Career Fortitude



Fortitude is the “strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage”.  Our careers have a habit of placing us in situations that demand a strong state of mind, especially those that want to grow professionally, earn promotions, and reach our goals.  We encounter challenges through personal vulnerability, adversity, and professional growth.  In order to succeed in our careers and ultimately attain a more fulfilling and balanced life, we must tap into our courage.

When I first examined this definition of fortitude, it seemed dramatic to think of it in relation to our careers.  The definition made me think of fighting to survive a near-death situation, struggling through physical pain, or overcoming mental trauma.  These things definitely fit the description of situations where an individual would require fortitude, but when it comes to times when we struggle in our careers; the mental anguish, disappointment, and difficult lessons learned also create pain and struggle that negatively impacts our physical and mental health.

Career Fortitude is focused on naming, facing, and overcoming the obstacles and challenges we confront when our professional success, joy in our work, and personal fulfillment are at risk.  It’s collaboration and support to strengthen the mind of professionals that are looking for ways to learn, grow, and drive their careers forward.

The Pop Route

During my High School years, I worked for my uncles in their family-owned grocery stores and gas stations.  During my tenure in this convenient store-like retail market, one of the tasks I took on was actually out from behind the cash register.  This task took me on the road, out from the brick-and-mortar storefront, and had me traveling to the customer.  One of my uncles owned several snack and beverage vending machines throughout multiple counties that were located within various businesses.  He needed someone to refill the machines, collect the earnings, and ensure the machines were operating correctly.  He called it the “pop route” because the majority of the work was filling beverage vending machines.

During summer break from high school, I was responsible for loading up a Dodge panel van that was painted school bus yellow, covered in dents, and had more cracked glass panels than undamaged panels.  This was in the time before cell phones and GPS, which meant once I left the store after loading up the van, my inexperienced 16-year-old self was on my own.  Thinking back on it now, I’m not sure what my uncle saw in me that made him confident I could successfully accomplish these tasks.  I had very little real-world experiences to draw from, but the fact that my uncle believed I could complete the agreed-upon tasks gave me just enough courage to hit the road with an overloaded “work” van with questionable brakes and a burning oil scent that became very familiar to me that summer.

One of the common sayings from my uncle when I was loading up the van with cases of soda, or jumping in the driver seat to fire up my work rig was, “Be careful, it’s a jungle out there”.  Each time he said it I laughed it off as a quirky joke or playful hazing to not only reinforce my uncle’s faith in me but also to say “be safe” without going into detail on what could actually harm me while I was naively zipping through back roads and interacting with strangers everyday.

So I set out driving on unfamiliar roads with only hand-written directions on the backside of a cigarette carton flap.  This was also a time before most industrial and office buildings had locked doors with badge readers, restricting access to anyone that didn’t have approved clearance.  So I would walk right into establishments and look for the vending machines as professionals offered strange glances seeing a random kid entering their place of work.  A jungle has plenty of harmful plants, animals, and insects that could take out a scrawny kid like me in a matter of minutes.  But venturing out into new towns and interacting with blue-collar professionals on the pop route seemed relatively safe to me.

I had low-level anxiety from the risk of the van breaking down and having to figure out how to get it back to the store but I was naïve to all the other dangers.  Unlike the jungle, there was no risk of encountering poisonous vegetation that would damage my nervous system, an anaconda that could devour me whole, or malaria-carrying mosquitoes that would infect me with the disease.  The jungle was too far away for me to consider such risks, and at the age of 16, I wasn’t fully aware of all the actual dangers that I might encounter along the pop route.

Thinking back on that summer on the pop route, very few things actually went wrong and there were no major breakdowns or situations I wasn’t able to work through on my own out on the road.  I’m guessing the fact that my uncle could get away with paying me $5 an hour at the time was a motivating factor in choosing me as his pop route driver, but I still like to think there had to be faith in my ability to navigate the “jungle” to get the job done.

The Jungle

The “jungle” of the professional work environment is much more visible and clearly defined to me now that it’s been over 20 years since my summer on the pop route.  Besides the challenges from a potential van breakdown, getting lost, or losing/damaging company equipment or product; the job was very low-stress with no goals outside of filling machines, ensuring they were operating correctly, and retrieving the earnings.  There was no revenue goal I was responsible for hitting.  No marketing campaign to roll out and maintain.  No team to lead.  No company expansion, buyout, layoffs, productivity targets, hiring/firing, or personal goal plan I was responsible for achieving.  The addition of these expectations and tasks in my future employment roles did bring to light the challenges and difficult lessons I would face in the corporate jungle.  For some, including myself, at times the jungle can become thick with obstacles and darkness that stifle creativity, hope, and joy.  These obstacles aren’t mentioned in high school or college.  In school, the goal was to learn the fundamentals of time management and completing assignments, but I wasn’t prepared to burden corporate pressures, navigate burnout and disengagement, or be responsible for determining on my own how to obtain fulfillment and joy in a business setting.

This all changed when I began working full-time and learning what being a part of an organization that held workers accountable for reaching targets was all about.  As I gained experience out in the field I maneuvered through entry-level positions.  Eventually, I determined that I wanted to learn new skills and become a bigger contributor to the company’s success I was working at.  I began putting myself in positions to learn from subject matter experts.  I identified different positions that intrigued me, took on more responsibility, became a leader, made decisions that impacted the business’s long-term success, became a manager, fine-tuned my business acumen, built teams, went back to school and earned a degree, mentored interns and peers, earned another promotion, coached individuals striving to get promotions, helped the company achieve its goals, received another promotion, and so on.

And I failed….at a LOT of things.  I struggled with self-esteem, I failed to be vulnerable with others, I failed to give productive feedback, I let my peers down, I failed to achieve goals I set out to achieve, I let my leader down, I didn’t manage my emotions, I failed to get multiple promotions, I got burned out, I failed to negotiate a better salary, I failed to set boundaries, I failed to achieve my personal goals, I failed my team, and so on.

Facing the jungle of our careers that are often littered with circumstances that lead to mental anguish, disappointment, and struggle requires a strong mind, proper tools, and courage.  Fortitude can sound dramatic to some, but thinking back on my successes and my failures I can honestly say it required “strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage”.  It took fortitude to pick myself up after each failure and try again, again, and again.

Sometimes I stubbornly forced myself to face challenges alone and reject support from others, but for my greatest achievements, I gained confidence and strength from the coaching of my peers and leaders.  The people that believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself played a huge part in me realizing my potential and my opportunities for growth.

Now, I believe all aspiring professionals have the potential to become the version of themselves that promotes growth, joy at work, and the ability to achieve career fulfillment.  My goal is to help others gain the same fortitude that I realized while working with mentors and coaches in my experiences.

Philip Hilt – Career Coach




Sign Up for the Career Fortitude Newsletter to receive more valuable information:

* indicates required

Leave a Reply