Making Progress Through Ups and Downs

Here are two anecdotes about personal growth and about achieving goals.

About three years after my PhD, I received a note from NASA that I had lost another proposal and I was distraught about my self-assessed lack of success in my scientific career. To discuss whether there was any hope for me, I walked into Len Fisk’s office and I learned something that has turned into one of the best lessons I received in life.

Len Fisk is a member of the National Academies, a former NASA Associate Administrator of Science, and the guy who gave me my first job after my PhD. In his cool way, swinging his legs up on his desk, and slowing his language down for emphasis, he said: “When it comes to the important things in life, focus on the low frequencies!” He added, “It is never about just one proposal, and one talk, one disappointment or one joy; it is about making progress through ups and downs, learning new things over time even if it feels hard. That is how to build a career.”

What he meant is that there is merit in plugging along and methodically working at things and succeeding in solving the smaller problems (low frequencies), rather than waiting and focusing on those larger-than-life transformative things all of the time. There is room for both, and it’s important to remember the balance.

Everybody who has worked with me knows about my impatience and how it can be a strength but – even more so – when it can be a weakness: “Focus on the low frequencies.” Yes, change needs to occur, if we want to lead, but lasting change – in our lives and in the world – never depends on one single win or one loss. It depends on the low frequencies.

I had started the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, and we were making great progress towards building some of the most creative and impactful curricula anywhere, and some of the companies we helped foster were starting to turn into successes. Just like at the beginning of this experience, I asked my mentors about what I should be doing now. My biggest worry was that, although I had learned much about innovation, I was not a tried and true business entrepreneur. I discussed with this Fred Gibbons (go look up his resume, and you will understand why I was intimidated). This startup entrepreneur and mentor has been at the heart of the technology revolution in my lifetime and has personally affected Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, as well as many others.

After listening to me with patience, Fred said: “You are doing great – congrats! It would be a huge mistake if you left now. You would never learn what the actual problems are”, he continued to explain, “innovation takes time and people who leave too early never learn how big their ideas can be.”

I remember being disappointed leaving this meeting. Why did Fred not see the amazing work I did and why did he not understand my weaknesses that surely were going to affect the trajectory of this experiment in entrepreneurship and innovation? Nonetheless, I took his advice and stayed on for another few years.

I left the UM entrepreneurial programs after about 7 years. I can now look at the first 3.5 years and the second 3.5 years and judge both the impact of my work and my own learning. Perhaps as much as 80% of our impact and most of my learning came from the second half, just like Fred had predicted.

I have mentored many young leaders and professionals and I have learned the value of Fred’s wisdom: many are driven by impatience and worry about speed. They miss, just like me, a healthy assessment of their own progress and their own learning – innovation takes time, change takes time. Yes, the low frequencies also count when it comes do career decisions – don’t hasten, give yourself time to grow and learn. And when learning slows, move on without regret.

Len Fisk’s lesson about focusing on the low frequencies is about the wisdom of leading a proactive life, whether it is in science, in our personal lives, and also when it comes to societal issues that we deeply care about. Real and lasting change takes time – it takes a focus on the mountain climb and not the rocks in our path.

Just before I walked out of his office on that day, he said “Thomas, one more thing”. I stopped at the door and turned around with surprise – it felt I already got a good dose of mentorship, what else was there to say?  With the same calmness, he gave me the next lesson, looking directly into my eyes: “Thomas, when are you submitting your next proposal?”

The recognition that we should “focus on the low frequencies” in our lives should never be understood to slow down action and lessen drive towards our goals. We want to be patient and impatient at the same time – patient for the impact to evolve, impatient in trying to make it so. And, like Fred told me: we want to be sure that we grow and learn in the process. Because ultimately, we want to be ready to support our teams once we reach that goal and we find an even better one at the horizon!

Finally, many may think that this post is about patience, and focus in our lives. That is true. It is about something else just as important: mentorship is a precious good that can truly change our lives. It changed mine.

Find great mentors and listen carefully! But just as importantly, be a great mentor to others – that too is to focus on low frequencies, because our mentees will surely surpass us if we do it right!