Friday, 28 December 2012

On the vital importance of tenacity

I have said that often, the actual difficulty of attaining a goal is incomparably less than what one believes it could be. In many, many cases, the difference between success and failure is neither superhuman exertion, nor a mystical fluke of fortune, nor a genetic advantage over others (except perhaps in the world of elite sports), nor even a high pain threshold. If there is one quality I have observed in others, and endeavoured to nurture in myself, that is perhaps the most crucial ingredient in the recipe for winning, it is persistence.

To be sure, some of us get it right the first time. Good for them; expending energy on getting jealous about it is not going yield any advantage whatsoever. Better that you apply the same effort to getting back on task and simply trying again.

Before exploring this topic in further detail, I’ve decided to get the reality check out of the way. In my opinion, it is just as important to accept the unavoidable risk that one will die trying, as it is to doggedly keep fighting for one’s dream. Tenacity is not a guarantee of success -- but statistically speaking, I am reasonably sure it is the one factor that tips the odds in an overwhelming majority of cases.

It is unwise to delude oneself in either direction; as always, I believe that a lucid appraisal of the task at hand is the first and most vital step towards completing it. There is no reason to dwell on the risks -- all we need to do is come to terms with them. And now we can return to the more inspirational aspects of this issue.

The first of these -- and one that I always find reassuring -- is the fact persistence often does not manifest itself as a refusal to be defeated by repeated failures. If one wishes to become a virtuoso musician, for example, it simply takes many, many regular small efforts over a long period of time to make one’s dream a reality. This form of tenacity has a very well-known name: we call it practice, and it is the epitome of taking innumerable small and determined steps towards one’s goal. In perhaps 30-50% of all instances, this class of persistence is all one needs to ensure success.

I have been close friends with several people who have had drug problems and other major issues that in reality, were not as straightforward to correct as simply playing scales to a metronome. But their ultimate successes have become a source of undying inspiration for me -- as well as a beautiful illustration of how crucial it is to persist in one’s efforts. Because that was the only common factor in all their diverse struggles.

I’ve watched people relapse so many times into a range of destructive situations or behaviours. Despite succumbing time and again to their circumstances or their own shortcomings, their underlying goal was to one day leave such things in the past forever -- and eventually, sometimes after a matter of years, they won. It was because they kept trying -- again and again, they collected themselves and returned to the fray, and in the end, it was their enemy that proved weaker.

I was thinking to cite my own past problems with alcohol as a case study, but instead I have something a little less clich├ęd to share with you. As a notorious perfectionist, I have faced a great deal of what might be called opposition from people whose advice I trusted, often being told I was being too hard on myself, or that I had reached an acceptable level of success in whatever crazy scheme I was working on.

If memory serves me, every single time I followed this advice and stopped striving for perfection, I ended up bitterly dissatisfied with the result. I eventually learned my lesson, and adopted the approach that once I have embarked on a given project, I will not let it go until I am truly happy with it -- or until I have proven to myself that I have reached the limit of my abilities. (Even if that limit falls short of the vision I had conceived of.)

This often means I will scrap all the progress I’ve made on said task and go right back to the drawing board, take a more successful direction than the previous one, and keep revising it and returning to it and bothering it and improving it and worrying away at it until the reality matches the dream. Near enough may be good enough for some, and I respect that choice. But it is not good enough for me.

I am not about to suggest that you should take on my own value system -- my only hope is that you will take heart, when you are beset by the inevitable procession of obstacles that hinder any meaningful undertaking.

On the song ‘Madagascar’ by Axl Rose, there is a sample of Martin Luther King saying, “Sometimes, I feel discouraged,” among other poignant expressions relating to his dream. It breaks my heart that he was one of the heroes who did indeed die trying. Yet his legacy is immortal -- and one facet of that legacy is the inspiration to keep on fighting for what one yearns for, no matter how elusive it may appear, no matter how many times one is knocked down or is led astray from the path by one’s own imperfections as a human.

To me, King’s confession of his feelings is a beautiful crystallisation of the argument for persistence. Today, almost half a century after he spoke these words, we can indeed sit together at the table of brotherhood, and justifiably say we are free at last.

The same indomitable spirit exists in all of us. All we need to do is invoke it -- then feed it and sustain it, in just the same way as it breathes life into our dreams.