I am staring through a wall of fog at the vague contours of an empty runway. Airplanes should fill this scene, but they can’t land. At 1:55 p.m., my flight status should read “Departed” but still reads “On Time.” Nothing here seems to be working. I want to quit and tell the 100 people scheduled to show up at my workshop tomorrow morning to take the day off.
Surely you’ve felt the same before. You were launching a new product, leading a once-exciting project, or growing your business. Things started out fun and you made some initial progress. Then you hit a “dip,” as Seth Godin calls it. Your progress slows, your passion evaporates, and everywhere you look the signs seem to be saying “give up.”
Do you quit? How do you generate the energy to push on?
I recently came across a 40-year-old organization dedicated to tackling the issue. They do this because the tendency to quit is costing the United States dearly, potentially hurting our long-term competitiveness.
InventNow was founded 1973 as the National Inventors Hall of Fame to recognize great inventors in history. It has inducted 460 of history’s most significant inventors, like including Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the implantable pacemaker.
But the organization came to realize they were addressing the wrong end of the problem. The difficulty is not developing the inspiring vision—”I want to be like Steve Wozniak!”—but to keep young scientists from giving up along the way. So they refocused their efforts, as Jeffery Dollinger, InventNow’s president, explained to me. The U.S. is not producing enough students in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) who can develop new breakthrough technologies.
“To succeed you don’t need to be a rocket scientist; you have to have persistence, willpower,” Dollinger explained. So the organization switched its focus to providing “encouragement and inspiration.”
They launched a series of programs designed to inspire science students to persist. For example, 76,000 1st and 6th graders have passed through InventNow’s Camp Invention program. Hundreds of more senior students stay on track thanks to InventNow’s Collegiate Inventors Competition, students like Julio D’Arcy, a senior graduate student in the chemistry department at UCLA. D’Arcy had been working on plastics that conduct electricity. He noticed a film form during an experiment and realized that if he could control the process that created it, he could create an environmentally friendly material with a huge breadth of industrial applications.
He was encouraged to apply for the InventNow competition, and the experience set him on a reinvigorated career path. “This competition added a whole new dimension for me because it validated the work I had done and it demonstrated to the scientific community it is useful,” D’Arcy told me. One key was the quality of the judges. The InventNow program pulls together a panel of some the most respected scientists in the world.
“[My work was] peer reviewed by people who are amazing. That made me feel like, wow, my work really matters,” D’Arcy said.
He is now going to start a post-doctorate at MIT. Now, we do not all have an InventNow resource to keep us motivated. What do we do when we need extra inspiration when the world seems to be telling us to give up?
I need an answer to that myself right now. So I talked to a few friends who have built big things and studied a few books. Here is my top-line summary:
- Reconnect with “why.” Go back to your original vision and imagine having achieved your goal. Great warriors imagine victory and top athletes imagine winning before stepping onto the field, so why not you?
- Know when to quit. We are taught from a young age to “never give up,” or in the words of Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never, never give up.” But great strategists know that great strategies are about making decisions. Look at everything on your plate and decide which things are honestly not worth the effort. This is not about deciding to quit your project but to pinpoint which parts of your project will give you the biggest bang for your effort.
- Measure your runway. Do the math to figure out how much time you honestly have to get through the dip. Look at your cash, how much longer your partner will put up with your late nights, how much energy you really have. Calculate how many days, weeks, or months you want to give yourself.
- Get tactical. Categorize your priorities into four buckets: wastes of time, tactics, winning moves, and crazy ideas. The winning moves tend to be the opportunities that will pay off in the long term. Since right now you are focused on pushing through today, it’s time to focus on the tactics. You are looking to advance in inches, not miles, so just do the work.
Stop asking why (that’s step one) or whether (step two). Pick up the phone, write that proposal, or in my case, write this blog. Check out Steven Pressfield’s new book, Do the Work. The fog here is clearing, planes are landing again, and the waiting room is starting to empty. This actually works! Give it shot.