Toiling in the Trenches

digging trenchesHave you spent some years toiling in relative obscurity, in a job that seemed to be going nowhere?

I have. Yet those jobs proved (later, in retrospect) to be the training ground for much greater usefulness down the road.

I was speaking recently to a young man who had worked a job for years that seemed like a dead-end. All that time, he was perfecting his craft and building a wide network of contacts, but the question, “Where is this heading?” would come up frequently.

The answer often seemed like, “Nowhere.”

Suddenly, within a month’s time, two wonderful step-up-to-a-whole-new-level opportunities were presented, based on his proven competence and strong connections. All that time of toiling in the trenches, he had been learning skills that proved to be just what someone else was looking for.

In our culture, we often lionize those young people who launch the Facebooks and Instagrams, and this can make us forget that the majority of life’s success stories actually come after decades of toil – learning skills, discovering strengths and weaknesses, carrying out growing responsibilities, networking with a variety of people. That’s the norm. Overnight success is the exception.

I sold products and services for many years before finally realizing that I was, in reality, a consultant and marketer. The backdrop of that experience – doing things I was ultimately not particularly well suited-for – led to the the revelation of what my real purpose was, and opened the doors of opportunity to pursue it. Some periods of our lives may well be invested in “mis-matches” that help us understand what our competencies really are. And aren’t.

My Marine son is within a year of finishing his enlistment, and is (rightly) wondering about his future. What’s he suited for? What transferrable skills does he have? Perhaps he little realizes how toiling in the trenches of military life has been shaping his character, his discipline, his leadership skills….I tell him that it almost doesn’t matter much which direction he ends up taking. He’s being equipped to succeed.

I’m all for helping people discover, as quickly as possible, what they’re best at, and what their professional purpose is in life. But sometimes, that picture only becomes clear after a time in the trenches. Self-discovery may mean laboring in obscurity for a while, doing work that is preparing you for something better.

Who you truly are (and are not) is often clarified in the trenches.

Recently on the blog: Your Compass and Your Future

photo credit: Wessex Archaeology via photopin cc


  1. I call myself the 15 year overnight success because it takes that long to be good at something. Just when I felt I was good at creating products & manufacturing I realized I was wasting my time in labor. Next level product licensing-it’s still in the same vein but so much easier. Working hard can lead to working smart $$$$

Speak Your Mind