A couple experiences coalesced for me this week around the topic of career success.

First, I happened upon this blog post on LinkedIn about Louis CK. The post talks about how Louis CK turned down a well paying steady job writing for Conan O’Brian only to struggle for years as a stand up comic. Louis CK worked incredibly hard and failed often before he perfected his comedic formula. He persisted and now he’s probably one of the best comedians of all time.

The second experience was watching the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man. The film is about a musician named Sixto Rodriguez who lived in Detroit Michigan and released a few records in the early 1970’s. His albums didn’t sell well in the United States, but unbeknownst to him, his music became extremely popular in South Africa. Several of his songs even became key anti-apartheid cultural anthems. Having been dropped by his record label in the US, Rodriguez effectively stopped pursuing his music career and became a day laborer working demolition. He only found out that he was one of the most popular musicians in South Africa 20 years later when he was found by two South African men writing an article about him. Rodriguez’s music is beautiful – compared by many to Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens. Who knows what would have happened if he had found a way to keep playing music.

Here’s the thing. Failing is hard. And I’m not talking about the glorified “fast-failure” of Silicon Valley fame. I’m talking about the failure that happens when you try really hard at something and it simply doesn’t work. It feels terrible. It feels like you’re all alone and you’ll never be successful, ever. Your confidence deteriorates and you don’t even want to try anymore.

That’s the feeling you have to embrace.

Take your lessons for what they are, write down what you learned, and go to bed. When you wake up the next day, get back to work and remember: you’re never as good as you feel when things are going your way and you’re never as bad as you feel when things are going against you.

About six months ago I was having a particularly difficult day – full of failure. I was sitting in a conference room by myself thinking intently. It was probably 7 or 8pm at night and the office was nearly empty. One of our executives broke my concentration – tapping on the glass conference room door. He poked his head in and asked if everything was all right.

I explained to him I was thinking about what makes some people successful and others not.

His response was characteristically stoic:

“The research is conclusive: Persistence.”

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