#564       Innovative Leader     Volume 11, Number 11        November 2002

Patience, a Secret to Success
by Charles C. Manz, Ph.D.

Dr. Manz is the Nirenberg Professor of Business Leadership, University of Massachusetts.  He is author of The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life’s Setbacks into Success (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2002).  

There is a powerful but challenging secret about the relationship of short-term failures to long-term successes.  This secret is very difficult for many to accept and incorporate into their work and life, but it is an essential part of learning how to use the power of failure.  The secret is patience.

In a recent interview for Fast Company magazine, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, emphasized the importance of patience for succeeding in business.  He explained that products and businesses go through three phases: vision, patience, and execution.  And he said the patience stage is the toughest and most uncomfortable.

The vision stage generates a great deal of excitement and energy and the future looks promising.  Eventually the final execution stage is a time of fine-tuning and figuring out how to be even more successful.  Both the vision and execution stages can be very satisfying and comfortable.  It’s the middle “patience” stage that can be very difficult.  Ballmer explains, “You have to cut out parts…react to what the market is telling you.  You get into trouble if you assume that you’re going to reach critical mass too quickly—because it’s most likely that you won’t.  Through all these trials you can’t lose patience.”

Ballmer goes on to explain that the recent setbacks in the Internet economy reflect a transition from the vision stage to the patience stage.  He also points out that many entrepreneurs cannot handle the patience stage.  Many seemed to believe the vision stage would never end or that execution would immediately follow without a need for patience.  He cited small Internet companies doing Superbowl ads as an example of this misguided viewpoint.  In the end he suggests that employees and investors alike need to either be patient or get out of the business.

Not the Way to Tai Chi

I suspect it is fairly easy for most to identify with Ballmer’s sage advice.  Anytime we set out to learn or accomplish something new and significant we likely face the same three stages and especially the challenge of the need for patience.  Personally, patience is a tough challenge for me as I find myself failing on my way to what I hope will be ultimate success in a variety of activities.

One of my recent efforts has been to learn tai chi. I had a vision of the strength, flexibility, calmness, and other health benefits I would soon be deriving and how I would master the technique through the help of a professional instructor and the use of videotapes.  I really wanted to go from vision to execution and had little desire to endure the patience stage.  Consequently, despite my instructor’s advice that I take it slow and start by learning just one or two poses of the dozens that make up a single form (a series of moves that completes one exercise sequence), I proceeded to try to learn a whole form, which should normally take up to a year or more, in about a month.

In retrospect I have to laugh at myself for trying to learn too quickly and lacking the patience to learn at an effective pace.  My teacher pointed out it would take a great deal of work to relearn the poses in a technically correct way.

He ended by citing an ancient wisdom story, whose essence went something like this.  A martial arts student was studying a new set of movements under a master and asked how long it would take to learn the new skills.  The master responded that it would take perhaps two years.  Being a bit discouraged and impatient with this answer, the student asked how long it would take if he would study and work very hard.  To this the master responded that then it would take him about four years.

The implication is clear—if we want to ultimately succeed in a significant way, we need to accept and be patient with the learning and development that go along with facing challenges.  The bridge between short-term failures and ultimate success is a challenging one, but it may well be the essential secret to success—it is patience.

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