Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Power of Persistence

This piece was first posted on Soulseeds in the Grapevine blog where I post most of my writing.

During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Kenyan long-distance runner Kip Lagat was asked why her country produced so many great runners. "It's the road signs," she replied with a cheeky smile. "'Beware of lions'!" It was one of those priceless moments you can’t script and there was a ring of truth to it as well.

Why ARE Kenyans such good runners? There are lots of theories about this. Some argue that Kenyans are genetically endowed with a high ratio of slow twitch fiber in their muscles, as opposed to the high proportion of fast twitch fiber in sprinters’ muscles. Others argue that it’s all related to environment. In Kenya, kids aren’t dropped at school in SUV’s or yellow school buses. They run to school, and they run a long way. The average Kenyan teenager runs 12 miles a day. I don’t even drive that far in a day. They run to school and turn around and run home at the end of the day.

The genetic factor is no doubt significant, but it’s just as much a learned skill. The environmental factor in Kenyan running ability is enormous. Running is a way of life, it’s a matter of status and for many Kenyans it’s a matter of life and death. It’s like the difference between a rabbit and a fox? The fox is running for dinner and the rabbit is running for its life.

Whether its long distance running, parenting, learning new skills or setting bold intentions, we now understand that to a greater degree than we ever imagined, we can create an environment to support our ideals. It’s an incredible time to be alive, as science gives more and more significance to environment over just being determined by genetic makeup. Passion, persistence and process are every bit as powerful as genes in creating the life we want to live. As a father, this leads me to stand alongside my children, tell them to reach for their dreams, fill them with self belief and optimism and help them create the type of environment that supports their dreams. As a spiritual leader, it leads me to stand alongside people who are dealing with difficult life circumstances and remind you in the words of Christopher Robbin to Winnie the Pooh, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think” and I would add, capable of far more than you give yourself credit for.

In the past, we believed that God set the limits on human ability, and that we were born with divinely ordained traits and limitations. If you achieved anything it was a gift from God. If you fell short, you justified it because it wasn’t God’s will. It was a disempowering belief. For the last 100 years, genes have replaced God as the standard bearer of human determinism. The incredibly liberating truth of our day is that neither God nor genes need be self limiting concepts.

Don’t get me wrong. There are genetic limitations. No matter how much I practice, there is no chance in the world that I will EVER become a world class ballerina. No matter how much money I spend on lessons or dance instruction, I will never make a living as a ballerina. Genes are significant. It’s just that they don’t control your destiny anywhere near as much as we previously believed. Science now tells us that genes only become traits when they interact with the environment. This is why genetic scientist Steven Pinker can have the baldness gene and still have a head of hair that would put Samson to shame. It explains why sets of identical twins with identical genetic makeup can be quite different in some areas of their personality or circumstances. It is due to environmental factors.

This has huge significance for the topic of persistence. Persistence is part of the process of learning and growing through life. It is about becoming, and overcoming limitations. It tells me that like the rabbit, your level of desire will mostly determine whether you attain your goals.

As a father, I was moved by Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happiness and his commitment to his son while he overcame so many obstacles. At one point he said to his son,

Don't ever let somebody tell you you can't do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream... You gotta protect it. People can't do somethin' themselves, they wanna tell you you can't do it. If you want somethin', go get it. Period.

Will Smith, the civilian, seems to believe this just as much as the characters he portrays. A few years back he gave an interview where he spoke about the secret of success. He first described the power of intentions. He said, “Make a choice. Decide what it’s gonna be, who you’re gonna be, how you’re gonna do it. I can create whatever I want to create. We are who we choose to be.” Then the interviewer asked if others without his opportunities could do what he has done. He then spoke about the power of persistence. The key factor is “I will not be outworked. You might have more talent than me. You might be smarter than me. You might outdo me in 9 categories out of 10. But get on a treadmill together, one of two things is going to happen. You gonna get off the treadmill or I’m gonna die on that treadmill.” The power of persistence is hard work and hustle.

You put two people alongside each other; sportspeople, business people, whatever. The two people have similar genetic makeup. Which one is more likely to succeed? The one who has the burning passion to persist through pain and obstacle, with little sleep and little reason to keep going, but they keep going anyway. The one more likely to succeed is the one who will stand in the flames of struggle to fulfill their dreams. Put two visions or plans alongside each other- the one that is backed by passion will win every time.

Persistence and Growth

Persistence is an essential companion to intention. Work out where you want to go, decide how important it is to you to get there, then follow that burning passion with dogged determination. Once your imagination is captured by vision and passion, you will climb Mt Everest if you need to, to make sure your intention becomes a reality. Speaking of climbing Mt Everest, take the persistence of Sir Edmund Hillary as an inspiration.

In 1953 he scaled the highest mountain then known to man-29,000 feet straight up. He was knighted for his efforts. But you have to understand the persistence that led to his success. In 1952 he failed in his attempt to climb Everest. A few weeks later he was speaking to a group in England. He walked out on stage to huge applause. Hillary was deeply moved by their belief in him because he was feeling like a failure. Caught up in the moment, he abandoned his prepared speech. He walked to the edge of the platform, made a fist and pointed at a picture of the mountain. He then said in a booming voice, "Mount Everest, you beat me the first time, but I'll beat you the next time because you've grown all you are going to grow... but I'm still growing!"

