How any of us can find extraordinary motivation


February 9, 2017
Extraordinary motivation comes down to grit

Why do some of us give up on our goals while others have the grit to see them through? How do some people manage to persist in the face of repeated rejection and other setbacks?

To crack the nut of extraordinary motivation, I decided to study the example of Rebecca Skloot. Skloot is the author of the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which spent seventy-five weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, won a slew of awards, and has been turned into a film starring Oprah Winfrey, due for release in April on HBO.  

In hindsight, this success seems inevitable. (Success often does, and rarely is.) In reality, the first-time author spent ten years reporting and writing her book, during which time she encountered barrier after barrier:

  • Lacks’ family at first doubted Skloot’s intentions and refused to talk to her.
  • Publishing houses sent what she’s called “a big stack of rejection letters.”
  • Once Skloot’s book was bought, she went through four editors and three publishing houses, fighting a major battle over the vision for the book.
  • The publication date was pushed back year after year as Skloot’s reporting revealed an increasingly complex story; meanwhile, Skloot got married, got divorced, moved eight times, and freelanced to pay the bills.

How did Skloot muster the faith, passion, and stamina to grind away at her book for years while the world greeted her efforts with indifference — and worse? There are three basic principles that supported her extraordinary motivation.

1. Hang on to your curiosity, and remember why your mission matters.

Skloot first heard about the late Henrietta Lacks and her “immortal cells” in a biology class at 16. When she approached her teacher to find more about Lacks, he said he knew nothing and encouraged Skloot to research the topic. For years, she nursed her fascination with Lacks’ untold story, how her cells were still being used in research laboratories all over the world. Later, when she started reporting her book, Skloot reached out to Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. They had only one phone conversation before Deborah cut off contact for more than a year, but Deborah passed on enough intriguing details of her mother’s story that Skloot later recounted, “it was enough for me to say, ‘Something big happened here, and I have to find out why she’s afraid to talk to me.’”

Pyschologist Angela Duckworth, who wrote Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has said that people who become experts are typically fueled by persistent interest in a topic that deepens over time as they keep “asking questions, and let the answers to those questions lead [them] to more questions.” This is what happened for Skloot, who kept calling Deborah, leaving weekly messages on her answering machine with tidbits of what she was discovering as she researched Henrietta’s life.

She was also fueled by a sense of greater purpose, something Duckworth has identified as important to persistence. “I had this feeling early on that this was an important story to tell,” Skloot said.

2. Craft community to bolster you from rejection

People who toil on projects for years without recognition must find other ways to bolster their mission. “Anybody who’s trying to do anything slightly untraditional always faces these walls of rejection,” Skloot told Cosmopolitan.com. “It makes you feel very alone, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who will remind you that you’re not.”

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out that it’s not just the vaunted 10,000 hours of hard work that makes for expertise; family background, support systems, timing, and other factors play a role. In Skloot’s case, she drew emotional support from friends and acquaintances by drawing them into her confidence and finding her project affirmed by their interest. “Their jaws would drop” when they heard the story of Lacks and her cells, Skloot recounted in a promotional video for the book. “They were like, ‘Really, what are you doing out of your house? Go home and write this book because I want to read it.’”

3. Learn how to take criticism — without losing your passion

When Skloot began approaching publishing houses, she got a slew of rejections. But instead of shutting down, she evaluated the suggestions and incorporated those that made sense to her. “There’s a fine line between fighting for a story based on the way you believe it should be told and totally rejecting feedback,” Skloot told Cosmopolitan. Implicit in this approach is psychologist Carol Dweck’s idea of a growth mindset — the idea that “failures” are really opportunities to improve.

Skloot also kept in mind that publishers’ judgments are subjective, which took some of the sting out of rejection. She once tweeted an image of some of her rejection letters, which she keeps in a collage on her wall near a framed copy of the millionth print of her book. She’s said that they’re “a reminder of why it’s important to fight for what you believe in.”

In other words, extraordinary motivation is not magic. It’s an approach, fueled by strong belief, that can be broken down into parts and channeled by any one of us. 

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