Each of us struggles with some failure before we ever achieve the thrill of success, like Henry Melville’s 1851 albatross Moby Dick, which took 12 years to complete. English students still dive in to learn about how his mutiny mirrors the deepest corners of our psyche. No murky water for me, but a three-year struggle to craft a book—re-focused to tell about women caught up in the Civil War.
Although the finish line won’t arrive tomorrow, persistence has helped me appreciate the natural twists and turns built into the creative process. Tenacity helps stake out a claim in an endeavor where we have a chance of success. Without due diligence to determine our strengths, we might spin our wheels and not move within range of success.
A few years ago I marched off in a new direction, thinking sales, health insurance sales, would turn the crank for me. Not having huge difficulty with studying for exams, I put hours into learning the rules of the industry and passing the tests (in both Virginia and Texas). But my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t excel in sales.
Inventors Have It
Once you identify your talent, it’s easier to love your work, even when it doesn’t love you back initially. Persistence WILL pay off if you’re aimed in the right direction. But it could take a while. That’s where Thomas Edison comes to mind. He said: “The most certain way to succeed is always to try ONE MORE Time.” It took him 1,000 tries with different chemicals and filaments before he “discovered” the light bulb that would work.
Inventors are known for having an unworldly belief in the future success of their ideas—why else would they keep going against all odds? B.F. Skinner, Psychology Professor at Harvard University, had a different approach. He said: “A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”
We’ve all come to think of Albert Einstein as the quintessential genius, but he thought his brilliance emerged from another source. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with a problem longer.” That stick-to-it-ness seems to show a pattern among the people deemed “successful.”
Athletes Have It
The willingness to put every ounce of strength on the field can be seen in championship athletic events. Tennis’s Billy Jean King bucked the system to play against a male opponent to show the strength of female players and lost initially. She broke the ceiling for female tennis players who came after her to receive better pay, recognition, and credibility. She told them: “Champions keep playing until they get it right.”
Green Bay Packers Football Coach Vince Lombardi and winner of the first two Super Bowls endorsed tenacity. “The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s Real Glory.”
International events going all the way back to the original Olympics in Athens, bring together athletes with a range of political, social, and religious beliefs who have refused to quit their quest to excel during war. While working at the1996 Atlanta Olympics as a media field volunteer, I saw first-hand the wounds from the war in Croatia still cut deep when the Croats prepared to compete with the Yugoslavs in Water Polo. Athletes on both sides struggled to find pools in which to practice. Several would not shake hands with their opponents. Some later said their teammates could not forget the atrocities committed by their enemies against their relatives.
In the first contest the Croats beat the Romanians 11-6, but later lost to the US 10-8 and Italy 10-8 in some of the highest scoring contests. In the Finals US overtook Yugoslavia 12-8 and Spain beat Croatia 7-5 for the gold medal. At the medal ceremony, members of the Yugoslavian team attended when Croatian coach Perica Bukic and his team accepted the second place medal. Yugoslavia came in 8th. He represented Yugoslavia at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where the team won the gold medal in water polo. He became sports director for the Zagreb team, a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and a member of the Croatian Parliament from 2003-2008. Persistence and victory don’t always mean taking the gold, but might an ultimate prize in life.
The Croatian team embodies what Babe Ruth said: “You just can’t beat the person who never gives up!”
But we’re not all athletes, for some of us, just keeping up, keeping up can rule the day. Sometimes life can be overwhelming, like it could have been for Winston Churchill during World War II. He just stayed the course and indeed, never gave up. He counseled us: “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.” Sure, don’t want to stop there—it’s got to get better.
But finally, if you’ve made it through HELL, it’s time to find a place and a skill that warms your insides and challenges your brain. America’s personal cheerleader and taskmaster, Dale Carnegie, lays out a simple, yet winning approach to life: “Throw yourself into some work you believe in with all your heart, live for it, die for it, and you will find the happiness you had thought could never be yours.”
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Updated to: in the Digital Age)