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Don’t Quit... at Least Not Yet

What is the secret ingredient that leads to success?

When I was 13, I had dreams of being a rock and roll star. For my birthday, I asked my parents for a guitar and lessons to play it. My parents hired an old lady instructor, and I was uninspired by the folk tunes she was teaching me. She was clueless about Led Zepplin, Aerosmith, Kiss... even Black Sabbath! Six months later, having developed no appreciable skills at picking a riff or a lick, I gave it up.

“Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.” —William Feather

I developed a love for classical music while I was in college. When I graduated, I started taking piano lessons. I didn’t own a piano and couldn’t afford to buy one (back before cheap electronic keyboards), so I found a variety of places around town where I could practice: churches, schools, and friends' houses. Six months later, my work schedule started making regular practice difficult, and I quit... but with the intention of getting back to it. I never did.

I think back to those days and wonder if I had given it just a little more time, could I have developed enough skill to sustain my interest? Maybe.

Maybe? Only maybe? Yes, because something else was missing.

“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” —Confucius

We are often told that we should not give up, that we should develop perseverance, that all the most successful people in the world have persistence. And I’m not here to disagree with that. Napoleon Hill, in his book, Think and Grow Rich, tells the story of a miner who found a vein of gold. He extracted all of the gold until the vein was exhausted. Hoping to find another, he continued digging, but after a while, there was nothing. So he gave up, and thinking the mine was just an empty hole in the ground, he sold it for next to nothing. The man who bought the mine only had to dig three feet to uncover a huge vein of gold that earned him millions of dollars. The moral: Don’t quit. But that still doesn’t reveal the driving force behind persistence.

“Fall seven times and stand up eight.” —Japanese proverb

Wikimedia Commons
Perseverance requires a little something extra to work.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

People who do not demonstrate perseverance are often called lazy. But laziness is not the real problem. More often, it is doubt or fear. Doubt makes you hesitate, and fear of failure can keep you from trying at all.

You may recall the story of The Little Engine That Could, who at first wasn’t sure he could pull the heavy freight cars over the hill. It was through his persistence in repeatedly saying, “I think I can, I think I can,” that he continued until he succeeded.

"If you get up one more time than you fall, you will make it through." —Chinese proverb

When doubt causes you to procrastinate, it deteriorates your sense of self-worth, which can spiral into depression. That is why it is so important to push ahead. The more you try, the more likely you are to fail, and the more you fail, the more you learn... or realize that you need to learn.

Failure isn’t a bad thing; it’s an opportunity to discover what went wrong. It might simply mean you need to acquire more information or training. No one becomes an expert overnight. Michael Jordan didn’t get picked for his high school basketball team. He didn’t give up; he started taking 2,000 practice shots a day, which made him one of the sport’s greatest stars.

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” —George Edward Woodberry

Perseverance is about sticking to your goal. It doesn’t mean you should stay in an abusive relationship or a dangerous situation. It's about adaptability. Adversity is unavoidable, but it doesn’t mean you can’t keep your goal. It just means you have to change how you reach it. Alter your plans, choose another method, or find a different path. Persistence means keep moving toward your goal.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whenever people extol those who have succeeded with perseverance, they always cite innovators as examples: Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, and Milton Hershey. Innovators seem to have perseverance built into their DNA. They do not give up, because they don’t believe they will fail. Someone once asked Thomas Edison why he continued working on his lightbulb after failing 1,000 times. He replied, “I have not failed 1000 times; I have merely found 1,000 ways that do not work.” There’s something more than perseverance that moves the innovator to succeed. But what is it?

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” —Jim Watkins

I endured an amazing amount of hardship when I first started writing, but I persisted. My father was against it. My English teacher accused me of plagiarism. I received hundreds of rejection letters from publishers to whom I’d sent articles, short stories, and book manuscripts. I sent my resume to hundreds of advertising agencies, but none showed any interest. Nevertheless, I stuck to it, often writing 10 or more hours daily.

Eventually, the tide turned. I wrote an article for a neighborhood newspaper (they had to publish it because I was the neighborhood association president), which was read by a neighbor who worked for a top business newspaper. He recommended me to his editor, who hired me to write articles. I wrote advertising copy pro bono for a few non-profit organizations, which led to my getting paid work from for-profit companies. I endured over 10 years before seeing any success. Why? It was a passion.

That’s the secret ingredient that keeps innovators going. They love what they do. That’s what motivates persistent people after repeated rejection or failure. If you’re passionate, persistence comes naturally.

“Passion plus persistence equals progress and prosperity.” —Rob Wilson

I am an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant.