Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

On the Remarkably Long Road to the Remarkable

June 29th, 2012 · 25 comments

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Here’s John McPhee reflecting on his path to The New Yorker: “I had been continually rejected…until I was in my thirties.”

He’s not alone in fostering patience for this particular goal.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that it took him ten years of training at The Washington Post before he made it to the The New Yorker. Jonah Lehrer had seven years of dues paying between his first book deal, inked as he left his Rhodes Scholarship, and earning his own staff spot.

I like these examples because they remind of a simple truth: remarkable careers take a remarkably large amount of training. If I’m not relentless in my focus, they tell me, I should not count on a life as interesting, autonomous, and respected as that enjoyed by Mr. McPhee.

It’s just enough of a push to turn me away from my latest schemes, and get me back to putting pen on paper and chalk on chalkboard.

25 thoughts on “On the Remarkably Long Road to the Remarkable

  1. Marcelo says:

    I got deeply offended by the stereotypical cartoons in the linked article…

    Just kidding, and waiting for your book in september. (have not pre-order as there’s no kindle option yet)

  2. MB says:

    Like the short articles/posts!

  3. Hanad Ahmed says:

    interesting…. I read a book by Robert Greene called “50th law” it was co-written by hip-hop mogul 50 cent. Chapter 8 “respect the process, mastery” talks about the phenomenon of boredom being the leading cause of why people can’t endure the drudgery of long-term practice that equates to mastering a craft … 10 years of deliberate practice to master a craft is out of the scope of most people…

  4. Abhisek says:

    This was exactly the motivation I needed…Thanks again Cal! 🙂

  5. J says:

    Good to see you’re still full of shit, Cal.

  6. hilary says:

    “…remarkable careers take a remarkably large amount of training”. The FOCUS that it takes, the PATIENCE with yourself,the INTENTION and CLARITY are inner characteristics. TIME is relative. Anyone who has ever accomplished anything requiring Action has failed at something. This generation of young people in high school and college have so much distraction in their path. Actually, we all do.
    ( I enjoy your quest for patterns of success. )

  7. Nitin says:

    Good post, Cal. Did you link the wrong URL for John McPhee? It says nowhere in the linked article about his years of rejection.

    As an aside, I noticed you updated your age to 30. Happy birthday and I wish to continue to see many more inspiring posts from you!

  8. If you study remarkable, wildly successful people, they pretty much all have similar stories.

    They all include some ‘interestingly painful’ early years, a turning point, and then a steady continual rise to the top.

    I always tell people, if your story DOESN’T resemble this, you’re probably not on the path for you, but if it DOES, you’ll shine if you persist.

  9. Study Hacks says:
    I read a book by Robert Greene called “50th law” it was co-written by hip-hop mogul 50 cent. Chapter 8 “respect the process, mastery”

    I haven’t read Greene, but I know of him. Not surprised that he found ideas along this line.

    This generation of young people in high school and college have so much distraction in their path. Actually, we all do.

    I agree. I think we underestimate the significance of shifting to a knowledge work economy, leaving behind the cultures of craftsmanship and apprenticeship that dominated work in the preceding centuries.

    Good post, Cal. Did you link the wrong URL for John McPhee? It says nowhere in the linked article about his years of rejection.

    The link takes you to an abstract of the article. The full article is being the New Yorker’s paywall. If you have the print edition (July 2, 2012) it’s in the second paragraph of page 35.

    I noticed you updated your age to 30. Happy birthday

    Thank you. I turned 30 on the 23rd.

  10. J. says:

    Cal, I love your blog because it reminds people how important hard work is, but I get a little annoyed every time you write a post about how “passion is overrated” and then a month later write one about the “long road” to success. You say that passion is an unnecessary distraction and that it’s not something you discover but rather something that grows along with your skills, but isn’t passion what sustains you on the remarkably long road to the remarkable? How does a person dedicate themselves to deliberate practice day after day for five or ten years in a subject that doesn’t speak to them?

