Conditions for Success

Bench on a boardwalk in Yellow Stone National Park, photo taken by me in 2017

“Identify which part of the day you feel most confident and energized, and use this time to work on the tasks that require the most concentration.” Ted Robbins

Few believe that the biggest battle that runners face is to get out of the bed in the mornings, while few others believe that it is wearing the shoes and for few others, it is getting out of the door. If you observe, none of these battles actually involve the act of running. These battles are typically faced by beginners. Beginners typically fail these battles and end up crashing on the sofa in their family (on the way out) even if they get out of bed — excuses are easily conjured up. Once one has built the mental muscle for running, their battles would upgrade to motivating themselves to be able to execute tough format training runs such as tempo runs or hill repeats. Experienced runners look for excuses to avoid these runs. Runners who transcend this phase of battles end up making great progress in their running careers and eventually testing their potential.

Some of the coping mechanisms that are used to address these situations: runners place their shoes close to bed room/bathroom and try not to think as they go through the motions of wearing their shoes and getting out of the door. Runners try to train with other runners so that they feel accountable to other runners in meeting their commitments and hence feel motivated to run tough training segments. Successful runners inevitably end up creating physical and psychological conditions to enable progress.

At work places, many folks even after recognizing need to acquire a new skill or develop a new capability in advancing their careers, they stop short of putting themselves through the effort required to accomplish these. Everyone craves for progress and improvement whether they do so consciously or subconsciously. I believe this need for progress is an evolutionary imperative. Functionally, progress is possible only when one realizes or determines the need for it, understands the efforts required to make progress and has the ability to run through with the required efforts. But just as with the struggles of runners, employees too struggle with actually making progress, even after determining the need to upgrade skills and figuring out how to go about it.

While we may be sure of the functional factors, we invariably miss out on the structural factors that enable progress. Structural factors such as physical, people and psychological environments.

Create a learning environment at home — perhaps a suitable workspace (like a comfortable chair, a table, capable enough computer and related accessories etc), a place with minimal distractions like access to TV, constant movement of family members, phone kept away etc. These physical factors may not directly have much to do with the skill that you plan on acquiring but they sure can take away your focus from learning. Any deficiency in them can easily disable progress. While working from office, create those “no-disturb” zones by blocking your calendars, booking a suitable room that is far from your work station etc

Lot of bad things happen in the world but lot of good things also happen. Try avoiding cynical attitude. Create a positive psychological environment. Instead of “why me”, see if thinking “what now” helps. Declutter your mind. Focus on fewer things that create most impact. We can only do one or two or three things well — choose those one or two or three things carefully and wisely. Ensure that other priorities do not degenerate to an extent that they impede your progress on these priority items. Progress inevitably requires optimistic attitude and positive outlook. Develop it and guard it.

As we already know (because this was written about here), we end up becoming the average of five people that we spend most of our time with. Cynical people can be a significant drag on progress. Avoid cynical people. Also, not everything can be leant from personal experience — there is only so long that we live. Learning from others and vicarious experiences allows one great strides in their journey. After all you can expand your reach by standing on other’s shoulders. Engage help, be part of special interest/focus groups that align with your interests. Have reliability partners, engage a coach, make progress.

Structural factors are as important as functional factors. On the face of it, structural factors are not essential for progress — they only enable progress. But they bring control to your pursuit — they bring predictability and make your efforts effective and efficient. As a matter of fact, most things in life do not require extraordinary functional abilities. “Rocket Science” is especially spoken about for a reason… it is an exception and not a rule. Very, very few fields in life need complex functional abilities such as “rocket science”. It is the not the difficulty of the functional domain that curtails or derails progress, but it is structural factors such as ability to persevere, maintain focus and be determined and motivated that really limit one’s progress. Our education system celebrates only functional abilities (I have not come across grades on leadership, perseverance etc but seen grades on math, science etc), and corporate culture puts functional ability (AI/ML expert, payments SME etc) on pedestal many times at the expense of structural abilities — observe who get promoted or are given higher appraisal ratings. Even in Sports — a forward striker is lot more celebrated in Soccer and a strong defense player is almost ignored — we see this happen.

But then this is only for the most part. There are exceptions. Great organizations recognize the role that structural factors play — so do great societies and great individual achievers. It is no surprise that most accomplished people also have great personal lives and good health. They understand that family and health are structural factors that enable progress in their vocations. They live balanced lives — balance is a way of life for them and not a thing to achieve/acquire.

Structural factors are fungible — you don’t need to learn them again as you take on new pursuits (new skills/capabilities). Once acquired they keep giving. This renders your efforts efficient.

Explicit focus on structural factors don’t just help you achieve progress but also help you be efficient and in control. You can accomplish a lot more in life and with a sense of ease and control. Why would you not want to prioritize this?

To surmise, great careers are built on the bedrock of strong personality and relationships. These in turn are nurtured by creating the right physical and psychological conditions and engaging with the right kind of people. Critical question to ponder: are you creating the right conditions for your progress?


Thanks for taking time to read this article. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.

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