On Breakthroughs

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

What exactly are you waiting for?

Recently, I've sensed a restlessness in the air. A sense that people are anticipating a moment when things will (must) inevitably change. When they'll get easier. When they'll go back to the way they were 'before', or we'll somehow evolve towards a more manageable future. It's hard to say when exactly the world started to feel like it was spinning out of control (although June 23rd and November 9th of 2016 were clearly crucial turning points) but it seems to me that we’re all still quietly, collectively expecting it to stop.

This mood of collective limbo evokes one I’ve often experienced in my professional life; which is a sense of being in a ‘waiting room’, ready for a door to be unlocked. In times like these, my day to day efforts are underwritten by a vague expectation that what I'm really working towards is a stage when something will shift, and suddenly work will feel easy, fluid, and smooth.

Upon the arrival of this imagined shift, money will, of course, flow to me abundantly. Exciting opportunities will drop into my inbox on a daily basis. Even the laborious process of unpicking the millions of thoughts that are tangled in my brain like a ball of necklaces and then organizing them into shiny sentence chains - aka “writing” - will feel magically easy.

This imagining might be something you can relate to. Keanu Reeves (yep, that Keanu Reeves) does. He talks about it in this interview in the latest issue of American GQ:

“There's this idea that, like, at some point you're going to be set,” Reeves says. “And then maybe there won't be so much working on working."

Spoiler alert: "Some point" isn’t coming. Now in his 50s, Keanu has figured it out, and I'm beginning to figure it out, too. The mythology of contemporary work culture encourages us to believe that periods of sustained uphill labour will always lead us to the precipice of some blue-skied success, but the reality is a lot less sexy than that.

For most of us, careers are built incrementally - as Annie Dillard put it: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" - and even the moments when we do finally achieve external validation for our efforts won't necessarily make things easier; just different. As Tom Sachs' motto goes: "The reward for good work is more work."

None of which is to deny that specific moments can shift the entire trajectory of a career, or that these these breakthroughs nearly always come at the moment when you feel like you can’t keep going a moment longer: By their very definition, breakthroughs - "a sudden, dramatic, and important discovery or development" - always represent a marked shift from whatever preceded them, and they can be utterly exhilarating when they finally arrive.

The problem is that we expect these kinds of highs to come faster and more frequently than ever before; often berating ourselves when they fail to materialise. Listening to this insightful interview with Design Matters’ host Debbie Millman, I was struck by her simple but soothing reminder that anything worthwhile takes a while. It's the instant gratification of our “140 character culture” - as Millman terms it - which has left us feeling we should all be ceaselessly unlocking new levels of our careers, without so much as a backstep, a falter, or (most commonly) a long, quiet period when not much seems to happen at all.

Regardless of where we sit on the spectrum of restlessness - be it in work or in life - it's important to remember that fighting the present reality only ever prolongs personal dissatisfaction; that "some point" is never going to look or feel how you imagined; and that this point is the only one that ever really counts.


'The Legend of Keanu Reeves' Alex Pappademus GQ

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard IndieBound

The Speed of Achievement: Debbie Millman Hurry Slowly