Taming The Last 10%: Lessons For Finishing Meaningful Work

Struggling to complete that big work project, painting, or manuscript? These inspiring tips from creative masters (Shakespeare) and less likely sources (Rocky Balboa) can help.

Most authors will tell you that writing a book often forces you to reflect upon your own life’s journey (personal and/or professional)—your successes and failures, your trials and tribulations, and your regrets and celebrations.

With my friend Drake Baer, I just finished penning the manuscript of our upcoming book Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability (McGraw-Hill, February 2014). As we entered the last section of the book, we wrote:

"There’s an old Chinese saying that when you’ve made it 90 percent down the path, you’re halfway to your destination. The frustration you feel from the statement’s oddly true logic reflects the frustration inherent in completing any major project: The last little bit is always the most difficult. The last few steps are where our faith may falter and we may lose what we set out to do in the first place—like Orpheus of Greek legend losing his love for lack of trust."

Each one of us is on a unique journey. I don't know about you, but throughout most of my life, for whatever little successes I have had, it has been about putting most of my energies toward that last 10 percent. Over the years, I have learned to accept just how damn long it takes to do anything worthwhile.

Author Paulo Coelho in his most famous book The Alchemist writes:

"Every search begins with beginner's luck. And every search ends with the victor being severely tested. The boy remembered an old proverb from his country. It said that the darkest hour of the night came just before the dawn."

Not every lesson in life can be learned—some have to be lived. Like many others before me, only now am I beginning to internalize what it means to truly accept that life is a series of journeys.

Navigating Our Journeys

We repeatedly find ourselves in stormy waters, strong tides, and facing strong winds. But that elemental energy can be harnessed and converted into productive, sustainable, and positive relationships and outcomes. Navigating our journey requires the constant adaption of our path. And adaption in the face of adversity often requires unorthodox, vivid imagination. We refer to these unique paths as authentic paths.

William James, the father of American psychology said, "The power to move the world is in your subconscious mind." And the Da Vinci’s of the world have manifested their futures with their ability to repeatedly imagine and then design innovative successes.

Author Charles de Lint in The Onion Girl writes:

"People who’ve never read fairy tales, the professor said, have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkey skins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kinds that seep up from your subconscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teaches you how to prevail, and trust."

I couldn’t agree more. Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to fairy tales and epic stories. They help me create impossible realities in my mind and envision possible outcomes.

Shakespeare said, "Assume a virtue if you have it not." Meaning act the part and you will realize who you want to be. When we imagine ourselves in the final stage (of our goals, our products, our companies, our personal life, etc.), it is much easier to lead ourselves through our journey.

The Traveling Companion

It doesn't matter how smart or savvy we are when it comes to writing a book, creating a new product, marketing new ideas, or any single endeavor. Nobody succeeds in a silo. The majority of our life’s travels include a partner or two or many. Be it a significant other, friend, or business colleagues, we are most likely with some company. If I've learned anything from all my journeys, it's that our choice of partners can make or break a ‘trip.’ Not all those whom we may meet will make for good travel companions.

Whatever we venture—personal, professional, philanthropic, political, or private—we must remember the array of people involved in and essential to our journey. I believe that the people we meet along the way are people that we are destined to meet. Positive or negative, they all play some kind of role.

Our job, then, is to continuously search for those right companions at each new stage. It is only when the right person shows up that we get to see why it has never worked out with anyone else. Unfortunately, there’s no exact formula for this—you just have to live it.

It Isn’t About How Hard We Hit Back.

Inspiration to overcome adversity can come from anywhere and anyone. Mine often comes from books and movies. Here is a popular quote from the movie Rocky and a clip from The Last Samurai that reminds us what moving forward means.

"Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!" —Rocky Balboa (2006)

I may not know much, but this I know for certain: It takes courage and devotion to continue on and complete that last 10 percent of the journey, no matter how tired or beaten down you may feel. Happy trails . . .

[Image: Flickr user David Morris]

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7 Comments

  • Nanc

    I stumbled on your site...Perfect timing for me... I am firmly ensconced in a mid-life crisis---transitioning from 'more than full-time director/liveable wage' to 'less title/less money but more time to be a painter/poet". As I struggle to lead myself down this path, I keep wondering about choices. (Just how little can I live on??) Your post does what is so hard for many of us: focus on trust instead of on fear.

  • Faisal Hoque

    Thank you!  Makes my day to know it touched you some how.  - Faisal 

  • Melissa Jarquin Molina

    I really enjoy your
    writing, thanks so much for the wisdom (very useful at the moment). BTW, The Alchemist takes from several
    philosophy texts. The phrase "The
    darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn" is from The IChing ,
    Hexagram 5 "The Waiting".

    It refers to calculated inaction, firmness, clarity
    of mind and success in winning the confidence to overcome our fear of failure.

    It is also a concept
    presented by the celtic runes. Ancient wisdom :)

  • Faisal Hoque

    Thank you so much!  Yes very much agree with you about Alchemist (it is indeed the melting pot for all thing human and spiritual).  

    Loved your thoughtful response.  - Faisal 

  • Alisa

    Dear Melissa I thought your response to the article was very accurate about the IChing and the Runes.  It was thoughtful of you to put those in.  You must be a very spiritual and kind person.   I would love to talk with you some more.  Are you an Artist, or Poet, or Business Person?  I look forward to your response.  Alisa Templeman

  • Srini_AN

    Very good point! I am a 3D-origami enthusiast and I have always experienced that creating the last 10 % of design is the toughest part of the whole work. Needs immense perseverance and motivation. This could mean a make or a break.