The 2012 Summer Olympic Games certainly are inspiring, with both surprise victories and heartbreaking upsets. And while it’s easy to think (from the comfort of your couch) that you have little in common with such strong-willed athletes, you, too, will likely encounter the occasional humbling defeat — perhaps in the day-to-day struggles of staying employed or throughout the more long-term task of managing your career development.
To stay on course to receive your own professional laurels, you will need tenacity and a continuous training routine. And like the athletes in London, your quest will be international in scope, as you compete with talented workers from around the world in the global employment marketplace.
To help you shake off setbacks, here are five tips for creating a career training regimen that will launch you off the starting block and onto the path to career gold:
1. Master the fundamentals
Swimmers for the U.S. Olympic Team spend 45 minutes on their swim drills just to grasp the basics. Likewise, you should continually sharpen three key business skills: crafting your resume, networking, and interviewing. Keep a list of your accomplishments to make annual resume updates easier.
Up to 85 percent of jobs are found through networking, so practice developing contacts in person and online. Participate in professional organizations and social or civic groups, and reach out virtually through LinkedIn and other social media sites. As you perfect your “elevator speech”—who you are, what you do, and your professional achievements—you will be prepared to pitch yourself as soon as you hear the starting gun.
2. Training breeds success
U.S. Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Natalie Coughlin trains for five hours a day and has won a medal in every Olympic match she’s competed in. Establish a firm training plan for your career that includes practicing your craft and continuously developing new skills, to ensure you’re ready to adapt to a changing workplace.
Orient yourself toward lifelong learning, and make plans to return to school (if that’s truly the right move for you) or obtain additional certifications that will position you for the best opportunities.
3. Be prepared to sacrifice
U.S. swimmer and 10-time medalist Gary Hall, Jr. sold his car to raise funds for a plane ticket to attend the Olympic trials. Similarly, workers who return to school for career advancement know all about sacrifice—juggling work, family, and classes can take a toll. But the rewards of higher education and continuous skill improvement are great.
Apollo Research Institute data indicates a college graduate’s return on educational investment can be as much as 53 percent, depending on the field of study. As Lance Armstrong said, “Pain is temporary . . . If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” Likewise, persisting to graduation is an accomplishment that endures.
4. Develop big goals
While it’s essential to keep your eyes on the prize, it’s also important to remember it typically takes many small steps to achieve major goals. For instance, World Judo Championship gold medalist Kayla Harrison determined which competitions she would have to win to become a top-fourteen competitor and qualify for the Olympics. She then set a daily training schedule to help her reach each mini-goal while building her motivation.
Likewise, imagine yourself as “You, Inc.”—the CEO of your own career. Do you want to be a senior executive in five years? Or perhaps start your own company? What will you need to know and be able to do to fulfill that dream? The goal you set today may seem impossible, but establishing a series of smaller, achievable milestones can cement your progress.
5. Seek experts when you need help
U.S. track and field competitor Lolo Jones lost her chance to medal in the 2008 Beijing Games when she caught her foot on a hurdle. To avoid repeating this error, she had a team of 22 scientists and technicians observe her running form.
Canadian speed skater Cindy Klassen was sidelined in 2008 after winning five medals because of extensive orthopedic surgery on both knees. But she was able to return to the ice despite time off and constant pain by retraining to focus on technique over power. Coaching, therapy, and expert analysis are all part of an Olympic medalist’s journey to greatness.
Similarly, seeking a mentor in your field can help you learn from an industry leader and provide institutional knowledge about your company. Meeting regularly with a group of your peers also can expose you to different approaches to career development, and help you learn how others have persevered through the same challenges you currently face.
It takes perseverance and dedication to make it to the medal podium. But a disciplined commitment to your career will help you overcome setbacks and reach your professional goals in record time. As revered college basketball coach John Wooden said, “It’s not so important who starts the game, but who finishes it.”
Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti is Vice President and Managing Director of Apollo Research Institute and a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford University Media X Program. She is also the author of Society 3.0: How Technology is Reshaping Education, Work and Society.