What a Mentor Learned: the Two Qualities of Those Who Succeed

Since 2012, I’ve been mentoring young people who are either college seniors, fresh graduates, or within 2 years post graduation. These people, eager to start contributing to society, usually are at the crossroads of finding more knowledge because they feel that what they have isn’t sufficient. Some of them wanted to study for masters degree abroad, which requires scholarship. Some of them wanted to learn a new field that wasn’t available in college (like Human-Centered Design), so they have to do self-study or attend non-formal education.

I could tell two types of young people. Those who really make an effort, and those who don’t. Those who don’t make enough effort seems to attribute success to luck or genes.

“God must love him. He always gets what he wants.”

“Of course she got the scholarship, because she’s so smart.”

No. Those who succeeded actually made THE effort.

The scholarship hunters spent a few hours to a few days to write and revise their motivation letters for the application, while those who didn’t succeed thought that it’s only worth writing an email. They were not aware that effort with a big E is actually spending a few hours to a few days just to write a page or two.

Those who succeeded also didn’t hesitate to repeat an effort even when they fail. Some successful scholarship hunters spent on average 3–4 applications before succeeding, while those who didn’t succeed was too focused on one single program and unable to come up with a backup plan (e.g. applying to other schools) upon failure. They were not aware that an effort with a big E is actually multiplying their idea of effort with a few times.

The beginners in Human-Centered Design really took their time to gain knowledge. They spent a week in an intensive course, took online courses for the much cheaper option, or did a 3-month internship in a consulting firm. Those who didn’t succeed thought that learning a new field is only worth reading online articles and then repeat what they read but unable to realize the actual skills into their work. They were not aware that effort with a big E is actually spending a few days to a few months practicing the skills with a mentor/teacher from understanding the design problem to finding tools to solve it.

What are the two qualities of those who make real efforts?

1. Playing to Their Strengths

They know their strengths, so they are able to weigh in how much strength to be applied for how much time in order to achieve where they want to be. They are able to focus on what to improve and put everything else aside.

The consequence, they schedule their time so the activities worth investing are prioritized compared to irrelevant ones like casual hangout after work or building scores in an online game. They choose to spend their time hanging out with those who directly influence their strengths, or practicing their skills alone as needed. It’s only for a temporary period, and it’s worth their future.

Understanding your strengths is also important when we collaborate with others, especially in the workplace. Many jobs are too specialized for one to utilize a wide range of strengths. By presenting your strengths, you can create new opportunities at work. By utilizing your strengths, you can enjoy your work, perform greatly, be happier and more pleasant to work with.

Focusing on your strengths doesn’t mean ignoring your weaknesses, but it’s about trying to find new strengths to your weaknesses. One possible ways to reflect on a strength is to see it as a Core Quality, an innate personal trait that can become either a strength or weakness depending on situations.

For example, you are a modest person. If you have it too much, you become unrecognizable. Because of that, it’s a challenge for you to present yourself. To overcome your challenge you can learn from people who do it really well, but those people might have it too much (arrogant) and you’re allergic to it.

An example of using Daniel Ofman’s Core Quadrant

Pick one of the boxes above and you can do the same connection.

  • Top-right: if in a certain situation people tell you that your weakness is being unrecognizable, you can tell them that it came from your strength of being modest. However, it helps you evaluate your challenge: how to present yourself in that particular situation?
  • Bottom-left: if in a certain group of people you’re allergic to someone’s arrogant behavior, don’t treat it as their weakness. Instead, find what is it too much of? It’s actually their strength, and it can help you work on your challenge.

Keep the balance between Core and Challenge, because it saves you from going to Pitfall and distracted by Allergy. More examples:

  • Determined(core) → Pushy(pitfall) → Patient(challenge) → Passive(allergy)
  • Flexible(core) → Chaotic(pitfall) → Organized(challenge) → Bureaucratic(allergy)

2. Stretching Beyond Comfort Zone

They have an ability to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone. They don’t attribute luck and genetic brain power to the goals that they want to achieve. They look for a mentor and ask a lot of questions.

They dare to hang out with those who made it, because they dare to hear how much effort needed in order to get to where they are. They’re not those who hear about the required effort and react by backing off “it’s not worth it,” indicating the lack of ability to delay gratification.

Your comfort zone is (quoted) “a behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk”. It gives you regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress. However, research shows that those who continually trying to break out of their comfort zone are better at handling unexpected changes as well as thinking creatively due to different experiences.

This isn’t some bogus advice, because it’s not about fictitious passion or something in you waiting to come out. It’s what you actually feel when you’re already embedded in an activity, doing it. It’s what makes you able to spend a considerable effort on an activity. According to the Flow theory, adult humans pursue their passions with great personal costs rather than giving up. Passion is what makes you stay in your uncomfortable zone.

For example, you want to do a PhD but you don’t like reading, then why bother? It will be very hard for you to read tons of scientific articles before actually starting your research. You will find hours of reading a big pain, which eventually can impact your mental health, while others enjoy reading for days in their bedroom.

Possibly your passion is complex problem solving, but you prefer to derive practically from your daily observation. How about finding a job in an R&D department of a corporation, that don’t really require you to rely on academic texts?

Another example, you want to be a professional cartoonist. Those who succeed say that you only need to practice for many hours per day. Now ask yourself: do you have what makes them able to endure the hours, days, weeks of practice, scribbling on your paper, until you succeed? Apparently you like drawing, but not for days or weeks.

Possibly your passion is visualization instead of detailed drawing like cartoons. How about starting with a visually appealing presentation at work, that eventually will earn you a visualization project? Possibly your passion is visual storytelling. How about looking into videography?

Further Reflection

What about those who haven’t found yet their way to succeed? Here is what I discovered:

  • Those who don’t play to their strengths were continuously socialized in a world where only popular strengths are appreciated, making them focused on their lack of such strengths. They can’t see their own strengths let alone playing to their strengths.
  • Those who don’t stretch beyond comfort zone were used to people around them living their life without a sense of purpose, making setting goals a foreign concept. They never taste how it feels to turn passion into a plan for pursuing a goal.

They’ve been hanging out with the wrong bunch and clueless in finding how to get to the right bunch. Meanwhile, I know when I’m not with the right bunch. They confidently show their strengths no matter how non-mainstream they are. They communicate their purpose by sharing stories about their intense involvement with a project.

Family plays a role, too. I was raised by a father who often led by example to dare to be different as long as it’s meant for a good purpose, and a mother who stretched herself so much giving me an idea of what real efforts are like.

Mentoring these young people made me reflected on what being with the wrong bunch is like. I just discovered yet another privilege that I haven’t been aware of. It confirms again that sharing stories and connecting people are indeed what this world needs so much.

Thanks to all my mentees for reaching out to me. Especially, thanks to those who asked how to connect with the right bunch. You’ll find your strengths and eventually discover your cycle of meaningful work!

Edit: this article inspired me of a Marie Curie’s quote below

a storylistener, a connector

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