“Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”
– Bill Bradley
In a world full of Keurigs, Netflix, same-day-shipping, microwaveable everything, Spotify, Uber, and the world just a Google search away in the palm of our hands, persistence and perseverance aren’t getting as much exercise as they used to. Instant gratification has, in many ways, made our society lazy. It’s easy to forget that some of the best things in life can only be found when we are persistent.
Growing up, I loved playing soccer. We’re talking serious soccer obsession here. From grades four through six I wore out a new pair of running shoes every two months. My life was essentially: Eat. Sleep. Soccer. Repeat. Unfortunately, that didn’t leave much room on my radar for other things like, you know, school. My grades slipped to C’s, D’s, and E’s. My seventh-grade teacher was a stern but fair man who decided he wasn’t going to give up on me or let me slide by. He sat me down one day and told me, “I’ve been watching you and listening to your excuses for a month and I’m sick of it, Tony. You’re a smart kid and I’m not giving up on you.” – It was a shock. This guy really believed in me. Having his support and steadfast belief in me that I could and should be better was the push that I needed and over the course of the next two years, my grades shot up.
At the end of my eighth-grade year, they gave out awards for honor roll and other various achievements. To be honest, I didn’t typically pay much attention during these things because I wasn’t the kind of kid who got those awards. Suddenly, my friends were poking me, “Tony!” they whispered, “Tony, they’re calling your name!” Startled, I registered what was happening and made my way to the podium. I was being presented with an award for perseverance. I was stunned. I’ll never forget running home to tell my mom… and to ask her for a dictionary; I didn’t even know what perseverance meant!
I still have that plaque. It hangs in my office and reminds me every day that while we may sometimes feel entitled in this world, the reality is that some tenacity and being a good human are crucial to getting where you want to be in life.
We think of kids as being impatient but, as anyone who’s ever survived toddlerhood and the terrible twos will tell you, small kids are great examples of persistence. As children, persistence is engrained. Whether it’s learning to walk, asking for the cookie eighty different ways, or building the block tower with every block in the box, kids model persistence and perseverance at every turn. They have to; it’s how we learn and grow. As adults, we are only moderately more patient. We want everything now and we’re rarely willing to dig deeper beyond the initial effort or ask.
I think one of the keys to success in life is having the strength and willingness to ask for help when you need it; recognizing that being able to ask is a strength and not a weakness. Unfortunately, a lot of people will stop asking the minute they’re told “no.” – Which is why another fundamental pillar of success is persistence and perseverance. You have to ask, but you also can’t give up. There are a million reasons the person you’re asking hasn’t gotten back to you, don’t take it personally and don’t give up.
Persistence can be a craft; perseverance can be a lifestyle, not just a thing you do sometimes. A Chinese bamboo tree, for example, must be watered and cared for regularly from the time it’s planted just like any other plant. For the first five years, however, the caretaker of that bamboo tree will see no visible results. Raising bamboo is truly a test of patience and perseverance but one with spectacular results… After five years of watering, the bamboo tree will grow up to 80 feet in just six weeks! That little tree spends the first four years of its existence building a strong root structure to sustain and nourish its spectacular explosion of growth in its fifth year.
Like any muscle, if not regularly exercised, our capacity for persistence and perseverance will atrophy. Sometimes that will be hard. You might fail as much as you succeed, but if you persist you will persevere. In the words of Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”