 the scientist’s IQ.
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. The runners-up enjoyed an equally good chance that their enterprises would ultimately achieve success.
It’s called the equal odds rule. If you want your business to succeed, get to work. If you want to write a groundbreaking paper, frequently cited by your peers, write and publish a lot of papers. It’s a simple metric: show up, and keep showing up.
Success is about bringing our best fight to the fight, every time.
Luck may play a role in life’s outcomes, or some of them at least, but achievement is far more frequently a result of effort, a consistent, daily investment of self. Life and success are about more than hanging in there, more than presenting myself in the arena — they are about bringing my best fight to the fight, every time.
I'm now fully persuaded that Woody Allen was right — 80% of success really is just showing up. So whether I’m standing on a career peak enjoying the vista or deep in the valley way station, preparing to scale the next mountain, my metric for success is to always, always show up.
Graphic: Via Digital Things, Etsy
This post originally published at Linkedin