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Perspectives on Perseverance


10Feb 2013

One of the benefits I receive from the work I do with family-owned businesses and successful business leaders is the opportunity to hear their life (and business’ life) story, and learn from them (hopefully!) .

One of the questions we typically ask in our interviews is: “To what do you attribute your financial and business success?”

Common answers are “perseverance”,  “sticking to it over the long haul”, “continuing to do what we knew was right”.  (Other frequent responses are: “being in the right place at the right time”, “luck”, “God’s blessing”,  depending on their worldview.)

It is often helpful to share a common meaning for words, so let’s start there.  Perseverance is defined as:  continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.

As an individual who is in the midst of persevering in pursuing a goal myself, I find that the concept takes on different “color” or nuances, depending from which perspective you are seeing the situation.

For example, what is the difference between “persevering” and “being stubborn”?  It is partly perspective and the attribution of either a positive or negative slant on the behavior.  (People are usually “stubborn” when they won’t do what we think they should!)

The concept of perseverance also has a different “tone”, depending where you are in the process.  Perseverance in the abstract or hypothetical almost always sounds good. But when you are in the midst of it, you are asking yourself: “Should I continue?” “Is this the right path?” “How much time and money should invest in this project?” “When am I going to start to see some results (or will I ever)?”

And for me, (and others, as well, I think) the answer often isn’t that easy or clear.

Let’s consider some of the cultural sayings we have that relate to persevering on a task, and look at them at the beginning of a process, in the middle, and at the end.

At the Beginning

When we are considering a course of action that is probably long-term, these sayings come to mind:

“You need to count the cost.”

“You better determine if you are committed or not.”

          “Once you put your hand to the plow, don’t look back.” (Ok, I admit that is an old one.)

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

 It appears that there are two predominant risks at the beginning of the task, either to not fully consider what it may take to accomplish the goal (and thus, quit prematurely or run out of resources in the process) or to shy away from attempting the task because it looks too daunting.

In the Middle

In the midst of a long-term process, we hear:

Keep your nose to the grindstone.”

“Hang in there, stick to it. You’ll get there.”

“If, at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“Give it your best shot.”

Why?  Because in the middle of a long-term journey, the end often is not yet in sight, and we are becoming weary.  We wonder “will I ever get there?”  Discouragement can set in, and we begin to question whether we’ve made the right decision.  We realize that what looked like a “sure deal” at the beginning actually has no guarantee of success. (It would be interesting to think through what keeps some people going in this stage, while others “fold” and give up – which, by the way, may be a good decision.)

This is where some people are called “stubborn”, “bull-headed”, or they are described as “hitting their head against a brick wall”.  Why?  Because the observer has determined the one who is persevering is going the wrong direction or won’t reach their goal.  (It is important to note that the observer has no “skin in the game” and thus, has nothing to lose by encouraging quitting.)

Toward the End:

When we have endured through difficult times, and we are starting to see some benefits from our pathway (although sometimes the reward happens right away with no warning), we may hear statements like:

          “You are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“You are starting to reap the reward of your efforts.”

         “You are finally experiencing some of the fruit of your labors.”

After the End:

It is interesting to me to consider how we think and talk about those who have persevered over a long time.  Largely, it depends whether they reached their goal or not.  When people persevere and reach their goal (or are viewed as “successful” in some way), we obviously praise them for not giving up.

But if the goal isn’t reached (from the an observer’s perspective), you may hear comments like:

“She wasted her life.”

         “He followed his dreams, but they didn’t pan out.”   Or,

        “They were chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

 [These comments fly in the face of those who say things like, “It’s the process that is important, not whether you reach the goal or not.”  I’ll let you decide whether or not you agree with this perspective.]

A key question arises (for me, at least): What is the difference between those who succeed in reaching their goals (or beyond) and those that don’t?

There are many perspectives on this, which leads me to conclude we probably don’t fully know, but I would encourage you to read Jim Collins’ book, Great by Choice:Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All for some interesting thoughts.

Conclusion

So where does this lead us? Back to where we started – listening to the stories of financially successful business families.  It would be easy to conclude – “Well, you won’t be successful if you give up before you reach your goal.”  While that is often true, it is also a false dichotomy.  Some people fail because they continue to pursue a goal beyond which it is wise and they expend all of their life’s resources to do so.  In fact, others have actually become successful because they quit pursuing their initial goal and pursued a different opportunity that crossed their path.

So, one conclusion I reach is:  Perseverance is a key character quality that is beneficial in life and which often leads to positive results.  However, other characteristics are needed in addition to perseverance to know when to keep going and when to quit.  Some of these additional characteristics include: listening to wise counsel, learning how to assess and manage risk, being willing to listen to the feedback from the marketplace, and . . .  (I’m sure there are many others; I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.)

 

 

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