Sustain Patience, Sustain Effort, Sustain Learning

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 10, Issue No. 1
April, 2011

By Dan Coughlin



Some people dig for gold. Others dig for oil. I like to dig for habits that people use to achieve success over an extended period of time. I’m interested in how Warren Buffett started with ten dollars and built a fortune worth tens of billions of dollars. I’m interested in how Ayn Rand and Mark Twain wrote great novels over a period of several decades. I’m interested in how Steve Jobs dropped out of college because he didn’t think his parents should have to bear that expense and ended up building extraordinary products over four decades. I get excited any time I learn about a person who has achieved greatness over a long span.

Three common denominators I have found among all of these intriguing examples is that they all sustained patience, effort, and learning.

Sustain Patience

Every long-term success story I’ve ever studied has patience at its core.

No matter how much it seems like an overnight success there is always a period of preparation where the person or group struggled to find their way and master the art of what they were doing. Everywhere I turn I’m reminded of this idea.

I went to to look at what Apple is up to these days. The iPad 2 is an absolute mind-boggling product. It is the latest reminder that Steve Jobs’s vision from the late 1970s has come true over and over and over again. He set out to make amazing products when he was very young, and he has done so on a consistent basis for four decades.

My wife, Barb, and I took our kids, Sarah and Ben, to Hannibal, Missouri for a quick two-day getaway over Spring Break. (Barb won’t let me call it an official vacation.) I loved it. Hannibal is about 85 miles from my house and is the childhood home of Mark Twain. As usual, I didn’t fully understand the treasures we have so close to home until I went and looked at them as an adult. Mark Twain was really the first great American novelist who wrote true American novels. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.

Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, started his writing career at the age of 27 and didn’t write Huckleberry Finn until he was 50. That’s 23 years of focused effort to produce his masterpiece.

In his 2011 Letter to Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett wrote, “the pace of the earth’s movement around the sun is not synchronized with the time required for either investment ideas or operating decisions to bear fruit. At GEICO, for example, we enthusiastically spent $900 million last year on advertising to obtain policyholders who deliver us no immediate profits. If we could spend twice that amount productively, we would happily do so though short-term results would be further penalized. Many large investments at our railroad and utility operations are also made with an eye to payoffs well down the road.”

I love that quote because it reinforces the idea that patience is at the heart of long-term success. You simply can’t assume that an investment you make today is going to pay off for you this quarter or this year.

I believe that at the heart of sustaining patience is an overwhelming sense of purpose. You have to know why you are doing what you are doing. It’s the only way to maintain a high enough degree of passion to remain patient through the good times and the bad times. There are only three sources of great passion that I know of. You either have to love what you do, love who you do it for, or both. Take out a sheet of paper and answer this question, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” For Steve Jobs it was, and is, to make great products that can change the world. For Warren Buffet it was, and is, to invest in incredibly well-managed companies that he can understand.

Sustain Effort

My dad used to say a lot, “Good things come to who wait,” but he also said a lot, “Go do your homework.” He meant it. Patiently waiting for success is important, but working toward it on a consistent basis is also important. You don’t know when your breakthrough is going to happen, but it isn’t going to happen if you don’t work for it on an on-going basis.

Write down the names of five individuals, groups, or organizations whom you believe have achieved long-term success. Then go research their stories. Look at what they did for ten years prior to their first major success. Then look at what they did over the next ten years. Keep digging for the details of their story. I believe you will find what I have found: they all worked in a very focused manner both before and after their first major achievement.

Sustain Learning

Here’s the last piece of the three-legged stool for sustaining success that I want to focus on today: keep learning all the time. I find it very difficult to go through even one day without learning at least one idea.

My son, Ben, has a fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Grimm, who has 23 students every day and goes home every night to her seven children. You read that correctly. She taught me that you have to be organized in everything you do. Nothing can be left to chance.

I’ve been reading two books this month called Working Days by John Steinbeck, which is his diary while writing The Grapes of Wrath, and The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand, which is about how to write a full-length novel. From Steinbeck I learned the importance of piling on the details until a picture emerges and the importance of pushing yourself to stay focused all the way to the end of the book. From Rand I learned the enormous importance of establishing clear premises for every character, every scene, and the book as a whole. This learning is all for a business novel that I hope to finish and have published over the next two years. Remember that part about patience and effort?

Choose something in your life that you want to improve at and focus on learning how to do it better. Stay patient and keep pouring in the required effort.

100 Day Update

It’s been a wonderful first 100 days of 2011. I’ve given keynote speeches for McDonald’s East Division Leadership Council in Orlando, Trimble Partner Conference in Budapest and Palm Springs, Bodycote Global Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, and the First Midwest Bank Business and Economic Forum in Poplar Bluff. In Poplar Bluff, I was the opening speaker and Dick Vermeil was the closing speaker. We had dinner together the night before the event. I’ve always admired him, and now I do so more than ever. Even though he has won the Super Bowl, he is still a remarkably humble and honest person. He shared with me so many powerful ideas on leadership with “building relationships” at the top of the list. Meeting him was one of the highlights of the year for me. In April I’m doing sessions on leadership and innovation at the Assisted Living Federation of America Conference in Orlando, and in May I’m facilitating a leadership retreat for an executive team at Abbott Laboratories in Baltimore. I can’t wait.

The World’s 50 Most Admired Companies

On March 21, 2011, Fortune Magazine came out with The World’s 50 Most Admired Companies. As I scanned the list I noticed that five of those companies are clients of mine: Coca-Cola (#6), McDonald’s (#10), GE (#13), Toyota Motor (#33), and Marriott (#37). While I could tell you stories about the greatness of each of these companies, I want to give a special shout-out to my friends at McDonald’s.

In the Fortune Magazine article, it stated, “In the opinion of global survey respondents, McDonald’s is the world’s best-managed company.” Read that sentence again. I’m so darn proud of those folks.

Since 1997 I have worked with McDonald’s as an executive coach, a keynote speaker, and a seminar leader. Of the 50 people I have worked with at McDonald’s as an executive coach, more than a dozen have gone on to major national and regional responsibilities. I’ve met roughly 400 McDonald’s corporate employees and 400 McDonald’s owner/operators in those 14 years. These are remarkably down-to-earth and focused business people who are constantly striving to improve their performance. They waste no time on fancy business theories or fads. At my most recent McDonald’s event, the underlying theme was “we need to keep getting better at getting better.” I absolutely love that mindset.

I really think America, and the world for that matter, would benefit a great deal by learning from McDonald’s rather than making fun of McDonald’s. 14 years ago I worked for a day at a McDonald’s restaurant to get ready for my first seminar with them. I found out quickly how complicated it is to be a crew member. Over the next 14 years I’ve worked with people who work in virtually every aspect of McDonald’s in regional and national roles. The work they do is an absolute case study in sustaining patience, effort, and learning. Congrats to all of the folks I’ve met at McDonald’s. I’m proud of all of you.

Book Recommendation

Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around by Roberta Chinsky Matuson. Here is a link: to my review and conversation with the author of this new book. Overall, I found it to be filled with practical advice for anyone who is put in a new position of management. It is written by a person who has been there and seen that. Roberta does an excellent job of pointing out a variety of useful tips both for managing your boss and your employees. I think you will enjoy it a great deal.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

Back to Newsletter Page