Relentlessly curious. That’s the title of this piece, and it’s the only two words that come close to summarizing 29-year-old Ryan Courson’s outlook on business, and on life. …That, or maybe thoughtfully driven. Of course, that’s not all there is to know about the CFO at Seaspan. His story is widely known as are his successes working at Berkshire Hathaway, or any of the other places where Ryan’s stewardship and input drove him steadily and rapidly upward towards his goals.
So what makes someone so successful, so fast? Where does this momentum come from? Ryan says that, aside from good fortune and strong mentors, it’s primarily a function of determination. Okay, but where does that come from? It’s easy to debate the origins of this trait, and Ryan admits that question is difficult to answer definitively.
“Is one responsible for their level of grit or determination… I’ve always struggled to answer this question.”
But he says it doesn’t matter. Determination is likely some combination of inherited predisposition and environmental influence, but it’s beyond our control either way. Dedication becomes routine, and that routine becomes habit. It begins with a level of “forced perseverance,” deciding every day to do the little things that need to be done.
The more you push, the more momentum you generate, but dedication never becomes easy. It is an attribute that must be earned each day.
There’s no magic solution or epiphany where you suddenly ‘earn’ the mantle of determination. The key outcome of perseverance for Ryan is the determination to never stop learning, to never stop improving. Self-improvement and learning are pillars of Ryan’s success; these aren’t tasks that have a completion date.
Self-improvement seems to be everywhere; they have a section for it at your local bookstore, and there’s probably someone posting about it on your Facebook feed right now. But for Ryan, self-improvement isn’t having a Tony Robbins biography collecting dust on your nightstand, it’s about learning at a deep level — it’s about understanding the fundamentals of a craft and then investing as much time and energy as it takes to become a master of that craft.
“Very few people will reach the highest levels of competition without a strong innate desire to learn. Curiosity, I think, is one of the most important attributes as it relates to one’s long-term success,” Ryan tells me. He thinks about it for a moment first, though; Ryan is reluctant to generalize, and he seems averse to making sweeping pronouncements. He knows an awful lot about numbers and statistics, so it makes sense that he always wants to account for the outliers.
Nonetheless, he’s resolute about the importance of learning, just as he is about teaching. “Some of my best mentees have been the ones who have been relentlessly curious,” he points out.
Ryan sees learning as much more than just the ability to pick up information as you go. It’s part of the human condition to want more for less, to find the easy way to achieve the extraordinary. But this devotion to the easy way out leads us astray more often than it provides us with life-changing answers. Ryan doesn’t want to be led astray, and he’s taking no chances on his ongoing self-education. “Learning and absorbing information are different functions,” he says. “It takes dedication to learn. Casually absorbing information like audiobooks or podcasts is entertaining but doesn’t adequately get the job done. …Real learning requires dedication to whatever craft you want to advance.”
Ryan is always learning, and on a deep level. People love to throw around the idiom “fake it ‘till you make it,” and in many cases that advice can be shockingly effective. But you don’t get to where Ryan is by smiling and nodding – pretending you belong. Ryan is Ryan because he capitalized on every opportunity along the way, envisioning the most thoughtful way forward, and then putting in the effort to make that vision a reality.
Everything Ryan does seems to come back to this dedication. I get the sense that nothing he does is half-hearted or passive; he’s fully engaged in everything he does. It’s clear that he’s a high-performer, but as I’ve come to expect, he doesn’t want to generalize on what that means to him.
“High performance – from an individual standpoint – manifests itself in a number of different ways. I think that there are different types of high performers that I mesh well with…so that’s what I spend a lot of time looking for when hiring. But I’d hate to be too prescriptive about what one’s characteristics would have to be to qualify as a high performer,” he tells me. He considers the matter for another moment; it’s clear that accuracy here is important to him. “People get into this checkbox fallacy…it’s like ‘if I check these boxes, I’ll be successful.”
Success isn’t like that, Ryan says. Becoming your best possible self is a matter of perseverance, rigorous learning, continuous self-improvement, and wanting to succeed above all else. Ryan tells me an anecdote he heard about the nature of success in business. It’s about an incipient mentor-mentee relationship wherein a young man asks a wise elder what it takes to be successful.
The older man leads his younger counterpart to the seashore and into the water, wading deeper into the ocean until the young man, shorter by a head, sinks below the surface. The old man holds the young man under until the verge of unconsciousness, at which point the elder releases his young counterpart. He tells his mentee, “You have to want to succeed as badly as you wanted that next breath.”
If this seems hyperbolic, I encourage you to reread everything I’ve written up until this point. It’s not hyperbole for Ryan. “It’s something I live every day, and have lived since I was very young,” he states plainly.
And it’s not about motivation. Motivation is fleeting; motivation is there for you when things are easy.
Long-term, continued success is about taking that will to succeed above all else, and building habits and routines around it. The longer you work at it, the more momentum you generate, the more wins you will generate.
But it will always take dedication and grit to keep going, especially when things don’t look as rosy as you envisioned when you started.
This is something Ryan also looks for as he cultivates new teams. His vision is for Seaspan to be a place where people with a genuine desire to succeed and learn can form Canada’s top finance team under his leadership and guidance.
For Ryan, this is a matter of coaching, but also of fostering a high-octane environment where the team can build and create success together.
“It’s a real performance indicator for me to what level my team is developing from a personal standpoint,” Ryan tells me. “It’s not only professional performance, but from a personal satisfaction standpoint… One of the first things constantly on my mind is ‘How can I help each member on my team grow to become their best self?’ “
This, Ryan says, is reciprocal. His team needs to mirror his pace, but if they’re ready to learn and willing to put in the effort, he’s eager to invest in them. Performance isn’t just about raising yourself, Ryan tells me; it’s about raising everyone around you as well.
“From a cultural standpoint… within three to five years’ time, if my team isn’t able to move on to whatever their next level is, I will have let them down.” This is the investment Ryan makes in the people around him, and the influence his high-performance attitude can have on a like-minded team. But only if they want success as wholeheartedly as he does.
“When you learn how to really want something – learning how to want something as badly as you want to breathe – that’s when you’ll be positioned to achieve the limits of what you are able to accomplish,” Ryan summarizes, and when you’ve found your limits, elite performance manifests by attempting, every single day, to expand those borders inch by inch.
That’s his perseverance, and that’s why he is where he is. What will it take to get where you want to be?
Are you relentlessly curious?
What was the last lesson you learned?
Have you applied it yet?
There’s always more to a story than can fit on a page. Get in touch today to learn more about my story, or to find out how I can help change yours for the better.
Shane Gagnon is the Director of Clarity Recruitment Vancouver, with six years of experience in the industry. This is his personal blog, where you can expect to find not only insights from his endeavour to disrupt the recruitment industry, but also a glimpse into his pursuit of a satisfying career for himself and the finance/accounting professionals of Vancouver. Join Shane for each new post, as he reveals the journey that brought him here, and where he plans to go next.