“A lot of the young doctors I hire work for me for a year or so and then they want to get out and do their own thing,” my friend Tony Breitbach said a few months back. “They say, ‘I want what you have.’”
Meaning they want a successful business of their own, not to work for someone else. Tony is a chiropractor and entrepreneur in Chicago. He sets his own schedule, goes on a few vacations every year, has some nice things, and has fun the majority of the time he’s awake. Of course young doctors want what he has.
“I tell them, you’re seeing me after 10 years of work,” Tony said. “You’re not seeing me at the beginning, when I had literally zero patients, and I was out knocking on doors to get my name out there. I gave free seminars in Whole Foods and two people would show up.”
Tony is telling a story about work. I like his story, because he doesn’t say he’s successful because he’s smarter than everyone else, or a preternaturally gifted chiropractor, or that he’s figured out some secret. He says it sucked at the beginning, and he worked hard until something started happening. This is the grind.
Tony and I have been friends since high school, when we washed dishes together in a restaurant in the small Iowa town where we lived. It was a pretty simple job, as most dishwashing jobs are: You washed the dishes as they come in. When you washed all the dishes, you got to clock out and go home. It was a grind. Thirteen years after that, Tony and I bicycled across America, from California to Florida, in 49 days. That was, more hours than not, a grind as well.
I often get messages from people asking some version of the question “how did you start doing what you do?” I assume they are asking how I became a writer (and not how I manage to be in my late 30s and still don’t own a decent car). Maybe they want permission to get started, or maybe they want some sort of shortcut or secret.
Here’s the secret: I sucked. I tried to tell stories for a long time, and most of them were not good (I’m sure plenty of people would say I still suck). Eventually, I sucked less, and one day, I exhibited enough non-suckiness to get my stuff published in a few magazines. Voila.
This may not be every creative’s secret to “success” (whatever your definition), but that’s mine. I imagine my friend Tony would tell you he has a very similar formula for success, because I know this is how he works: He studies things, he works to get better, he tries new things, he fails at some, he succeeds at some. And in the beginning of his career, he didn’t sit back and wait for business to come to him, or make excuses. He swallowed his pride and walked around the neighborhood, knocking on doors.
Here’s a quote from retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink: “Don’t count on motivation. Count on discipline.”
Here’s another one from MC/author/producer Blueprint, from his Super Duty Tough Work Podcast:
“Artists think that everything has to be free-spirited, improvised, organic—all these corny words that equal ‘I’m lazy, I’m not gonna do shit.’ They gotta be quote-unquote inspired—fuck all that. Dude, write down what you’re gonna do and set a plan.”
Lots of things in life can be a grind: your job, all the menial tasks you have to do to keep your small business running, your training to get in shape for some event you signed up for, the workouts you have to do to keep your ass or belly from getting too fat, the homework assignments you have to do to get your degree. Here’s a secret: You can choose to believe in the grind.
That’s how you climb mountains: you grind. That’s how you write a book. How you learn how to play the guitar. How you get better at anything. You don’t just nod off daydreaming and accidentally wake up on top of a mountain, or stumble over the finish line of a 50-mile race because you were bored on Saturday and thought you’d give it a try.
If you spend enough time humbly knocking on doors to get new clients, or trying to play guitar chords, or studying how to get better at something, or dragging yourself out of bed to train for something, maybe one day you’ll meet some definition of success. And maybe you’ll also understand that the grind wasn’t just something you did to eventually get somewhere—but that the grind itself, and how you improved as a person during that time, was the important part.
More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.