Tenacity: the least glamorous life skill and the greatest business asset
I recently had one of those conversations that make you feel most thoroughly out of tune with your interlocutors.
It was a personal conversation.
Initiated by someone who has often expressed admiration at how much I have done in life. This is not admiration I understand. I am hungry for more, things often feel slow, the day is not long enough.
But never mind, that person is in awe or so they say of how much of the world I have seen, how many books I’ve read, how many random things I’ve involved myself in, how much I have achieved despite scoring high on every index that should hold one back: I am female, come from a “broken home”, grew up in an inner city wilderness, English is not my first language, anon, anon.
I am not making this up.
Ghela Boskovich had a group of us, men and women, stand in a line not so long ago. Quoting recent research on factors contributing to success in the work place, for everything that applied to each of us and has been statistically proven to be a hampering factor we all had to take a step back, for everything applicable to each of us that research has proven to be a facilitator of success we all had to take a step forward. Half way through the exercise I was backed up against the wall with nowhere to go but forward.
The point was made.
But what we all took away was different.
Those of us at the back of the room knew it had never been easy. But we also thought it wasn’t meant to be. Easy.
Some of the folks in the front of the room looked at me like I had sprouted blue fur all of a sudden – a Greek Hank McCoy. I had looked so normal until then.
How we all laughed.
Because, back to the conversation I had recently with the person who vocally admires my tenacity in the face of adversity, it turns out people like these things when they appear like narratives in novels.
Because, contrary to what you have been thinking, my chat was not a laudatory pat on the back. It was a bitter complaint about how intense I can be, about how I don’t let people get away with their crazy politics and inconsistent behaviours and I choose to call them out instead. How I don’t let things slide. I will hunt down every opportunity, pursue every avenue, challenge every bit of nonsense, explore every corner of, well, everything.
Not everyone wants resolution, not everyone wants an answer, not everyone wants to understand, and see and build. Some people want to just have opinions, he said without a hint of irony, and the nice thing to do is let them be. He was irate that I don’t value being nice as much as maybe I should.
He’s right. I don’t. But when I tried to explain the perversity of the situation I found that he, too, wanted to have opinions but not answers.
So I am guessing he wouldn’t have much liked what I have to say.
And I guess he won’t be surprised that I am going to say it anyway: the thing you don’t like, is how I get to the thing you think you admire me for. That’s the journey. That’s the path. The only path.
He is not alone in all this, by the way.
In life and business, we often find ourselves wanting the thing but not the toil of making it, the destination without the effort of getting there, the opportunity without the hard work, the tenacious folk without the actual tenacity.
Needless to say, it doesn’t work like that.
If it says tenacity on the tin, don’t expect to have affable nothingness until the grand finale. Not even in fairytales.
Once upon a time, there was no hero, just a person who would not give up
“Sweetheart, you’ll find mediocre people do exceptional things all the time.”
Ten points if you recognise the song. Full marks if you know what I’m talking about.
Behind each thing I have achieved, there are ten things that didn’t work out. We hear these stories from founders and entrepreneurs, writers and artists. We hear the stories and romanticise the effort somehow assuming it is all it takes for success ipso facto dismissing it by treating the eventual success as inevitable, a non religious predestination doctrine that sees people as diamonds in the rough waiting for a magic hand to discover and give them a polish.
Now I am not one to dispel dreams of a Cinderella story.
But for most of us that’s not how life works out.
Do you find yourself jealous of other people’s track record, all things being equal? Do their holidays seem more interesting than yours, do they always make it to the theatre and you never seem to, did their project eventually ship, does their employing bank seem to be launching interesting new products, is their startup getting traction? Do you find yourself wondering what these people have that you don’t, what magic talisman gets them over those invisible obstacles that stop you?
Because on the other side of this conversation what we see is people who make more money than us lamenting they can’t afford a trip to a faraway place, people who leave work before us saying they don’t have time to read, people who work in the same organisation as us bemoaning lack of sponsorship. Easy for you, they say, you have… insert noun here.
We hear folks speak of resources, when they should be speaking about choices.
What you see is not what it feels like
I can guarantee you that every thing you consider a success from the outside is a mixed story from the inside. The amazing product started life as something entirely different, three hard years ago, and the founder or designer can’t consider it an unqualified success, proud as they may be. The amazing platform the rival bank launched that has you green with envy, is a project five years in the making, with many brutal fights, set-backs and late nights in the office when good people wanted to give up because it didn’t feel like it was worth it. That amazing holiday your colleague went on, came on the back of months of saving and a row with the family they won’t be seeing that Christmas.
