Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Value of Perseverance

We find inspirational connections from many sources.  This week, the riding performance of Andrew Talansky in the Tour de France 2014 was inspirational.  The New York Times covered the story:  Refusing to Quit, American Is Surrounded by Cheers After a Lonely Finish.

Andrew Talansky suffered injuries and setbacks as he and his teammates on Team Garmin-Sharp tried to achieve a podium showing in the Tour de France race.  This wasn't to be, as health issues finally forced Talansky to abandon the race, but only after struggling through and finishing the full 115 miles of Stage 11.

Talansky finished the stage, alone and well behind the peloton.  He finished without any hope of glory or reward at the end, and with considerable doubt that he'd be able to race later stages (in fact, he wasn't and abandoned).  Finishing did not mean his team would be able to win anything; there was no personal or group reward for entering the "pain cave" of an injured cyclist and finishing the stage.

Talansky persevered and endured to gain the experience of a successful struggle.  He finished even as he realized that there was no way to fix the situation.  He finished "just so they know I'm the kind of person who isn't going to give up when something goes wrong." (ESPN)

Talansky got the best advice that anyone could ever receive when struggling and trying make the decision about quitting.  He paused and reviewed his options with Robbie Hunter, the team director.  Hunter told him, "This is a choice only you can make, but take a moment to make sure you make the one you're going to be happy with, make it not out of a place of emotion or anger or fear, but make it out of what you can do, what's possible."  What great advice, and to Talansky's credit, he could hear the advice.

I've never experienced any physical challenge in the category of the Tour de France, but I've experience career and project challenges and hurdles that left me worn out and discouraged.  I've found myself in situations where I questioned my ability to continue, and questioned why I should continue when there was no reward for finishing.  I've considered quitting a project or job because the struggle was wearing me out, emotionally and physically, and I could see no benefit, for me or anyone on the team, on the horizon.  I've worked with teams to develop systems that we knew would never be implemented or used.  I've worked places where our work was not appreciated.

The advice to "do what's possible," coming from within yourself, and not act out of emotion or anger, resonated with me.  We can focus on what we can learn from the struggle.   We can find and appreciate our own individual personal strength. Perhaps the struggle gives us new technical skills or experiences.  Perhaps we can learn a different way we can contribute to a team and see our value and contribution in a new light.  We certainly can develop resilience that helps buffer us from the whims, decision caprice, and rough spots that we are certain to hit in our IT profession.

When I work with new college grads, professional perseverance is something they often need to develop.  All projects in college were designed to be completely done in 15 weeks; projects are rarely worked on after the end of a class.  A student can turn in a project for a C grade, walk away, and never think about that project again.  The professor knew the project path and expected solution when the course started, and the students had to discover the path through the course.  There is a person to go to and find directions. Students are rarely, if ever, given a partially or even totally completed work from someone else and told to fix it and make it work as fast as possible.

When these college grads come to work, they need to transition to projects that might last a year or two, instead of 15 weeks.  All their work needs to achieve an A grade; we cannot give our clients anything less than what they asked for, with high quality.  Work assignments will be given that involve modifying work created by someone else, and the pressure of trying to understand what the other person did, and fitting the current change into something and making it all work without being very pretty in terms of personal creativity standards, is a challenge. We often start projects without a clear understanding of how to get to the high-quality end point.  This all creates a pretty frustrating environment, and new grads may experience the emotion, anger, and fear of failure that drives them to quit.

Learning how to professionally persevere and endure is a valuable skill. Learning how to "do what's possible" for the personal experience of successful struggle is important, if a person is going to find career-long resilience.  We cannot quit every time we have to struggle.  We have financial pressures and families who count on us.  Employers want to hire staff members who will find the strength to persevere.  The personal growth and satisfaction from finding inner strength can contribute to career satisfaction over time.

Talansky continued to race to demonstrate resilience, dedication, and perseverance, to himself and to his team.  It wasn't about the race stage, or even this race, but instead about a career of bicycle racing.  That inspires us to think about our own personal struggles.  It isn't about this project, this year's goals, this particular job - but about our personal ability to respond to life and work challenges over a long career.  Doing what's possible today, in this moment, is a great approach to developing the strength and resilience to continue and succeed with whatever life and a career put in our path.