The Long Game

This post was written by Michael Hadley.

In a world where Forbes and Time publishes a list of the 30 under 30 who are the most poised for success, with names and ages like David Karp, 27 who created tumblr, which was bought out by Yahoo for $1.1 Billion; and Grace Helbig, 28, who started out on YouTube and now has a nightly talk show, or Lena Dunham, 27, who has an NYT bestseller and a hugely popular show on HBO. It can be hard to feel like you’re doing anything important in your 20s. That feeling becomes even more stark when you look at employment figures for people in their 20s. 18.4% of people ages 20-29 were unemployed in 2014, and 10.8% of people ages 30-39 were unemployed in 2014. Add to that the 11.5% who are underemployed as of October 2014, and it seems like success can feel impossible.

But what if I told you that success in your 20s and 30s isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if I told you instead, your 20s and 30s are a time for doing the little things to set up success later in life?

If we want to be successful then we have to look to the greats. Leonardo DaVinci was born in 1452 in Florence, Italy. We all know who he is and his paintings, The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Vitruvian Man. When you think of the word genius his name is one that immediately comes to mind.

But things were not always like that for Leo. Recognized for his talent at age 14 he gets an apprenticeship with one of the greatest painters in Florence. He learns and works at his craft. But every painting he attempts is too ambitious and finally to make ends meet he works, drawing hung criminals while getting paid the equivalent of 20 dollars.

By the time he turns 30 he’s still not doing much, while the greatest painters of the time are being asked to work on the Sistine Chapel. This at a time when life expectancy ended at age 48. But that year he gets a job working for the Duke of Milan who asks him to paint a picture of his mistress. Leo gets to work and when the final product comes out the face of the ferret is more detailed than the woman herself. Which as you can imagine was not a big win for him.

But he still is commissioned for more work. The Duke then asks him to create a large bronze statue of a horse and DaVinci gets to work. He works day and night, sketching, studying, even coming up with a new way to cast bronze for the statue; and then the project is scrapped for bronze cannons instead.

Not many of us have ever heard of these projects DaVinci did. Most likely we’ve all seen The Last Supper though, this being one of the most studied and scrutinized works of art of all time. Do you know how old DaVinci was when this was completed though? He was 46. For 16 years he went without a real success. Without a masterpiece. Yet during those 16 years he never stopped sketching, drawing, and studying. So what was it all for?

Sometimes things that seem to have no significance can in-fact, later on, be significant. Lets jump ahead about 500 years and move to New York City, October of 1956.

The day of the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament at the Marshall Chess Club. An unlikely pair sat down across from each other with one about to make history. Donald Burn, is 26, and just 3 years removed from being the U.S. Open Champion. Across from Burn in his jacket and bowtie is 13-yr old Bobby Fischer, in jeans and a t-shirt.

Throughout the first part of the game Fischer is making blunders. Losing pieces and giving up ground. Mid-way through the game he moves his knight to the very rim of the board, essentially letting it get boxed in and taken. A crowd begins to gather as it’s clear that Burn is about to put this presumptuous 13 year old down. On the 18th move it seems as if victory for Burn is all but sewn up. Fischer allows Burn to take his queen. Which in chess losing your queen and winning is almost impossible. Seeing the opportunity to crush is opponent Burn takes Fischer’s queen.

But then something peculiar happens. Fischer begins chasing Burn all over the board, checking Burn’s queen. Twenty moves later Burn is checkmated.

Twenty moves before the end Fischer had assured victory. After reviewing the game it became clear that whether Burn took the queen or not, by moving to the brink of losing, Fischer had actually won the game, and could have won it even a move sooner.

So what does this have to do with your twenties? With your career? Two things. From DaVinci we learn that success, though we’ve been lead to believe this, does not happen over night. The people we see “making it” in their 20s are the exceptions to the rule; and you know what they say about a very hot, very quick, flame. It burns out as quick as it starts. If you look at some of the people we consider successes and leaders they spent years doing seemingly nothing.

At 30, Ulysses S. Grant was a mid-level soldier with a drinking problem. Nikola Tesla was bankrupt, having been forced out of a business he started. At age 30 Harrison Ford was a carpenter to make ends meet while only getting bit parts on TV.

The common thread that most of these successful people have is they spent at 5-10 years doing seemingly nothing. Their big breaks happened after they spent that time doing small things, doing a “self-directed internship.”

From Bobby Fischer we learn that sometimes what looks like a failure and an epic bungle may lead to something greater down the road. We just don’t know it yet. Do you know what Fischer said when interviewed after the game?

"I just made the moves I thought were best. I was just lucky. 

Fisher didn’t go in there planning to play “The Greatest Game of the Century.” And that is all you can be asked to do, to make the moves you think are best.

It’s hard to see your life is going someplace when you feel like you’re stuck in a dead-end job, or unemployed; or like me, unemployed, and living at home. Overnight success is not something that happens to everyone. What happens more often than not is, success comes after grinding it out.


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Michael Hadley can usually be found one of three places, coffee shops, bookstores, or driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, NC. Born and raised in NC and educated in Chattanooga, TN he is a thorough lover of the mountains, and good writing in any form. He does his best to keep up with the books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers strewn about his desk’s to read pile; and sporadically tweets his thoughts on theology, sports, and introverted things at @MCHadley. He currently is working part-time and freelancing while trying to start his communications career, and keep his caffeine level elevated.