Everything has a price.
Everything comes with effort.
The choices we all make each day are about what price we are willing to pay. What effort we are willing to make.
Every day matters, every choice matters
I know in story books the prince just turns up and does the needful, and even Hollywood will give you training and toil in an uplifting montage, cutting to the chase. You need to fill in those blanks. There is no choice: those blanks are what makes the difference between the people who covet tenacity and success and those who go places and never feel successful because they are nowhere near where they were going and they are not done yet.
The point, as my conversation revealed, is that tenacity is a bore.
I don’t actually think you need to sacrifice niceness, whatever that is. But I do believe you need to allow for life to be happening all the time. If you look closely, the people who you admire for shipping that code, getting the project live, living a fuller life than you are the very people who consider every moment relevant to the journey, every conversation pertinent, every opportunity potentially vital.
The people who get places are the people who keep going.
Who make big choices through the little ones.
My grandad said you choose who you are, what you do follows. The people who get the stuff over the line seem to instinctively know that.
So when corporate inertia threatens to stifle their project, they choose to confront their sponsor rather than comfort their manager. When they see short-termism or organisational politics threaten to derail their work, they pick the daily fights and live with being called difficult. These are the people who make a big deal out of seemingly small requests, that are not in line with the purpose of the exercise, that divert attention time or resources, that put someone’s ego ahead of the work.
Let’s not fool ourselves. When the launch party comes, everyone loves us, but on a daily basis we are a pain in the proverbial.
That is what tenacity looks like, up close.
We don’t choose nice, if it’s a choice between niceness and integrity. We don’t choose the path of least resistance if it diverges from our goal. We don’t tell you what you want to hear, if it’s not right, even if you are our boss.
And we are like that over everything.
Politics, art, family responsibilities, who will walk the dog, what we should do on a Saturday afternoon or where our itchy feet will take us next.
We are exhausting to be around. It is relentless. We have our foot stuck to the pedal when it seems to really not matter all that much.
Because we know that is when it matters the most.
The hardest part is the middle
Everyone likes a rousing speech and a good plan.
Starting things feels energising and inspiring. Blank sheet of paper. Grand designs. Ambitions.
And who doesn’t like a photo finish? The pats on the back, the press release, the launch party, the speeches and medals and smiles.
Only that’s not when the work is done. That’s not the part those who admire tenacity struggle with. The hard part of any piece of work is the middle. The bit when things go wrong, support wanes and funds run low. When everyone is tired and frazzled, where conviction falters and in corporate terms management mindshare is lost. This is when doubt comes in, fatigue colours everything, resources are stretched and the entire organisation seems to turn against you through neglect, attempts to highjack or derail your work, resource battles, irrelevant requests and deep philosophical disagreements.
Picture this. Early in your work, when blank sheets of paper were still in play and drop dates safely distant, you made some assumptions. Now it’s time to adjust those because you iterated, learned and are adjusting your course. Only that won’t do because your assumptions were put into five different PowerPoint decks, with associated committees and a whole host of metrics feeding into KPIs ten unrelated departments are working to.
Your iteration is upsetting the ship of MIS and committee updates and how dare you.
What you choose to do now may not be nice but it will be important.
This is the middle. The middle is messy.
Your team is tired, your boss has moved onto the next thing mentally, not everything has worked out.
You need to keep your eye on the ball, you need to fight distractions, you need to say no and look here and wait a minute.
You need to defend resources and push for focus and go against demands on your time, output and activity that will come from way above your pay grade.
Nobody will think you are nice while you do that.
Nobody will remember you did it when you get over the line.
Chances are they will walk away commenting on how lucky you are, to have whatever resources they think made the difference.
But the only resource that made the difference was you. All things being equal.
Things are rarely equal
A mother of three has objectively less time to read than I do.
Someone still picking through the rubble of their home after an earthquake doesn’t have the option to roam the world.
The world is uneven. Opportunity, luck, circumstances matter.
But all things being equal, not everyone gets an equal outcome. Choices matter. Living with integrity and grace, one scrap at a time matters. Making the choices that make a difference matters. Choosing to stay the course even when it’s not nice or easy, matters.
Those of us at the back of the room never expected things to be easy so we are ok to roll with the punches here. We know that things are never equal, even when resources, circumstances and windows of time are. We know that to get your life, product or organisation from the hopeful start to the flashy finish, you need to get good at the middle bit. The scrappy, messy, disorienting, exhausting middle bit when all that makes a difference are your choices.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!