It might seem like perseverance is a good thing.
We've been told to persist in the face of odds. Yet, there are times when you should stop.
How do you know when to stop? And why bother to persevere when failure is waiting around the corner?
Find out why perseverance can be a real pain, and when it can be a blessing. Enjoy this episode on perseverance and yes, enjoy the music.
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: The link between failure and perseverance
Part 2: Is there a way to know when to stop?
Part 3: Why perseverance could do with a coach
Should You Give Up? Or Should You Persist?
When you get to your office and want to print some material, what do you do?
You’re likely to turn on your computer, hit the print button and then voilà, out come a crisp, laser-printed copy of whatever was on your computer screen. Back in 1969, an optical engineer called Gary Starkweather thought the same way.
“One morning I woke up and I thought, why don’t we just print something out directly?” Starkweather said. “But when I flew that past my boss he thought it was the most brain-dead idea he had ever heard. He basically told me to find something else to do. The feeling was that lasers were too expensive. They didn’t work that well. Nobody wants to do this, computers aren’t powerful enough.
And I guess, in my naïveté, I kept thinking, He’s just not right—there’s something about this I really like. It got to be a frustrating situation. He and I came to loggerheads over the thing, about late 1969, early 1970. I was running my experiments in the back room behind a black curtain. I played with them when I could.
He threatened to lay off my people if I didn’t stop. I was having to make a decision: do I abandon this, or do I try and go up the ladder with it?”
A Starkweather kind of decision is the kind of decision we have to make, when facing our lives, but also our business
How do we know whether we should persist or give up? Will we meet with success or failure? And is failure one of the goals? Should we really accept failure as a benchmark that we’re moving ahead? In this series we’re going to take a hard-nosed look at three areas of perseverance.
1) The link between failure and perseverance
2) Is there a way to know when to stop?
3) Why perseverance could do with a coach
1) Let’s start with the link between failure and perseverance
Imagine you were a company that failed repeatedly.
You create a tablet device that was at best, disappointing.
You try your hand at a peer-to-peer payment system like Paypal, and it fails.
You start up an auction site similar to eBay, and that too needs to be shut down.
You then get into the phone business but lose over $170 million in a single year.
And ten solid years after you’ve run the business, your net profit is barely 2.8%.
Should you give up?
Well, this company chose to soldier on despite the odds
Almost all of us are likely to have used the services of this company at one time or another. We’re not talking about some unknown, nondescript company. We’re talking about Amazon.com, the retailing giant.
The reality is that Amazon’s profit margin is wafer thin and has continued to be that way for an agonisingly long time.
In early 2016, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that his gamble had paid off. He spoke excitedly about Amazon Web Services (AWS) which had reached $10 billion in sales and was now generating 52% of Amazon’s total profit for that quarter. What this meant was that a single arm of Amazon, no, not the retail arm, but the cloud hosting section was the real winner. In short what Bezos was mildly gloating about was the fact that his perseverance had paid off.
A similar perseverance experiment paid off in Cupertino, California
In 1993, Apple Inc. launched the Newton MessagePad. The MessagePad, the first series of personal digital assistant devices, developed by Apple Computer and was a reasonably spectacular failure. Sales of the original MessagePad were weak, with Apple moving a mere 50,000 units in the product’s first four months on the market.
On June 29, 2007, the first iPhone was launched. Despite failing miserably on the NewtonPad front, Apple decided to go ahead with the production of a phone. And so far they’ve sold 821 million phones. The iPhone is now slightly over 68% of the entire Apple revenues while the Mac is just 8.89%
And while it’s easy to see these cases as big companies with deep pockets, history is full of artists, inventors, musicians, athletes—in fact, all kinds of people in all sorts of professions—who never gave up despite the odds. And there’s one crucial reason why we should persevere even when there’s no guarantee of success.
The reason? What fails right away might work on an unrelated project
In April 2015, Lynda.com was sold for $1.5 billion to LinkedIn
When we look at that price tag, we tend to see enormous success. Lynda and her husband, Bruce Heavin came incredibly close to the precipice of failure. Lynda.com wasn’t the online training giant that it is today. Instead, it was an offline training company with week-long workshops. They did well over the years building their business to 35 employees and $3.5 million in revenue.
Then came 9/11 and the dot-com crash
Almost overnight they had to lay off 75% of their staff. According to a report in Fast Company, they had to downsize their home and give up classroom leases.
Which is when they decided to go online.
