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The Single-Minded Pursuit

I've noticed for many years that a fair number of people achieve their career goals faster and without the agony that many others experience when looking for these same opportunities. I believe that this is because these unique people have learned to focus by making a single-minded pursuit out of their mission. In this month's column, I'll describe what this ability is all about and provide an example of an interesting person from the town of Sedona, Arizona.

To those readers who have noticed my address, you must admit that I am located in an unusual spot for a biotechnology consultant. After all, there aren't a great number of biotech companies in Sedona. (Or anywhere in Arizona, for that matter). Instead, my little town is noted for its status as the unofficial capital of the New Age. We've got mystics and tarot card readers, red rock formations and vortexes, and even a cult or two. Now, although I don't subscribe to any of that, I can tell you from personal experience that it all makes for a very interesting place to live.

While most of my illustrations in this series come from science, in this case I want to introduce you to one of Sedona's more unusual residents, a fellow we simply call "The Waver."

The Waver first showed up 4 years ago, and he was quite a sight. This is a large guy in his 40s, weighing about 250 lbs., complete with a ragged beard and a colorful assortment of classic clothes from 1970s San Francisco. In other words, picture this very large "hippie" character whose sole activity is walking up and down Main Street Sedona waving at cars. Yes, that's right. A great big cheery wave. Not just every now and then, but thousands of times a day.

As a major tourist destination, Sedona had 3 million visitors last year, and most of them came in cars. The Waver has a big job to do, and it certainly isn't as mundane as yours or mine: His single-minded pursuit is to cheer up humankind, one car at a time.

What Exactly Is a Single-Minded Pursuit?

We are taught that the scientific endeavor is based on the single-minded pursuit of Truth. The ability to focus in this way is a quality that some special people can bring to their work. It isn't a necessary ingredient of daily life--you'll never find it on a scientist's job description. And yet whether it is scientific truth you are seeking, or just a job, you will advance your personal mission tremendously by packaging it along with the boundless energy and passion that make up a "single-minded pursuit."

If you read biographies of great people, you will find evidence of this on every path that was ever trod to ultimate success. The scientific world is full of examples of incredible determination and persistence as a result of some scientist's or inventor's single-minded pursuit of a goal. How many different types of filaments did Thomas Edison try before lighting the room around him? Thousands ...

And yet, many postdocs seeking an industrial research position begin to give up after a couple of dozen unproductive networking calls or a few months of mailing résumés. Do you ultimately want to succeed in your pursuit? Of course you do! So let's dissect the key elements that you'll need to bring to the table.

Six Key Ingredients of a Single-Minded Pursuit

  • An unswerving faith that what you have set out to achieve is actually achievable. This isn't the time for pie-in-the-sky goals. You can't find a job as director of research when coming out of a postdoc, even if it is your third. But when your goal is within reach, one major ingredient in actually accomplishing it will be that you believe it is doable.

  • The ability to mentally focus on your pursuit at any opportune moment, and not just from 9 to 5. Good ideas are all around you, all the time. You'll need to develop the ability to pick these up out of the ether. How do you do this? It is by thinking about your pursuit at times other than when you "should" be. One scientist I know told me that his best ideas always come to him when he is out walking the dog!

  • An open mind, because a single-minded pursuit is not a closed-minded pursuit. If your goal were to land a job in business development at a major biotech company, and you are offered a job in that firm as a scientist, don't change your ultimate goal, but be flexible about the path you can take to get there.

  • A large reserve of mental energy combined with mental toughness. The ability to rebound again and again is at the core of any single-minded pursuit. You must develop the ability to move harmlessly away from walls that are thrown up in front of you.

  • You must be powered by unbridled enthusiasm. This isn't the typical job-hunting enthusiasm. (I feel the same "excitement" when going to the dentist.) And it certainly isn't the phony "rah rah" enthusiasm that hiring professionals can spot a mile away. Instead, unbridled enthusiasm has you waking up in the morning with a smile on your face because you know that it usually takes 30 random networking contacts to get an interview invitation, and you've already made 23.

  • Planning and organizational skills: The ability to set timetables and monitor your goals against them. Just like eating the 32-oz. sirloin down at Country Bob's Cowboy Steakhouse, you can't "swallow" a big goal in one bite. It has to be cut up into smaller pieces. Likewise, your single-minded pursuit most likely has a series of individual elements that can be monitored along the way. Don't forget to celebrate after reaching each of them!

How "The Waver" Changed My Attitude

When I first saw The Waver waving at passersby on our main highway, I told my wife that Sedona had reeled in another kook and forecast that he'd be gone in a day or two. We got a brief laugh out of his antics and them moved on to other more pressing matters. I remember catching a bit of his infectious smile and energy in that wave of his, but it didn't take effect immediately. Soon, however, I began seeing this strange fellow everywhere I went. I'd go to the post office and there he was, waving away. My family would go out to dinner, and we'd see him there on Main Street doing his thing, with a gorgeous Arizona sunset as his backdrop. I found myself beginning to miss him if he wasn't there and subconsciously looking for him whenever I left the house.

Our attitude about The Waver changed very quickly. Each time we saw him it put a smile on our face, and the natural reaction was to start waving back. And things started changing for others, as well. People would slow down, roll down their windows, and everyone would lean out of the car, waving and honking the horn for our unlikely hero.

It was just after the local paper did an article about The Waver that he left town. I guess he felt that his mission had been accomplished. And it wasn't an ordinary mission; in the article the reporter who interviewed Ed Carlson (yes, he has a name) spoke about Ed's single-minded pursuit of spreading love and peace throughout the country, one small town at a time.

Well, I can tell you that it worked in Sedona, and with luck he might be headed toward your town someday soon. Can you imagine what would happen to your work and dreams if you were to put even a small part of The Waver's passion into some single-minded pursuit?