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Anything Worthwhile Takes A Long Time

By Debbie Millman


When I was first starting out, I wish I’d known that anything worthwhile takes a long time. I wish I’d known that things would turn out okay by the time I was in my 40s. I wish I’d known enough not to be so afraid to go after what I really wanted.

But I didn’t. I thought that if I didn’t get into the one graduate school that I wanted to go to that I wouldn’t get into any. I thought that if I didn’t get into one art program that I wanted to get into, I wouldn’t get into any. And I thought that if I didn’t get the job that I really, really wanted, that I had to settle for whatever came my way otherwise I would never get a job and I’d be unemployable for the rest of my life. Which means that I would end up homeless and penniless and alone. At that time of my life I feared that I was too old, not talented enough, not smart enough—not anything enough to get what I really wanted. And I was only 30!

Looking back on this now, the fear of being infinitely unemployed was palpable. I never once considered that I was worthy of getting a job that I loved or that I was capable of living a creative life.

I think one of the unfortunate ramifications of the technologically driven world we now live in is the speed at which we expect things to happen. I believe we are now living in what I am calling a “140 character culture.” We’ve gone from writing letters to making phone calls and sending faxes to sending emails to typing out one completely public line about this vast experience we call life. We can have instantaneous global conversations, immediate poll results and 15-minute viral sensations online. As a result, we now want instant gratification from our hopes and dreams. But accomplishment and mastery take time and reflection, and the only “formula” for success is time and hard work.

For example, several years ago I was doing a lecture for a group of students and I was talking about how long things can take. A young woman raised her hand at the end of the lecture, and asked for some advice. Apparently, she was feeling very discouraged as she had started a blog and wasn’t getting any traction. No one was reading what she had written. She was now hoping to get some pointers on how to get people to visit her site and read her posts. My first question to her was, “How long have you been working on your blog?” And she looked at me without blinking and very sincerely and earnestly, she stated: “Six weeks.”

I think it is nearly impossible to do anything meaningful in six weeks, let alone develop an audience for a blog!

Success takes time

We are living in a culture in which, upon graduation from college, you are expected to know exactly what you want to do, where you want to do it and what your life plan will be. And if you aren’t successful right out of the gate, there must be something wrong with you. And this emotion builds into a palpable sense of hopelessness if you can’t achieve something quickly.

Anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a process of years. If you are one of the few souls in the world who are actually able to hit it out of the ballpark before you are 30, you might want to consider how you are going to be able to sustain that success over the long term. The pressure to keep succeeding over and over will mount and you will likely feel that you must only hit the home runs. This is impossible.

Take your time and build your skills. Refine your methodology over time and give yourself the opportunity to grow and develop. Use your 20s to experiment. This is a time when falling flat on your face is expected. Build something meaningful rather than something fast. The length of time it takes for you to succeed is generally a good measure of how long you will be able to sustain—and enjoy—it.

In thinking about the speed of success, consider the following questions:
• Why are you rushing? Are you competing with yourself or other people?
• Are you in a race to succeed to feel better about who you are? Why do you think this will work?
• What would you rather have: instant, unsustainable success, or a slow build to a meaningful career that has normal ups and downs?

This post was created in collaboration with National Car Rental, which provides a premium, expedited car rental experience to road warrirs around the world. All opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of National Car Rental.

All proceeds for this work are being donated to the Design Matters Institute, which funds scholarships for students at the School of Visual Arts.

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