The Single Most Important Thing to Innovate Is Yourself

by Tom Koulopoulos

When do you give up? Never!

But occasionally you need to re-evaluate if where you’re going is still where you want to be.

Recently I was giving a keynote about the importance of perseverance to a group of young entrepreneurs. At the end of the keynote one of the young men asked me, “You talk about perseverance and tenacity but when do you give up? There must be a point when you have to walk away.” The answer I gave was that we often equate not quitting with the incremental movements towards an objective rather than the commitment and perseverance to follow a long-term compass setting.

Last week I was reminded of just how important following that compass setting is.

I was invited to keynote a large event in San Diego, where I met up with hundreds of entrepreneurs and business owners–many of whom I hadn’t seen for 15-20 years. Catching up with many on how they had navigated through multiple economic cycles and the ebb and flow of their businesses reminded me of how perseverance pays but rarely follows the route you had expected.

Perseverance is about not giving up on yourself–the things that define the bedrock of who you are; your passion, your beliefs, your values, your faith, your love, your family.

But perseverance does not mean that you don’t sometimes walk away from things or take the long road. Life throws curve balls at us, people, circumstances, and events that we simply have no control over; a tough economic cycle, an illness, the death of someone close, financial challenges, divorce; it’s a long list, but it all leads to the most important thing that you need to innovate in order to persevere–yourself!

“We often think of innovation as something that we do to a business or a product rather than something we also need to do to ourselves to avoid our own obsolescence.”

I saw that in so many of the entrepreneurs I encountered last week. The ones who had persevered had all taken the most round about routes to get to where they were. They had to let go of some things in order to reach for others. They had their values tested, some in very profound ways.

Building a New Box

One had come with his wife who was struggling with Alzheimer’s. Together they had built one of the leading businesses in its field. Throughout the event she was by his side, often not grasping who everyone was or what was being talked about. Yet, they were there together. He was still passionately pursuing his dreams, while caring for her. And she was still there with him.

Is it a stretch to try and tie this extraordinary commitment and love to the greater challenge we all have in making decisions about giving up when we are faced with tough circumstances? I don’t believe so. If we hold true to our values and principles then there is never such a thing as giving up, there are only detours.

But staying on course means that you have to know what these values are and you have to live them. It’s not just that you need to get out of the box, but rather that you need to adjust to entirely new boxes, whose dimensions and shapes stretch us to our limits. If you’re not ready to be surprised and fit yourself and your views to these new dimensions don’t expect the world to do it for you.

As my very astute son once said to me, “Dad if you can’t get out of the box do you just decorate it nicely?” Isn’t that what many people settle for, nicely decorated boxes that they can’t stand to be in? You know, the comfortable ones with tall sides that obscure the challenges and opportunities just beyond their perimeter. Isn’t that why you’re an entrepreneur–to build your own box?

“Dad if you can’t get out of the box do you just decorate it nicely?”

On the last day of the event the colleague I talked about at the beginning was delivering his keynote when I noticed that his wife was seated alone in an empty row at the back of the room. I wanted to go sit by her just to keep her company. My mom had advanced dementia, I know how isolated that box can feel. But she was looking at him with such intensity and admiration as he spoke that I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt the moment. When his keynote ended there was the typical hustle to empty the room. I started towards the stage to offer my congrats but instantly lost sight of him. I then noticed that his wife was also no longer in her seat. As my eyes turned back towards the stage I saw the two of them embracing each other in the aisle. Yes, stop and hold that picture in your mind’s eye for a moment.

Life does not always take us where we had expected to go, nor does it follow the well prescribed paths we lay out. What is important in business and in life is that we have the strength and the courage to persevere, to live our values, to move onwards, and to find that part of ourselves that fears the future most and adjust, innovate, and adapt.

Do that, in business and in life, and giving up is never an option.

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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