I’m still growing. This is the mantra of persistence. You’re still growing. You’re always still growing. Your growth is outpacing the growth of your challenges. Growth may even be slow. At times it may feel nonexistent. Human growth is like the bamboo plant. After it is planted, there is no visible growth for up to five years - even under ideal conditions! Just when you think it has no hope, it suddenly begins growing at the rate of nearly two and a half feet per day, reaching a full height of ninety feet within six weeks.

It’s unexpected, but if you could see beneath the ground, you would see the incredible system of roots that are developing for those first five years. It’s the same for you. Even when you feel discouraged that you aren’t growing, or aren’t growing as fast as you would like, there are roots developing deep within that are preparing you for leaps of epic proportions. Every time you persevere when the going is tough, your life becomes more deeply rooted in strength. Every time your detractors tell you that you can’t do something, and you refuse to believe them, your intentions become more deeply rooted in passion.

In 2009, a man named Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins won a Grammy Award for his album Pinetop Perkins and Friends. That in itself is not noteworthy. It’s only surprising if you know that Pinetop Perkins was 95 years old when he won the award. You could say he was a late bloomer, like a bamboo plant. After a life of setbacks and struggle, he never stopped believing in himself. He got his first break in his eight decade, and never looked back. He died in March of this year, at age 97, a chain smoker to the end.

Human Spirit

As much as I believe in the significance of genes, there is no gene for the human spirit. There is no gene for persistence. It is a learned trait, a passion fired in the crucible of human experience. Thomas Edison, who knew a thing or two about trying and experimenting, once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration.” It’s like the Zen saying, “Fall down 7 times, get up 8.” Edison went well beyond 7 stumbles. But it’s not even about failure. Reframe the saying, “Attempt 7 times, and succeed on the eighth.” Try something 999 times, succeed on the 1000th. If that involves falling down, so be it. It’s all part of the process of learning, growth and becoming. Persistence is believing that success lies at or just beyond the next attempt.

To this point I have used the words persistence and perseverance interchangeably. Is there a difference between persistence and perseverance? If there is a difference, it is in their scope. Persistence is in the details and perseverance is in the big picture. You persist with a course of action or a plan. You persevere with a vision, an idea or a belief. This is important, because there are times when you have to change your course of action and you can do that without giving up on your vision. Let me illustrate.

We got a family pet about 6 months ago, a little dog named Millie. At home she is meek and mild, but when in the woods surrounded by squirrels she becomes a monster. She chases every squirrel in sight with a passion that makes your heart sing (and makes the squirrels heart skip a beat). She hurdles logs and charges through bushes like a maniac. You know what- she NEVER even gets close to them. But that doesn’t put her off one iota. She finishes chasing one and turns around to chase another, as if it’s her duty in life.

On the one hand, I want to live like Millie. When I know what I want to achieve in life, I want to chase it like Millie chases squirrels. When I hit an obstacle or a challenge, I want to charge through it in search of my dreams. When I fall down, or hit a dead end, I want to get up and keep running. On the other hand, there comes a time when you have to realize you’re living your life like a dog chasing a squirrel. It’s time to change the plan. But don’t lose the vision. Persevere with the vision, even if you don’t persist with a course of action.

Of course Millie just enjoys the chase, and we could all do with a little canine joy in the process without concern for outcomes.

Where Does Motivation Come From?

Many of us were taught to persevere because God demands it. It was a matter of obedience. We were taught that God has set a race for us, and our role is to persist to the end which is eternal life. We were told that it’s a straight line and heaven is the reward and the motivation.

Now many of us don’t think of God or the afterlife in the same literal ways and we KNOW from experience that life is rarely lived in a straight line. So where does our motivation come from to persevere even through the most difficult trials? It comes from an inner drive for authenticity, a trait that many feel comfortable calling the God within. Whether you give this quality divine language or not, it is a process of becoming rather than a fixed state or an end point. Your motivation is to become more of who you are, to sing the song that is in your heart demanding to be sung. I like using divine language for this process because it reminds me that there is something magical about being captured by a cause larger than myself. There is no set plan for the future. My vision allows plenty of room to change direction along the way. We are creating the future as we go. But when you persevere with a vision, it feels fateful. It feels as if it was meant to be. It feels divinely inspired. How could you give up on something that is divinely inspired?

This doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes you feel all at sea, as if there is too much moving and changing all around you. Just as it helps to look at the horizon when you feel sea sick, it also helps to look above the surface level changes to your vision to remind yourself why it’s worth persevering. The reason for sea sickness is the imbalance caused by two much movement, your body is moving and the boat is moving. Looking at the horizon stabilizes your posture and helps to distinguish between the movement of your body and the movement of the boat. Perseverance is the determination to maintain your inner posture when things outside of you are changing.

There is no gene for inspiration, just hard work and determination. In short, perseverance is recognizing what you have inside of you, and setting out to make it a reality AND keeping on going even when the odds are stacked against you because you see the big picture. Look for it out at the horizon of possibilities.