I’ve been thinking a lot about persistence lately. When it’s a good thing. When it’s a bad thing.
I chose persistence as one of my power words a few years ago, and I have strong feelings about the concept. In fact, one of my favorite quotations is Calvin Coolidge’s famous quote on persistence (shared below). Nothing worth achieving is possible without persistence: the academic degree, proficiency at any task (be it art, sports, writing, or competency at work), the successful relationship…
But when is persistence the wrong move? When is it “beating a dead horse” and a denial of reality?
I guess to some degree, it depends on the stakes involved. The higher the stakes, the bigger the consequences of giving up. You have to know in your heart quitting is the right thing to do. Giving up has to bring a sense of relief instead of a sense of dread. Conversely, if the consequences of giving up are so minimal, you might fall into quitting by default without ever declaring your intent to do so. You don’t finish the book you were reading, or the project you started, in part because you had other, bigger demands on your time and energy and it just didn’t matter than you failed to reach a specific goal.
Last summer, someone gave me a potted orchid. My first thought on accepting it was, “I wonder how long it will take me to kill this?” Not because I hate plants and want them to die but because I have so many demands on my time and so many living things that depend on me, it’s easy to let plants take a number and wait a LONG time in line. And even though I read the care instructions that came with it, I managed to get something wrong, and sure enough, that’s here’s what this plant looked like a few months ago.
The planter is set up so that it minimizes the risk of over or under watering the orchid, but it turns out I was putting the water in the wrong slot and I drowned the plant. After six months of meticulously remembering to water it on the correct schedule, I’d nearly killed the orchid anyway. Giving up and tossing the plant out isn’t a big deal because the consequences of doing so are nil. Only a slight guilt on my part for having such a black thumb.
Quitting in this case is an easy call. But what if the stakes are higher? What if we’re talking about a relationship, or your job, or your dreams?
That’s a different ball of wax altogether.
It still comes down to the consequences of quitting, I think. In part because quitting is often the easiest part of the decision-tree. We’ve been taught if we can’t achieve something in two weeks (weight loss, master a new skill, change our lives…) then not only is not worth doing, it’s not achievable in the first place. We’re also taught the value of “being realistic” over being someone who has dreams. If we’ve chosen a difficult goal, it’s easy to get discouraged and contemplate quitting. Being persistent is a character trait that can be both good and bad depending on your point of view.
It comes down to whether being persistent is hurting you–or someone else in your life– or not.
Toxic workplace environment or relationship? Yeah, maybe that is something you should consider quitting. Persistence may not be in your favor in those situations. It may be a situation you need to walk away from even if the alternatives seem super scary (like having no immediate income or place to live). If you remain in a situation or relationship that threatens your mental and physical health, you need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of doing so. Sometimes there are no easy answers. But the questions need to be asked, just the same.
Persisting in following your dreams when everyone around you tells you to “be realistic”? Yeah, don’t listen to the naysayers. If it’s something you want to do and have faith in your ability to do it, keep plugging away at it.
What if your Number One Naysayer is you? That’s a tough one because if you don’t believe in your ability to accomplish something you set out to do, then you will never reach that goal. But if the idea of quitting, of not being a writer, or musician, or artist, or teacher, astronaut, or whatever is more painful than the idea of continuing to strive toward your goals, then you should persist. The world is full of success stories about people who kept trying, who didn’t give up, despite repeated rejections or failures. Like Coolidge says, I believe persistence is more powerful than natural talent or ability.
Even if you never achieve your lofty goals, if you persist in doing something you love, it’s never time wasted.
Three months ago, I came very close to tossing the orchid in the trash. It was mostly dead. I had no great attachment to it. But there was one shiny green leaf among the dry stalks, dead flower heads, and dull, curling leaves. So I left it on the windowsill, didn’t water it for a few weeks, and then began taking care of it, following the directions correctly this time. And that single shiny leaf was joined by another. And another.
I’m not sure why I didn’t pitch the planter in the trash, unless it was because of the persistence of that baby leaf pushing its way out of the soil when all the odds had been against it. It reminded me of how I keep writing, even when I know realistically I am not going to be the Nora Roberts of paranormal romance or cozy mysteries. Though I get discouraged at my lack of progress sometimes, writing isn’t toxic to me, and sometimes is the only thing that keeps me going.
So let’s hear it for healthy persistence.