I’m always fascinated by how quickly infants and toddlers learn. Their minds are so open, so eager, so ready to absorb information. I watch my grandchildren puzzle over something one day and master it the next. If only our learning curve remained that steep as we age.
I’ve slogged through more than a few periods when my learning, development and growth have decelerated to a mere chug. But let me also tell you this: I hit 70 this year and I’m still growing. I want to share with you how to keep pushing, advancing and moving ahead so that when you get to my age, you can look back and see the great progress you’ve made—and look ahead knowing there’s even more to come.
Related: 13 Life Rules to Keep You Motivated
It takes more effort for us than it does for kids. We are stymied by things like self-doubt, complacency and the influence of the average folks who throw distractions at us along the way. How do you overcome those? Let’s look at a few key strategies.
1. Learn to live intentionally.
Everyone has ideas about what they want to do. Entrepreneurial thinkers go even further, scheming up concepts for new products, companies and niches that the market is not serving. But what will you do with your ideas?
The vast majority of people merely sit on them. I’m asking you to stand up and start moving. Early in my career, I’ll admit, I was dreaming much but doing little. I had to learn to replace phrases that conveyed my good intentions—I wish, I hope, someday I will—with action statements: today, I am, my calendar includes, my deadline is.
I learned to vocalize my visions to grow a church, establish a leadership organization and expand my teaching globally. A firmly stated and often repeated goal encourages accountability. I expect my family, friends and colleagues to push me to accomplish my missions. I also expect them to excuse me when I turn down invitations and requests that would distract me from them. Nothing slows momentum like the barrage of daily interruptions.
Working toward greatness is a process. And it comes with a price.
2. Pay your dues.
We all secretly want to be like Mark Zuckerberg, who revolutionized communications and made billions by his mid-20s. But life doesn’t unfold that way for 99.9 percent of us. Just like toddlers who wobble before they run, you need time to develop your skills and refine your ideas before you can make a meaningful contribution. I remember my first major sermon. I wrote the most extensive outline you can imagine—pages and pages of big, important theological concepts (as if a 20-something-year-old preacher has such big, important ideas to impart). My friend later told me that I droned on for nearly an hour. With age, I’ve learned to laugh at my younger self.
Great takes time. That’s why so many end up settling for good. It’s why so many hover around average. I often think about what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers: “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” He popularized the idea that the true masters spend 10,000 hours honing their skills. I think I gave about 1,000 sermons before I felt that my words really inspired people.
Working toward greatness is a process. And it comes with a price. We have to be willing to make the sacrifices that push us toward our goals, both at the beginning of our careers and then every time we’re ready to push to the next level. I remember a young man approaching me at a leadership forum. “I want to do what you do,” he declared. I smiled and responded, “Yes, but would you like to do what I did?”
The vast majority of people merely sit on them. I’m asking you to stand up and start moving.
3. Put yourself in the right environment.
Think again about young children. We can argue that every child is born with unlimited potential, but babies who are surrounded by attentive adults—the babies who are stimulated by music, speech and story time—advance exponentially compared to those little ones who receive little interaction. That old nature-versus-nurture debate? Believe me, nurture plays a big part.
Where will you situate yourself? Will the people who surround you push you forward or pull you back? I realized early on that I had to put myself in a growth environment, not just at the beginning of my career, but at every stage—especially in those times when I felt my momentum slowing.
How do you know you are in a growth environment? Ask yourself these questions:
- Are other people ahead of me? If you’re at the head of the class, you’re in the wrong class. Find a place where you can glean knowledge from those further down the road.
- Am I continually challenged? Most people wake up yawning. Should you ever find yourself in that pattern, you need to change situations.
- Am I surrounded by forward-looking people?
- Does my environment allow me to focus?
- Does my environment force me to the edge of my comfort zone? Situations that call on us to try new (and potentially nerve-wracking) things are the ones that will make us surge.
I’ve had setbacks, but my engine’s not slowing. In fact, my mind is swimming with ideas like never before. Yours will, too. Find your focus. Be deliberate in your daily decision-making. And if you’re stagnating, reposition yourself quickly. I find that teetering at the edge of a cliff is a good place to be.
Related: Why You Should Always Keep Improving
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.