    I think you’re making some bold assumptions about human willpower and the development of values, and I wouldn’t bet money that they’re true. Specifically, I have three complaints:

    First, evidence shows that people do in fact begin adult life with a broad but particular set of strengths and moral values (see Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality foundations theory and Martin Seligman’s work on signature strengths). You say that passion grows over time with skill and therefore it’s folly to consider passion when choosing a profession, but isn’t this a straw man argument? Just because someone becomes more passionate as they gain skill doesn’t mean they started adult life with equal levels of passion and strength in all areas. The fact is that someone who is passionate about using numbers to discover truth might very well become a skilled and passionate painter, but they’d probably have been a better mathematician. Someone introverted with strengths in analysis and learning could become an expert salesperson, but they’d probably make a better analyst. I’d encourage you to consider passion more broadly in your future posts. I agree with you that it’s stupid for someone to worry that their current job as a marketing manager is wrong because perhaps their passion is to be a lawyer. But someone with a broad passion for altruism and whose strengths include social intelligence and enthusiasm is probably in the wrong profession if they work as a number cruncher for a cigarette company.

    Second, aptitude aside, I think you’re making the assumption that “people can do whatever they put their minds to!” That is, you assume that willpower is all it takes to spend ten years becoming good at something. Yes, it’s physically possible, but no, most people can’t just pick an arbitrary profession to become a world expert at. People need motivation along the way. I know you’ve dissed the idea of Flow before and I agree with your premise for doing so: I think you’re right that to get really good at something people need a challenge that exceeds their skill rather than one that matches it. But that doesn’t mean that flow is useless. What could be a better motivation to spend years working hard than the pleasure of losing yourself in your work? Even better if you experience flow while work towards something you find meaningful, something that you consider bigger and more important than yourself. And as you probably know, people are more likely to experience flow when they are capitalizing on the signature strengths and passions that they gained at birth and during their childhood.

    Finally, your premise implies that people can only enjoy life once they’ve put in a decade or two of hard work and become a world expert. It’s sort of like those personal finance blogs that encourage you to live like a homeless person for 40 years so that you can retire a millionaire. Life is happening right here, right now, in this moment. Evidence from positive psychology points to the idea that finding a vocation that aligns with your broad set of strengths and passions is important for enjoying the long road to remarkability. No one ever said you’d be in a state of enlightened bliss the whole way, but it’s a damn long road and so you’d better like what you’re doing when you start the journey.

  11. Brian says:

    Now I’m curious as to what those latest schemes might be?

    Happy Birthday, and thank you again for the ongoing inspiration.

  12. Jefferson James says:

    This post is making me seriously consider starting a blog of my own to look back on if I accomplish my big goals in life.

  13. Study Hacks says:
    but isn’t passion what sustains you on the remarkably long road to the remarkable?

    It’s a popular myth that you need passion before you set out to do something really well. The research shows a snowball effect. As you make some early advances, this gives you a little boost of reinforcement (call this minor passion, if you will) which provides enough motivation to push through the harder work to get the next level, now you get even more reinforcement (more passion) and so on. In other words, it build as you focus.

    If you sit around waiting for a profound sense of passion before starting down a profoundly long path in your life, you won’t get very far.

  14. Justin says:

    You mean: Jonah Lehrer, the plagiarist? Probably could have picked a better example.

  15. Erin says:

    I just love Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and I encourage every new parents to read that book.

