Image from Unsplash.
When I was younger, I went to school with an extraordinary dancer.
In every style and step she was a sight to behold, with her effortless grace almost-impossible strength. My mother told me she’d be a prima ballerina someday, and I didn’t doubt it. When she’d so much as step onstage to rehearse, a hush would fall across the noisy gaggle of theater and dance nerds lounging in the red velvet orchestra seats (myself included).
It was the Spring of her senior year, and what would likely be her last performance for my high school. But that wasn’t the only thing different about that evening.
In fact, something wasn’t just “different”. Something was wrong.
The lights went up for her solo, and I stood in the shadow of the wings, holding by breath.
Backstage the rumors were flying: Someone overheard the dance teacher exchanging urgent whispers with the costume designer. Words like “sprain” and “rolled ankle” flew like smoke bombs.
And yet, the music had started, the curtain had risen, and there she was. A ray of light en pointe in a red leotard, her shoes making satisfying, soft taps between leaps, arabesques, and pirouettes. She smiled her same, confident smile. The audience sat entranced, as always.
They must have had it wrong. I though to myself, settling into my usual mix of admiration and envy as she floated through the final notes. She looks fine.
The number ended. Applause like thunder.
She sashayed offstage with that shimmering grin, and a final, elegant wave.
… And as soon as she was out of sight of the crowd, she collapsed into the arms of the dance teacher and costume designer. Her perfect face cracked to contort with sobs.
“Oh my god,” I heard her moan in what could only be desperate pain, as they quickly carried her off. A stagehand was already rushing to wrap her ankle with an ice pack as they hurried past me. “Oh my god.”
I watched, jaw unhinged, as she disappeared into the dressing room and out of sight.
I never found out exactly what was wrong. I never found out if she became a prima ballerina, either.
But that image has been burned into my memory.
Because moments like that are beyond an act of love for your passion and your art.
Anyone can have passion and love. What this dancer had, in that moment — was an unbelievable force of sheer will, and commitment to the finish.
(So many dancers share this willpower as part of their job — especially ballerinas. Misty Copeland starred in “Swan Lake” and “The Firebird” with six stress fractures in her ankle. Six.)
She was not being paid. There were no talent agents in the crowd. She was just performing for parents and administrators.
And yet, she took that stage, and took that risk… because she was expected to deliver. And deliver she did — through to the last split second when she could allow the pain to consume her, and rest, and cry.
And I knew in that moment that I’d come face to face with the grit that excellence requires. I knew that moment had given me a glimpse of what it takes to be truly great.
She wasn’t just gifted. She was incredibly powerful.
I thought about that moment again for the 10,000th time a few weeks ago, lying on my living room floor.
I was on the floor because I was nauseous.
I was nauseous because I had spent roughly entire the month prior working from 8 AM to 10 PM, and weekends, finishing and beta testing my course, wrangling intense client work and launches, and restructuring my business model. Again.
Total exhaustion manifests as nausea for me, and after a while it’s uncomfortable to sit up. So I laid on the floor that night for a moment — still with more work to do, breathing deeply.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, and I’m sure won’t be the last.
It’s not a food poisoning or car sickness nausea, by the way. It’s more a vague, almost-manic feeling in my belly, similar to sensation you get when you’re in your last .10 miles of a many-mile run. You know your finish line is ahead of you. Your breathing is becoming shallow as your body starts to scream at you to stop.
Your brain, however, knows the final, glorious sense of success is inevitable.
You need to keep going. Just a little further. You can do this. Push.
I’m no prima ballerina. But as an entrepreneur, and full-time professional creative, I find my career path requires a similar sense of…
“If you’re strong and masterful enough, it can look easy.”
“Don’t let them see you sweat.”
“Pay no attention to the competition. Your own skill set should be the only focus.”
Still, that whole willpower thing was about as un-glamorous as could be as I lay there on my bright pink rug in two-day-old pajamas, smelling awful, and staring up at the string lights on my ceiling, breathing just so I could finish working.
Why do I do this? I asked, as I sometimes do.
And the answer was as it’s ever been — for myself, for that extraordinary dancer, and maybe for you:
Because this is what it takes.
Some people insist that business and creative success can be all-around easy and fun if you just “find your flow”.
Make no mistake, though: You cannot expect ease 24/7. Yes, it can feel easy some days (and, like a ballerina, you can make it look effortless). My job feels easy overall because it brings me joy, and having sole dominion over my professional fate is immensely satisfying.
The difference is, those “just find your flow” peeps are gleefully sharing their end result. What they don’t share is how long it can take to find yours.
Sure, they take selfies on their gorgeous tropical vacations and post far and wide about why they stop work at 4 PM every day to get in plenty of time for reading, journaling, and yoga — like they’ve been doing it from day 1. But they don’t reveal many dams they had to build to discover their flow for themselves, or how many rapids they had to fight upstream.
Now, I don’t recommend people work themselves to the point of nausea or illness. There are better ways to do things, of course.
But the truth is, every crazy-successful person I know has stories equivalent to performing beautifully en pointe with a rolled ankle.
If you really want to create an extraordinary business that flourishes, you have to lay the groundwork. Sweat is required. Throwing yourself exhausted off stages and across finish lines is required.
There is no 4-hour work week way to make a million dollars, or change the world.
But the upside is: If you’re willing to take the journey, you’ll discover that you can summon almost-impossible reserves of strength. When others give up, you will find you have the power to press on to glory.
Sweat begets ease eventually, if you know where you’re going.
That’s why, for every nauseous moment on your living room floor, for every sobbing dancer collapsing just offstage, there are 100 moments of pride, accomplishment, and certainty in one’s own abilities.
For every question of “Why do I do this?” the answer comes back the same, but stronger: “You can quit. But if you love yourself, and the future you’re creating enough, you won’t.”
And there is an end to this test of will. Supposedly.
Someday, you won’t have to clench your teeth and grind your way to whatever’s next. Someday, you’ll perhaps have others working with you, willing to push themselves the way you did, and follow your example to stand on the shoulders of you, the giant.
It’s having the courage to do it for yourself in the first place that can transform your life.
Because this is the grit every extraordinary thing has been forged with.
Because you are stronger than your doubts, your fears, and even your exhaustion.
Because you deserve to see everything you sweat for come to fruition — and it will, in time.
Don’t forget that.
Because this is what it takes.