It’s a familiar story that we’ve been told since childhood: to persist and we will achieve whatever we set out to do. No matter the difficulty, no matter the challenge – if we persist, then anything is possible. But is persistence always the answer? Can it sometimes do more harm than good?
What happens when we persist against adversity, time after time, and still do not see our dreams come true? Instead of trying to grasp everything and potentially end up with nothing, should we in fact focus our resources and place our energy on a handful of important challenges that really matter to us?
In short, should we be more selective when it comes to persistence?
Can being too persistent stop you from uncovering other opportunities?
You sometimes reach a crossroads in life, where you have to make a choice and decide which path to follow. Every time we choose one direction, we are closing the door to other opportunities along the way.
Deciding to pursue a path and focusing on one direction entirely until you succeed in your objective may not always be the smartest move to make. Being completely focused on achieving a goal and dedicating all your energy and resources to it could result in losing perspective, and worst of all, losing awareness of what happens around you.
The world is constantly changing, so being aware of new opportunities may not be possible when you are focused on just one goal. Of course, we should pay attention and put our energy into what we want to achieve, but sometimes we need to work on finding the right balance so that we avoid losing awareness of the changes that are happening around us.
Markets change and evolve, while new ones are constantly appearing. For example, we could be so focused on developing a particular product to launch in a specific market, that we don’t pay attention to potential new markets that could benefit from our existing product portfolio. Or maybe it is the opposite: we are so insistent on trying to sell our products into a new sector, that we stop paying attention to the needs, differences and peculiarities of our core market, which may require more focus from us to improve our current product.
When a company is looking to land a big fish client, being too stubborn and thinking that the only way to succeed is to win that particular account, may mean losing the opportunity to sell to other small businesses who could be ideal target clients. You then end up focusing entirely on trying to win the client instead of taking a step back and recognising other good opportunities along the way. Perhaps you find that working with a range of multiple smaller customers opens you up to new directions previously unexplored – this doesn’t mean forfeiting the large client; it just means building a foundation with other customers.
How to decide when to quit?
How do you know when it is the right moment to stop and move on to the next project? When we are so focused, it may be difficult to recognise the right time to press the STOP button and reassess.
If you persevere but obtain the same outcome each time, it could be that you are either doing something wrong or that it is not the right time to pursue this goal, after all, Einstein said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It could also mean you are pursuing a dead end and that no matter what you do, it’s not the right opportunity for you, or that the world just isn’t ready.
Knowledge and past experiences are key when deciding which opportunity is worth the struggle and which is not. But, there will always be an element of chance, unpredictability and uncertainty involved. And sometimes you will already need to be on that path to be able to acknowledge when to stop. As you fail and win more, you will become attuned to the signs signalling when to quit. For every story that we hear about someone continually trying and eventually succeeding, there are many more stories that go unheard, detailing those who try all their lives and still never reach their goal.
Adding passion to the mix can help you to achieve your goal, but it can also delay the decision to leave one path and go to the next. People who succeed and run successful businesses know that it is a matter of getting the right combination of persistence, knowledge, experience and passion to achieve their goals.
Can persistence hinder self-improvement?
Being consumed with one particular objective can cause you to lose focus on yourself. Dedicating all your energy to one focus doesn’t give you the time needed to critically review yourself and your method. For instance, are you approaching things in the right way? Should you gain more knowledge on the topic before you continue? Is your product the problem or is it a case of timing?
We are sometimes too focused on moving in a particular direction without thinking whether we could actually improve ourselves or adapt in a way that allows us to see things from a different perspective (through changes in insight, experience, attitude, etc.). Doing so could help us to achieve our goal or help us to realise that maybe we should be focusing on something else.
Taking a step back and critically assessing yourself and your position is a key part of the journey you are on, and will help you to improve your skills and increase your chances of success.
Should we pursue persistence at any cost?
Navy Seals are trained to cultivate their mental resilience against all odds. This works in a military environment but should be taken with a pinch of salt when applying it to the business world. Mental ‘toughness’ techniques from the Navy Seals (1) include recommendations on how to motivate yourself to persist in achieving a goal, however Navy Seals are trained for life or death situations where you need to make decisions quickly, sometimes with no time to think twice about it.
Military and sports motivational ideas are often translated into the business world, however an article featured in HBR (2) references how motivational sports ideas about “beating the competition” can be detrimental to success. A study compared the growth trajectories of 25 multinational businesses over their lifespans, and it was found that “smooth and steady expansion strategies gradually led to superior profitability. Firms that approached their growth as a race to be won, by expanding faster and further than others, eventually led themselves into dire straits” (2). This shows that a more collaborative and steady approach to success was best, instead of trying to force a quicker process. So, perhaps it is not about winning but getting there in the right way. Faced with relentless motivational quotes, people trying without succeeding can potentially feel like failures or lose focus as competition and comparison with others becomes something constant (and potentially poisonous) in their minds.
After looking at persistence and the role it plays in our lives, I can safely say that persistence cannot be classified as “good” or “bad”. Persistence, to the correct degree, can help us to follow our dreams and give us the energy to make them a reality. But, on its own, without past experiences, or the knowledge and time to reflect, persistence alone is not enough.