Step by Step, Ferociously

February 18, 2018

 

GRADATIM FEROCITER


Jeff Bezos stuck this phrase on the wall of his space company, Blue Origin. I read it in The Everything Store, the story of Amazon’s founder, and I haven’t been able to shake that phrase out of my brain since.

 

Step by step, ferociously.


This philosophy of endurance over heroics is at the heart of a genius piece in this week’s The New Yorker on Henry Worsley, the polar explorer who followed his hero Ernest Shackleton’s journey across Antarctica in unimaginably difficult conditions. 

 

1,000 miles. With a 320-pound sled attached to his waist. In minus forty-degree cold. And over 10,000 feet in climbing. Anyone would be insane to attempt this, let alone a 55-year-old retired person.

 

Worsley’s journey, much like Shackleton’s, is a lesson in not quitting. 

 

Not quitting is the most important aspect of doing great work in the world.


Screw overnight success. The immediate, explosive growth expected in Silicon Valley isn’t realistic for most companies…and it’s not how great movements or ideas unfold.

 

 

Endurance versus Heroics


Humankind’s most important milestones were achieved through slow, painstaking, incremental progress—by not quitting. Through endurance rather than heroics. Think about Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey’s attempts to save the chimpanzees and mountain gorillas of East Africa, which took decades of obsessive research and documentation, mostly filled with hot, mosquito-ridden days in which not much happened. 

 

Or Thurgood Marshall’s drawn-out legal battles during the Civil Rights movement, which required him to travel by train across the country, slowly assembling evidence and building arguments to present in front of all-white juries stacked against him. 

 

Or Al Gore’s decades-long work on climate change, in which he has wrestled with every imaginable setback including a major terrorist attack in the middle of the world’s largest climate negotiation.

 

In my own work with Samasource, now ten years old, my biggest struggle is patience. It took us so long, I think, to have grown to our present size. TEN YEARS! That’s nearly a third of my life. And to impact about 80,000 people, which doesn’t seem like many compared to millions freed from slavery, or benefiting from microfinance. 

 

 

On Patience


Then there are the constant setbacks, especially at the beginning. 

 

It took me two years before anyone would give me any real capital, during which I ate away all my savings in the form of Top Ramen and Red Vines. Our people were under constant threat—of abduction in a refugee camp, of disease...a few of my team were once stuck in the infamous Westgate Mall terrorist attack (all made it out safely, after hours of anguish.) 

 

It took me three years of haranguing to finally get our first deal with Google, and four years before our center in Northern Uganda, a region plagued by a long civil war and zero infrastructure, broke even.

 

Patience is not my virtue. I’m hungry to do more, faster — to scale our impact the way that Facebook scaled users, seemingly overnight.

 

But every human being you help is an infinite victory. Real progress is achieved by blocking and tackling—making steady, incremental gains rather than occasional and glamorous big leaps. 


Henry Worsley’s kids wrote inspiring messages on his skis before he took off for the South Pole. My favorite:

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

 

With grace and gratitude,

Leila

 

 

Books and media resources from this post
The Everything Store

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing

“The White Darkness,” by David Grann in the February 19th issue of The New Yorker Magazine.

Jane, a new biopic of the legendary Jane Goodall (available in theaters)

Gorillas in the Mist, by Dian Fossey

Marshall, the new film about Thurgood Marshall

An Inconvenient Sequel, by Al Gore

 

Key quotes from this post
Not quitting is the most important aspect of doing great work in the world.

Humankind’s most important milestones were achieved through slow, painstaking, incremental progress—by not quitting.

 

Every human being you help is an infinite victory.

 

Real progress is achieved by blocking and tackling—making steady, incremental gains rather than occasional and glamorous big leaps.

 

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

 

Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of award-winning social enterprises Samasource and LXMI and the author of Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time. Subscribe here to receive her updates and posts.

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