“Right now with broadband, it’s easy to run online video courses,” Lynda told me when we met for dinner. “Back in the early days, it was hard going. Internet bandwidth was extremely narrow, and it was hard to see how we’d keep the business going.” And yet, the perseverance paid off. But what do we learn from this story?
Lynda and Bruce weren’t looking to have an online training business, at that point in time
The only reason they were forced to move in a bigger way online was because of massive and instant failure. That seeming failure in the offline classroom-based training business led to the creation and growth of Lynda.com. Lynda and Bruce persevered, taking the lessons of their failure into another domain before the business took off.
While these success stories are powerful motivators, perseverance works on unrelated project in day to day life as well
Around 2010, we were having real problems with our membership site at 5000bc.com. We’d moved from a hosted membership site to Joomla! (A content management system), and had some software put in that would make it a lot easier to create “magazines”. The software was meant to enable the site owner could create content that would allow clients to read the content.
The only problem was that the software we were using was super-klutzy.
It would take me about 3 hours or so to write the articles and then over 3 hours just to get them posted. I know it sounds terribly bizarre to all of us spoiled by the ease of WordPress, but back then this software was the option presented to me—and I took it. Week after week, I’d do battle with this frustrating content management system, and there seemed to be no solution on the horizon. In effect, what was supposed to save me time and effort was turning out to be a complete and utter failure.
Failure can teach you to move to an unrelated project
I persisted for a while but was forced to move to an unrelated way of presenting the information. I started posting all the articles in the forum. The forum helped tremendously because clients could ask questions, get clarifications and do things they just couldn’t do before. Instead of a top-down, “here’s the article series”, they got a chance to interact on the forum.
But not everyone likes chatter on the forum, and in a way, the forum experiment became a sort of “failure”, when I considered those clients who were not happy with forums. And so we created reports and called them Vanishing Reports. The Vanishing Reports were a result of seeming failure after failure. And yet with persistence, we got a product that to this day is among the top three most-loved benefits of being a member of 5000bc (the other two are almost instant replies from me, and the first priority to courses and workshops).
Perseverance in the face of failure may often lead to unrelated projects.
The Post-It you use today was never supposed to be invented. Arthur Fry and 3M were supposedly working on a project of super-strong adhesives. And yet, as they met with failure on one front, they inadvertently discovered an adhesive that could be peeled off easily without damaging the paper. And the Post-It was born.
At first, it seems like the original project is a very good idea
Then it's possible that failure comes along. But failure forces you to be persistent. Which is when you’re more likely to get to a different level—often one that’s far superior to the existing level. This is the core lesson of failure. It’s there to teach us a lesson of how to improve our products and services.
If we persist, we get to a whole new level.
Just like Apple. Or Lynda.com. Or 3M.
It’s doable. You just have to be persistent.
But wait, there are just as many examples of persistence leading to ruin. How do you avoid being so blind-sided by your project that you avoid falling into a black hole of perseverance?
2) The black hole of perseverance: Can we avoid it?
When we first moved to New Zealand, I had a job in a web design company. I fancied myself as a web designer because I knew the program, Dreamweaver, quite well. Plus I had been studying another hot program at the time called Flash. I was hired in July, made redundant by October.
There I was, not even a year in New Zealand, and things weren’t going so well.
To make matters slightly worse, we’d just bought a house and had a $180,000 mortgage (which was a lot back in the year 2000). It’s at this point I realised that there was no way out of the mess but forward. Since I knew few people in New Zealand, I called dozens of ad agencies and walked in with my cartooning portfolio. In most cases, I returned home empty handed. Until one day, an agency gave me an assignment, which turned out to be a full-blown campaign.
So what’s the point of this story?
The point is that around mid-December, New Zealand tends to shut shop. Almost the entire country decides to go en masse on vacation, and it seems that no one seems gets back to work until mid-January, even early February. Which means as a cartoonist you have no work for all those months. It’s a bit of a forced hibernation period, and you need to get used to it.
I refused to accept that I couldn’t get work
I tried to call. No one answered.
I showed up. No one was around.
And so it became a bit of a black hole of frustration.
Perseverance can have its downsides
You can easily keep at something in the hope that things will get better, and you fail to notice that the rules of engagement have changed. To give up would be madness, yet to stay at the task would be just as bad, if not worse.
It’s at this point that you have to learn to change your strategy. It wasn’t that the agencies weren’t hiring cartoonists anymore. They just weren’t around to meet anyone. What I was doing with my dogged behaviour wasn’t perseverance at all.
