Career Ordeals Await — You Can Build Resilience

Yesterday I finished my 22nd marathon.

The 4:12 time was neither my best nor my worst, but finishing it was an ordeal. My calves were cramping and I was out of gas. Most marathoners experience adversity during the race. For beginners, finishing 26.2 miles is an ordeal. For experienced runners, a finishing time goal usually generates an ordeal when an internal voice says "Relax, why don't you walk for a while, what does it matter?"

Today, I am hobbling around, using the handrail to go up and down the stairs. But the ordeal is over and I know each day I will feel better as if reverse-aging. I marvel at my body's resiliency. In about a week, my attitude shifts from "That was tough" to "I can do better next year."

Political, Social, and Professional Challenges

Planners don't face physical ordeals, of course, except if we consider interminable late-night meetings as ordeals. They can be. But we face other types of ordeals in the political, economic, and social context in which we work. Perhaps that's why APA gave a "Hard-Won Victory" award in its national award program for many years.

Planners have varied ordeals. They may relate to political and stakeholder issues, intergovernmental relationships, technical issues, ethical dilemmas, and interpersonal conflict. To simplify matters, let's consider three types of ordeals:

Marching in Quicksand

Planners moving a plan or program forward find that those around them are uninterested in change or actively thwarting it. As idea people, planners often push for change that affects those with operational responsibilities. Those folks are attuned to risk and may not be interested in trying something new. Implementation can be an ordeal, with backsliding and frustration.

Not Knowing

New planning ideas push the boundaries of what we know; it can be challenging to improve the knowledge base of planning. For instance, transportation planners know that the traditional four-step transportation model doesn't deal well with today's multimodal, priced transportation ideas. Activity-based transportation models address key issues in travel behavior but are less proven in practice. Extensive data demands and complex computations can make a shift to activity-based models an ordeal.


Planners may be disappointed in others or themselves. A community group may be narrowly self-interested or a planning organization may resist innovation. Ideals of good government might be frustrated by "pay to play" practices in government. Planners may also be disappointed in themselves if they do not live up to their internal ethical code or that of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Continuing forward when disappointed is an ordeal.

Planner Facing Professional Challenges

Distance running has taught me some things that help with planning ordeals:

First, I Understand the Value of Preparation

My idea might not prevail, but it surely won't if I'm not prepared. One can't finish a marathon without training and realistic anticipation of conditions.

Second, Doing Anything Significant Requires Effort and an Ability to Deal With Discomfort

Marathons teach that physical discomfort is bearable. I can't prove it, but I think my capacity to endure psychological discomfort has grown with running experience. I'm more willing to suffer to achieve a goal.

Third, I Don't Expect Victory After Victory

I have yet to win a marathon and never will. I don't run to win, and I don't expect to prevail on every planning issue either. The work isn't just a means to the end, it is partly the end in itself.

Having reality-based expectations about marathon times helps me create reality-based expectations of how much change I can effect as a planner.

Lastly, Every Marathon Is a Journey Into the Unknown

Failure is possible and, when it occurs, it is public. Advancing an innovative planning approach is similarly a journey into the unknown.

Marathons aren't for everybody, but my point is that there is a fruitful interaction between one's personal development and growth as a planning professional. Be on the lookout for personal experiences that can help you be a more effective, more resilient planning professional.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy.

April 8, 2019

By Richard Willson, FAICP