We are urged to persist in order to achieve what we want. Don’t give up. Success could just be around the corner:
Winston S. Churchill: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Roy T. Bennett wrote in The Light in the Heart: “Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”
Colin Powell: “Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence.”
Elbert Hubbard: “There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
Louis Pasteur: “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity”
These are just a few of the many quotes you can find on the internet extolling the virtue of persistence and continuing in the face of failure. You must continue, of course, because it will lead to success.
But is this really true?
Persistence is a very useful quality to possess, but it can be counter-productive sometimes. It’s important to be able to distinguish between when persistence is a positive strategy and when it’s really stubbornness and will lead to heartache. When you have an all or nothing attitude – perfectionism is your goal, nothing less.
Lou Manza, who chairs the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania says:
“You have to engage in the difficult things. To really be good at something, you have to [start by] knowing it won’t come easy.”
You only have so much time and energy. If you spend it obstinately pursuing a goal, you may make progress. But think about what else you could do with that time and energy. Are there other goals you could devote that time and energy too that are easier to achieve? If you didn’t continue to persist with your plan, what would you do instead?
Of course, it’s important to persist with any worthwhile project for a while. In general people with higher self-esteem find it easier to persist when they meet failure. This makes obvious sense when you think about it. People with good self-esteem don’t see failure as the personal disaster that people with low self-esteem frequently do. Many people with low esteem see themselves as the failure, rather than the strategy they used being the failure. They will say: “I’m a failure” rather than “That didn’t work”.
If you have low self-esteem you need to work to build it up. This can be difficult particularly if you have parents who criticised you (check out my blog post on this) or made impossible demands on you as a small child. While you are working at building your self-esteem, you can also build your awareness of the times you call yourself a failure. Work to rephrase it. You have failed so far at a task. You are not a total failure.
Thomas Edison is supposed to have said:
“I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.”
I find that one of the most important things to do in life is to distinguish clearly between the goal and the method, and to commit myself to the goal, but not the method of achieving it.
Having decided what I want to do, I then choose a way of achieving it. If that doesn’t work, I try another way, and so on until I find a way that works.
If after trying several ways, I don’t find one that works, I review how important the goal is to me. If the goal is really important, I carry on trying to find a way that will achieve the outcome I desire. If the goal is not that important, I put it on one side.
I may come back to it some months later and reassess the situation. Sometimes in that time new information or new contacts have become available. The goal has become easier to achieve. Sometimes when I come back to it, I can’t believe I spent so much time obsessing about this particular goal.
I have seen in my business life that I have often persisted much more than was sensible. I believed that stuff about setting a goal and having persistence. I’ve worked on a project. I’ve laid awake at night trying to work out what I was doing wrong. I’ve researched ideas. I’ve talked to people. I’ve followed gurus who offer answers. None of it worked. Then I decided to let the difficult, frustrating, time-consuming project go. I’ve turned to another neglected idea or project. I’ve seen it blossom and grow and regretted not starting it earlier. My business expands to a new level of success.
Yes, persistence is a great human characteristic to have. Knowing when to stop persisting and turn to other things is a difficult but important skill to have.