Think Persistence, Not Perfection
Why endurance matters most in any worthwhile endeavor.
Hello, good people! I hope it was a wonderful Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and that you are rejuvenated for the week! To the Stuff!
From the Ages
“They can because they think they can.” —Virgil
Source: The Aeneid
From The Other Day
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” —Amelia Earhart
I’m currently learning to play the acoustic guitar. To anyone who's never attempted this, let me assure you, it is far more difficult than you probably imagine. And to anyone who plays the guitar, kudos! It is a heck of an accomplishment. A true testament of your will.
Like most guitar novices, I looked at the millions of cultural examples of people singing and effortlessly strumming along with a guitar—the many young students I’ve seen who have no trouble with this feat—and I assumed that I would progress in a very straightforward manner. But, early on, I found it a challenge to strum a chord right even when I took the time to set everything up, much less when trying to transition between chords (as is required for making music). I now find it rather inspiring that so many people can play songs on the guitar. It means they have all persisted in something difficult.
When learning to play guitar on your own, as I am, it is easy to suspect that something must be wrong with yourself. Something about you must be uniquely disadvantaged in this pursuit. How else could your difficulties be explained? A few times, I’ve gone to students of mine who play and I’ve asked them about my challenges. They alway get a huge grin and confirm that it was just the same for them.
With consistent practice, I’ve started to see that the chord transitions that were once impossible are now fairly natural. Somehow this has all surprised me. It is the oldest and most obvious lesson there is: There is nothing wrong with you. You just need more practice.
We’re often deluded into believing things should “come naturally.” We go in ready to do the practice (or start the workout), but expect results to quickly gush out of us. That usually isn’t the case.
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. King rose to fame through his leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Most people will know that this movement began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. This spurred a wave of unity throughout Montgomery’s black population. They chose to boycott the buses in hopes that the lost bus fare would prompt the city to make changes to this and other similar racist policies.
We know the basic setup, but we often forget the most important part. This boycott lasted over a year. Results did not come nearly as fast as people would have hoped or, perhaps, thought they would. For 381 days, people subjected themselves to considerable inconvenience—walking miles to work or carpooling all over town. The hardest thing wasn’t the decision, but the persistent sacrifice—the tenacity.
Even after the buses were integrated, on December 20, 1956, the central problem was not solved. Buses were integrated but segregation and racism persisted in Montgomery and throughout the south. On one occasion, snipers shot into buses at black passengers. In 1957, four African American Montgomery churches were bombed as well as the homes of many Civil Rights leaders. It would take many more years of hard work and commitment to non-violent resistance to create anything resembling the level of equality that there is today. And, of course, we are still far from perfect.
Similarly, we all know the basic setup and outline of the American Revolution. But it is easy to overlook the eight years of fighting that it took to gain independence, and the years of struggle that ensued afterward as a young nation stumbled and strove to find its footing.
Almost everything worthwhile tends to be this way—even training the mind. For years I fought my Pure O anxiety disorder. The way out was simple, but not immediate. I committed to exposure therapy and a daily meditation practice and overhauled many other unhealthy habits. There were days where I felt like I made no progress. But over time, my relationship to my thoughts was completely transformed.
Having the right plan matters. But the bulk of the work is in committing and showing up over and over. The point isn’t to make giant strides, but to enjoy the process and commit to daily incremental doses. When you accept this approach it is easier to take the setbacks in stride because you knew it was going to be a long game anyway. It is easier to adjust your plan when you find it isn’t working well. And in a funny way, it is all just so much easier. You realize that you don’t have to do the impossible today! Just commit to being the type of person who shows up and does the good work every day. That’s a pretty good formula for a life well lived.
I recently had a couple students from the Yearbook come by to take a headshot of me and get a short quote on why I ride my bike to school every day. I launched into how all throughout history, people had no access to AC or heat and that they had to deal with the elements as they were. This was my opportunity to tap back into what were once universal experiences of overcoming weather to transport myself and it was a great reminder of how grateful I should be for modern luxuries. The young lady who asked the question looked back at me confidently and as if I’d just spoken the dumbest words ever spoken. She then said “So, yeah. So this is for a page we’re doing on exercise, so could you just talk about the exercise portion of it.”
“Sure. I ride my bike everyday because it builds exercise into my daily routine so I don’t have to go looking for it.”
On that note, please don’t forget…
Life is too short to be normal!