How to Ride Out Professional Storms by Tapping Personal Experience

by Maria Rapetskaya

What do you do when your opportunity to take on a challenging, multi-faceted and lucrative project arrives at the worst possible time?

In my case, I said “yes.” At that moment, I was accepting the studio’s most ambitious and promising opportunity to date. Trouble was, the two principal partners in my business—myself being one—were parting ways: professionally, romantically and logistically.

The challenges were multiple. I was looking to deliver this complex project amidst a major transition in every aspect of my life. I was setting up a new company while looking for a new place to live. Beyond the obvious hurdles, there lay many little ones I failed to foresee: new bank accounts, renegotiating resources, the blazingly fast FiOS I’d grown used to.

Someone who didn’t know me well would have probably found me nuts to take the risk. Yet, despite the list of difficulties that was only growing, I felt confident that I could pull this off. It wasn’t blind faith. It was a very calculated risk.

My particular situation was clearly one of a kind. But, if you’ve been in the creative business for any significant amount of time, you’ve had to navigate unexpected difficulties, rough decisions and last-minute detours. In time, with experience, we get a much better handle on what we can and cannot handle. But, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to discern optimism from delusion.

Over the years, I’ve come to see overcoming hurdles as an ever-evolving skill. And, frequently, my actions are informed not by my professional experience, but by my life outside of the office.

I’m sure you can think of a time in your childhood when you accomplished something you didn’t think you could, however small. Surely that experience gave you the confidence to try something bigger. And that progression doesn’t change as we get older. Yet it seems that too often we forget to draw on the real pool of confidence that’s available to us.

As creatives, we look to the world around us for inspiration. I’ve been, for years now, looking to my experience in the world to inspire the way I run my creative business.

Over time, I’ve collected a little mental list of all the accomplishments I’m proud of, and of all the times I thought the odds were low and succeeded nonetheless. As well, there’s the shortlist of moments that were less-than-pleasant: anything from physical discomfort to emotional distress. They’re major successes, small wins and moments I pushed a little harder and didn’t fall apart as feared. So, when a rough patch comes up, I can instantly be my own best cheerleader.

This isn’t rocket science, but it does take practice. And in time, you’ll not only get better at it, but you may also find that a list of professional wins will, in turn, inspire grander projects and risks in life.

Simultaneously with saying “yes” to my project, I said “yes” to my first half-marathon. Why would I take on an unnecessary and indulgent goal during an already difficult time?

I’m not a natural runner, so my long runs took a serious amount of effort, especially mental, to stay with it. But it was worth it. The amazing feeling of knocking out mileage I never thought possible fueled me during long hours, and pushed me through slumps of self-doubt. I had never run 10 miles before, and one morning I crossed that milestone. Surely, I could solve a production problem, even if it meant a 14-hour day!

In the end, I don’t know how I well I would have handled things without this added commitment. It kept me sane. It kept me moving forward, physically, mentally and emotionally, as I sorted through my work/life to-do lists.

In the few years since, I’ve relied on my willpower to climb to 19,000 feet in freezing cold. Because, while a professional feat may be difficult, at least weather won’t be a challenge—I’ll be warm and cozy indoors.

Most critically, I’ve learned to channel and repurpose memories of truly hard times: breakups, illnesses, deaths. In such greater perspective, fear and anxiety gives rise to gratitude—for having a career at all, for being healthy enough to take on a new project.

Less stress leads to more focus, more focus to inspiration and efficiency.

Whether it’s a professional accolade you earned or a physical challenge you met, anything that rekindles that joyful feeling of personal triumph, or forces you to recalibrate the relative significance of the hurdle ahead, can help you find strength when you need it. Best of all, there is no statute of limitations on getting things done. If you’re still proud of a goal you scored in third grade, why not? Next thing you know, the very hurdle in front of you now will be the new success in your arsenal.

Finally, remember the “human” resources available to you at your tough moment. We don’t live, or succeed, in a vacuum! Even if your past achievements didn’t directly involve others, there are always people behind you: your mentors, your heroes, your friends who stood by you and anyone who’s ever cheered you on. Alongside your accomplishment list, keep a mental list of people you can turn to if your own cheerleading or resources aren’t sufficient to ride out your storm.

Because no 10-mile run could get me a FiOS connection when I needed one. My friend Max did.

Editor’s Note: 

The next time you’re facing a huge professional challenge, try one of these techniques from Maria Rapetskaya:

-Create a list of all the life accomplishments you’re proud of, and read over it when you need a confidence boost.

-Make a list of all the rough times you’ve made it through, and look at it when you need some perspective on your current situation or evidence that you can do hard things.

-Write a list of some not-so-great moments you’ve experienced in life, and read it when you need proof that you’re fully capable of experiencing negative emotion and have so much to be grateful for right now.

-Keep a list of people you can turn to when you need some help.

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