How Not Achieving Something Is the Key to Achieving It

Many years ago, when I first started my consulting firm, a friend of mine, Jane*, who worked for a large company, suggested I speak with her colleague, a man named Fred, who might be in a position to hire Bregman Partners.

So I called Fred, mentioned Jane and asked to meet with him. I’m very busy, Fred told me, let’s just talk on the phone.

But I knew the phone wouldn’t cut it. How about lunch?, I suggested. Or a drink after work? Or maybe just fifteen minutes in person somewhere?

Fred finally agreed to a short lunch. Then he canceled. We rescheduled. He canceled again. We rescheduled again. He canceled again. It was clear he didn’t want to meet with me. I almost gave up.

Here’s what I realized though: if I could avoid reacting to my feelings of frustration or hurt, then the cost to me of rescheduling the meeting was a two minute phone call with Fred’s secretary. And the upside was potentially enormous.

So I kept rescheduling until, one day, several months later, Fred didn’t cancel and we had lunch. Which was very quick, of course, but long enough for me to ask him to let me submit a proposal. A couple of weeks after I sent it to him, he left me a short message explaining that I had missed the mark but he’d keep me in mind. Right.

I felt affronted. All that work I put in and all I got in return was a voicemail? Again, I almost walked away.

But instead I called and asked for another lunch to understand what I misunderstood. He declined but suggested I speak with his colleague, Lily, who was in a different department and might have a need for my services.

So I set up a meeting with Lily. Who canceled. As I prepared to reschedule I noticed something unexpected: I started to enjoy the process of trying to get in, the challenge of making the sale. It became a game to me and my goal was to keep playing until, at some point, I’d say the right thing to the right person and get my foot in the door. I was, surprisingly, having fun.

And I was starting to be good at it. Scheduling. Rescheduling. Finding a way to keep the conversation going. You’d think it wouldn’t be something hard or useful to become good at but you’d be wrong on both counts.

Most of our jobs hinge on repetition. That’s how we become good at anything. The problem is we give up too soon because anything we do repetitively becomes boring.

That is, unless we have a peculiar taste for the task; if it captures our interest. For some reason, maybe we don’t even understand — and we don’t have to — we enjoy it.

That’s how I learned how to do a handstand. It always seemed completely out of reach for me. But then someone told me they learned as an adult. So I figured I could learn too. It took six months but now I can, somewhat reliably, stand on my hands.

Which has led me to believe that anyone can do anything. As long as three conditions exist:

  1. You want to achieve it
  2. You believe you can achieve it
  3. You enjoy trying to achieve it

We often think we only need the first two but it’s the third condition that’s most important. The trying is the day-to-day reality. And trying to achieve something is very different than achieving it. It’s the opposite actually. It’s not achieving it.

If you want to be a great marketer, you need to spend years being a clumsy one. Want to be a great manager? Then you’d better enjoy being a poor one long enough to become a good one. Because that practice is what it’s going to take to eventually become a great one.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses research done at the Berlin Academy of Music. Researchers divided violin students into three categories: the stars, the good performers, and the ones who would become teachers but not performers. It turns out that the number one predictor of which category a violinist fell in was the number of hours of practice.

The future teachers had practiced 4,000 hours in their lifetime. The good performers, 8,000 hours. And those who were categorized as stars? Every single one of them had practiced at least 10,000 hours.

And here’s the compelling part: There wasn’t a single violinist who had practiced 10,000 hours who wasn’t a star. In other words, 10,000 hours of practice guaranteed you’d be a star violinist. According to Gladwell, 10,000 hours of practice is the magic number to become the best at anything.

Which is why you’d better enjoy trying to achieve your goals. Because you’ll never spend 10,000 hours doing anything you don’t enjoy. And if you don’t enjoy the trying part you’ll never do it long enough to reach your goal.

Eventually, after five or six cancelled meetings, Lily and I met for lunch. Which, as it turned out, was perfect timing. When we finally met, she had a real need, which hadn’t existed when we first started scheduling a meeting.

By this time, I was familiar to her and the company even though I had never done any work for them. I had been around for months and they trusted me because I followed through on every commitment I made to them.

That year I signed a large contract with Lily’s company. Twelve years later, they’re still a big client of Bregman Partners. And they still cancel lots of meetings with me.

*Some information has been changed to protect people’s privacy.