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Alex Lickerman M.D.
Alex Lickerman M.D.

How To Be Patient

Manipulating the subjective experience of time.

Photo: Patrick Pappi Pearse

In the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, the main character, Siddhartha, tells Kamala, a beautiful courtesan: "From the moment I made [the resolution to learn about love from the most beautiful woman] I also knew that I would execute it...when you throw a stone into the water, it finds the quickest way to the bottom of the water. It is the same when Siddhartha has an aim, a goal. Siddhartha does nothing; he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he goes through the affairs of the world like the stone through the water, without doing anything, without bestirring himself; he is drawn and lets himself fall. He is drawn by his goal because he does not allow anything to enter his mind which opposes his goal...everyone can reach his goal, if he can think, wait and fast."

I've always loved this image of stone slowly but inexorably falling to the bottom of a body of water, which to me perfectly represents the essence of patience. Having patience is often difficult yet utterly indispensable for accomplishing great works. It defends us against foolish, impulsive behavior, gives us time to consider our options carefully, plan appropriately, and execute effectively. How can we learn to have more of it?


  1. Self-confidence that you can win. The more certain we are that we can achieve our goal, the less we'll worry over the possibility of failure and therefore the better we'll be able to tolerate not achieving our goal right now.
  2. Recognition that your goal isn't crucial for your happiness. No single goal, no matter how important it may be, no matter how badly we may want it, can ever create the entirety of our happiness. Reminding ourselves of this even as we strive toward our goal with all our might helps to calm the sense of urgency we feel about obtaining it.
  3. A determination to advance one step at a time. Recognizing the need to chunk large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones enables us to focus on doing today's work today and tomorrow's work tomorrow. Add up enough of those days and we'll find ourselves standing right in front of our dream, come one of them.


Our subjective experience of the passage of time tends to accelerate when we're immersed in an enjoyable experience and slow when we're bored or in pain. For this reason, viable strategies for subjectively speeding time up when waiting might include:

  1. Immersing yourself fully in the action you're taking. Allow yourself to be consumed with the task at hand. Enter the world of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's flow and become the experience you're having, losing yourself in it and casting off your propensity to look beyond the present moment.
  2. Distracting yourself. If you've already taken all the action you can and must now wait, wait actively rather than passively by distracting yourself with another engaging activity. Make it something vitally interesting in order to lend it the power to tear your mind away from your obsession.
  3. Vividly imagining you're already enjoying what you're waiting for. Anticipation can create impatience, true, but also great enjoyment. Savor the waiting, fully explore in your imagination what it will be like when your goal is achieved. In fact, anticipating something good is sometimes even more enjoyable than actually having it happen.


I've observed that when I'm feeling impatient with someone for any reason it usually has far more to do with some trigger of mine they've inadvertently pulled than with their behavior (even when their behavior is problematic, my impatience with it remains a separate issue). Obviously not everyone's impatience triggers are the same. For example, I'm impatient with lazy people but wonderful with confused people. The former I want to slap. The latter I want to teach. Why wouldn't I want to teach the former, too? I certainly should. That's the reaction I want to have. But I haven't managed to prevent laziness from triggering my slap button yet. I'm aware of it now as my issue, though, so (usually) I don't slap lazy people but rather now recognize my impatience with them as a gauge of my own progress (or lack thereof). I know when I stop feeling impatient in response to laziness it will mean I've advanced to an even greater degree of belief in the inherent goodness of people, a place I'm quite anxious to get. But it sure ain't easy...

Curiously, one thing that does help is imagining myself as Siddhartha's stone, slowly but inexorably falling to the bottom of a body of water. Whether impatient with a person or impatient to achieve a goal, I try to remember that every person wants to be happy and every goal worth achieving takes time—and that if I'm patient and take each step as it appears before me I can count on the "gravity" of my efforts to pull me in the direction I need to go to achieve victory, whether that means helping another person rather than being short with them or accomplishing a goal—and even more importantly, I can enjoy the process of both.

My book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today.

About the Author
Alex Lickerman M.D.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.