“Hang in there! is more than an expression of encouragement to someone experiencing hardship or difficulty; it is sound advice for anyone intent on doing good in the world. Whether by leading or prodding others, or improving oneself, or contributing in the thick of things to some larger cause, perseverance is often crucial to success…Much good that might have been achieved in the world is lost through hesitation, faltering, wavering, vacillating, or just not sticking with it.” — William J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues
In 1914, Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, New Jersey, was virtually destroyed by fire. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, the buildings were insured for only $238,000 because they were made of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. Much of Edison’s life work went up in smoke and flames that December night. At the height of the fire, Edison’s 24-year-old son, Charles, searched frantically for his father. He finally found him, calmly watching the fire, his face glowing in the reflection, his white hair blowing in the wind.
“My heart ached for him,” said Charles. “He was 67 — no longer a young man — and everything was going up in flames. When he saw me, he shouted, “Charles, where’s your mother?” When I told him I didn’t know, he said, “Find her. Bring her here. She will never see anything like this as long as she lives”.”
The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”
Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver the first phonograph.
Failure often results from following the line of least persistence. Despite the book titles, magazine articles, and guru claims, there are no quick and easy ways to health, happiness, wealth, teamwork, or success. Usually the only person who’s stumbled upon a quick and easy route to success, is the author who’s sold millions of books proclaiming how easy it is by following the formula they’re selling. Most “overnight successes” take years to achieve. Most “natural talent” is created through thousands of hours of disciplined training and practice (that’s the final level of mastery — making it look natural).
There are no “success secrets.” However, there are success systems, success habits, and success principles applied through discipline and persistence. In a university address on medical education, the 19th century English biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, advised students, “Patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.”
We often think that successful people are those lucky enough to have won the “gene pool.” They picked good parents and were born with great talent, intelligence, or natural gifts. But we all know people with talent, perhaps even streaks of genius, who never did much with their abilities. Many people give up just as they’re about to achieve success. They often stop digging when they’re inches from their vein of gold. Then they decide to prospect for silver, start digging in new places, get discouraged and give up just before they’re about to reach their dreams.
Studies of Nobel Prize winners have shown that their intelligence levels are average. However, their tenacity and persistence is well above normal. They hang in there with research and doggedly follow a theory long after many of their colleagues have moved on to what looks like more promising research paths. The French-born American surgeon and biologist, Alexis Carrel, won a Nobel Prize for his work on vascular ligature and grafting of blood vessels and organs. His research experience led him to conclude, “Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” We aren’t losers until we quit trying. As the Japanese proverb teaches, the eventual winners are those who “fall down seven times, get up eight.”
Facing a journey of a thousand miles or many years of effort can be discouraging. One way to deal with that is breaking it into small, manageable pieces. It’s eating that proverbial elephant one bite at a time (Not that I can imagine anyone wanting to eat an elephant; I often wonder about the sadists that come up with these expressions — skinning cats, boiling frogs, etc?). It’s often helpful to move away from looking at the long journey and instead, break it into a series of short trips.
Terry Fox, having lost his leg to cancer, embarked on a cross-Canada run called the “Marathon of Hope” to raise money for cancer research. With an artificial right leg, his shuffle-and-hop running style took him about 24 miles per day. I think jogging a few miles in the morning is pretty good. Many people train for months and make a big deal out of running in a single marathon (26 miles). Terry ran close to a marathon a day — with an artificial leg! He managed to run for 143 days and cover 3,339 miles from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Thunder Bay, Ontario. At that point, cancer was discovered in his lungs and he was forced to abandon his run. A few months later he died. His inspiring legacy continues to this day in annual Terry Fox runs that have raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer research. When asked how he kept himself going out there as exhaustion set in and he had thousands of miles ahead of him, he replied, “I just keep running to the next telephone pole.”