Strategy is when you lie low and prepare for the moment that is to come
As I kept running into closed doors, I decided to change my strategy. Instead of trying to get work, we decided to cut down on our spending. Instead of going out more often, we kept ourselves tied to a limited budget. And on the work front, I enjoyed the rest period and also spent time doodling, learning Photoshop a lot better.
Gary Starkweather ran into endless trouble at Xerox Parc
He knew he was onto a good thing, but the odds were against him. His boss was threatening to fire him and his entire staff. So he changed his strategy. He heard that Xerox was opening a research centre in Palo Alto, which was pretty much right across the country from where he lived in New York. So he threatened to leave for IBM if he didn’t get a transfer. He moved in January 1971, and the first prototype of the laser printer was up and running.
In many cases, we have the opportunity to move to Plan B
Yet we continue to be like the fly that keeps hitting itself against the closed window pane when the next window is wide open. The reason why we keep digger a deep hole and not getting results is partly because a lack of perseverance is seen as weakness. We somehow need to battle on, or we will fail, or so we think.
The solution has often been right in front of me, and I’ve often kept doggedly ahead getting more frustrated all the time. This is why we need more than just perseverance. We need a friend, or better still, a coach.
3) Why perseverance could do with a coach
When you look back at the period between the 14th and 17th century, you have an incredible flowering of art, architecture, politics, science and literature. Some of the finest work found in museums today are from that period. Two centers stood out in Western art for the enormous number of artist and innovation of their work: The Renaissance in Italy and the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century.
But how did all of this astounding work seem to appear all at once?
The answer lies in the gradual reform of the political structure and the patronage of the time. The cities were also the most urbanized culture of their time. To nail down the magnificence of the Renaissance to one factor would be churlish, and yet there was one element that stood out.
It was the factor of guilds and apprenticeship that came into their own.
In short, artists had coaches. Granted that the apprenticeship was often long and arduous, but it meant that there was a constant sense of guidance. This system of coaching is considered to be one of the primary factors why such amazing results were obtained.
In Holland alone, it has been estimated that about five to ten million works of art were produced during the century of the Golden Age of Dutch art. That’s not counting the work that poured out from Italy. And yet it wasn’t just artists toiling by themselves. They had a coaching system in place.
Perseverance is often seen as a solo skill, but it’s also the reason why we get so exhausted in our efforts
Take for instance the problem that I had with formatting in the forum. All our courses are conducted via the medium of notes, audio but live courses have one more component—a forum. This online forum is where clients do their daily, yes daily, assignments and they’re reviewed by me on a regular basis.
A small group of 25 clients can generate as many as 1,000 posts a week (no, that’s not an exaggeration). Hence, it’s not unusual for a course to produce between 10,000-15,000 posts.
The problem is that posts need formatting
You need to make a title look like a title. And yes, there’s forum formatting but what if you want to do three things all in one second? Let’s take for instance the fact that I want to make the title bold, 18 points and in maroon.
Those are three steps, and when you assume that I’ll be posting on at least a third of those posts, you suddenly have triple the work. Every time you’re moving through bold, 18 points and maroon. But hey, I was going to persevere. I wasn’t going to have shoddy formatting and so I’d go through the three actions.
But a coach or outsider can see things in a different way
One day while I was mumbling about this tedious method, a client told me how I could fix the problem. Using Text Expander, a software I already owned, I could format a title, a sub-head or any text in a matter of seconds. My perseverance wasn’t helping at all. All I needed was a different set of eyes.
What seems like talent is a coach catching unforced errors while they’re occurring
The coach realises you’re like the fly on the window. He or she knows that there’s another window open. And that’s what they do. They gently advise you to move one step back or one step to the left or right. And instead of digging yourself into a hole, you’ve changed your strategy. When I look at clients in 5000bc or in courses such as the cartooning course or Article Writing Course, they’re working very, very hard. But working hard is not enough.
You need someone else.
Back when I was trying to call those ad agencies, and not getting results, I didn’t have a coach.
But I did have a friend, Wayne Logue. And Wayne advised me to wait until February or even March. He informed me that I wasn’t really persevering, but just driving myself crazy. And luckily I listened.
Albert Einstein is reported to have said: We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
To me that sounds like it’s time to get advice, to get a group that I trust or a coach.
And then I can persevere and reach my goals faster and better than ever before.
So let’s summarise. What we learned was:
1) The link between failure and perseverance
2) Is there a way to know when to stop?
3) Why perseverance could do with a coach