  16. Jenny says:

    Cal,
    This post may be unrelated, but since it’s your most recent post I felt like I would be more likely to get a responce.
    As a rising senior, I’m still not entirely set on what I want to do. It’s summer time and I want to do something worthwhile with it, but I feel that it’s too late to get a job. I’m also not sure which teachers to ask for reccomendations. I just read your blog on being impressive, and I have always wanted to be that kid. Can I still be? I have interest in social work as well as biology but my parents wouldn’t want me to do social work. I don’t really know what to major in and it’s really frustrating. I know that ‘passion’ won’t spring out of nowhere. What can I do to make it come and be impressive? People always look at me and see me as a hard worker and I don’t want to let myself or anyone down by not getting into a good school. I need focus. Also, I took all core sciences in hs (Bio, Chem,Physics) and plan on taking AP bio senior year. I took mainly liberal arts APs in the past. If I want to take a science route, such as medicine, how will it look if I haven’t taken an AP Science. Please help, Cal. Also- I am officer of two clubs for senior year. Should I drop it and do something more impressive/relaxed? Would it be too late to be a superstar? I know this is really long, but thing is I need focus and want to be less boring and more impressive. Any ideas? I probably sound pitiful, but advice would be appreciated.

  17. Study Hacks says:
    You mean: Jonah Lehrer, the plagiarist?

    He’s hardly a plagiarist — it was his own work! The publishing world is still trying to figure out what works surrounding writers’ own blogs. Jonah’s answer turned out to be more liberal than the New Yorker’s answer to these questions, but the idea that he is somehow unethical or tainted is not one I buy into.

  18. Kevin says:

    J. nailed it. Without having fun doing what you do, you would never push through the hard corners.
    As you make some early advances, this gives you a little boost of reinforcement (call this minor passion, if you will) which provides enough motivation to push through the harder work to get the next level, now you get even more reinforcement (more passion) and so on. In other words, it build as you focus.
    No, I still have the same passion I’ve always had when I started welding and forming metal as a hobby in my garage.

    Doing something, like repairing motorcycles and over time solving harder and harder problems gives you more confidents in repairing these things, but that has nothing to do with the initial passion you need to pursue a certain path.

    I first liked the new look onto this finding a career thing, but after reading the posts in the “passion myth” section I have to honestly doubt the assumptions.

    I’ve choosen a path in college where 60% of the time I do stuff I really learned to hate studying. And even putting a lot of time and energy into it, no passion will arise. Because there never has been a passion for the certain field.

    “people can do whatever they put their minds to!” for definetly has been proven wrong. You just lack the breath without even enjoying it a little bit.

    Finally, I can’t get over the fact that everyone in this huge line of accomplishment like Steve Job, Ayrton Senna, Ferdinand Porsche always are cited that you have to have passion and do what you love. All these men obviously reached some sort of accomplishment during their livetime.
    I didn’t do some research on my own before starting going into college, but my choice turned out to elevate my natural interests, so that I can thrive in my choosen career path. Accidently I’ve choosen my academics according to my passions.

    Liam Martin says, its much easier to put our minds into something we enjoy and that “with passion you can do anything”. Willpower alone just gets you so far. Look at all the unsuccessful “Get rich fast” books. They all proclaim track all your spendings bla,bla. Some might do it for some time until they had enough failed attemps to save more money.
    That’s why Ramit Sethi’s is defending his believe of automating all your money affairs. Because nobody can’t do these pea picking for long enough. You can just get that far with willpower. If you want to accomplish something outstanding you need a clever mix between stuff you’re passionatlly interested in and your strengths…

  19. Alexander Boland says:

    I definitely see some of this addressed, but I was wondering what you thought about managing expectations. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that one of the most important things I need to do for myself is limit my short/medium term expectations. I oftentimes find myself vainly hoping that somehow I’ll have solved 3 major roadblocks by so-and-so date. Recently, I made a genuine effort to cull some of my expectations saying “it doesn’t seem satisfying in comparison, but just think about how unprecedented just accomplishing this one realistic [but hard] goal could be.”

  20. Nichole says:

    I needed this. Thank you for the reminder.

  21. Jane says:

    Hi there.

    This is a great article, feeling really uplifted by having to see that success does not always come the 1st time around.

    Thanks

  22. Harsh says:

    Your posts always lead me on to focus cal..thank you. By the way I just noticed that the figure at the top turned to “30 years old…”. I don’t know when you turned a year older, but sending you a belated birthday wish.

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