Persistence – the simple key to success
I started sending my writing out for publication or sending out queries, while I was still in college: little blurbs on backpacking food and political rock climbing issues. I was willing to write for free.
I look at the then and the now, and the one thing I know for certain is that the primary reason I am well published is because of persistence. Because, month after month, year after year, decade after decade I keep writing and I keep sharing, and after 20 odd years the successes add up. But if I’d gotten tired of it and given up after five years, or six years, or ten years, that would have garnered a different outcome. Now, I’m not suggesting that I have fabulous powers of persistent perseverance, because the truth is, writers always write because it’s inherent to who they are. We just keep writing because that’s what we feel like doing, but the lesson, the clarity this brings to me in hindsight, and that I bring to you, is that any time you can just keep going, you will get there. Whatever the reason you keep going–maybe it’s because you are doggedly determined and disciplined, maybe it’s because you are simply compelled to keep on keeping on, like I was, or more likely there is some other “why” that moves you forward, but consistent persistent forward movement, WILL get you there. There is just simply something to be said for not giving up. One step after another will eventually get you to the top of the mountain. That’s a fact. Today’s episode is about the rewards of downright dogged persistence. The key to the door of success.
Stories are our lives in language. Welcome to the Love Your Story podcast. I’m Lori Lee, and I’m excited for our future together of telling stories, evaluating our own stories, and lifting ourselves and others to greater places because of our control over our stories. This podcast is about empowerment and giving you, the listener, ideas to work with in making your stories work for you. Story Power serves you best when you know how to use it
Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
What is persistence? It’s starting, it’s continuing even when it gets hard, it is the courage to keep trying after you’ve faced defeat or exhaustion. It’s continued forward movement even when the payoff is not in sight. It takes focus and vision to carry on, day after day with any task or plan from which immediate rewards are not garnered. Persistence is not a trait found in the weak because it’s not easy, therefore not everyone persists. But, it is the foundation of accomplishment. It’s the key that often separates the ones who make it to the top, and those who do not.
Let me share a story that I like to call One Grand Night – it contains some grand vistas, a grand sunrise, and some grand pain.
Most mountaineers follow a protocol involving permits, backpacks with carefully selected gear, and physical preparation before climbing a mountain. Not us. It is our year to summit The Grand, the tallest peak of the Grand Teton Range in Wyoming, and after too many near cancellations of the trip because of logistics, Chad calls and says, “Let’s leave now, we’ll climb all night and summit at sunrise. We won’t even need a permit if we can do it without camping.” And so we do.
It is eleven p.m. by the time we arrive at the trailhead, 5 hours away,–Lupine Meadows parking lot. The lot is filled with cars, SUV’s, trucks, and vans, the moon reflecting off the dark metal bodies lined like waiting soldiers for their hikers to return. It is high season in the Tetons and climbers must wait in line for a backcountry camping permit on the way up any one of the peaks: The Grand Teton, the Middle and South Tetons, the Nez Perce, Mount Owen, Mount Moran, or Teewinot. During an ancient ice age, glaciers covered Jackson Hole and carved the jagged range with 3000 feet of ice melt. We do not see the white glacier fields we climb by in the dark, but we hear the waterfalls and the river dumping down the mountain, looking for peace in one of the many lakes dotting the range. By summiting in one day we will forgo the permit process, our headlamps illuminating small circles of rock as we make our way up the trail, up the rocks, up the chimneys, up the mountain. As we climb I look into the dark at my left, yellow eyes catch the reflection of my headlamp. They are big and bold and stare as if they know we cannot see them. They are unflinching as we make our way past.
There is not much story to tell. It is the same grueling thing step after step. Straight up. The trail up the Grand is not filled with switchbacks or meanders. At 2:30 a.m. we pass a team heading down trail. “The climbing is great,” they say, their headlamps lighting our faces as ours light theirs. They don’t want to stay on the mountain because they are hungry. One says, “We would rather be tired than tired and hungry.” We exchange beta, offer food, and pass with well wishes. It is not long before other teams start waking, preparing for the summit. In the dark we are all easy to spot, headlamps pierce the darkness with yellow and blue light. We gauge how close we are to the next team, how much faster we need to move to stay ahead. By the time we get to the Upper Saddle I am picking my legs up one at a time, very, very, slowly. Chad is well ahead. He is more worried about another team passing us. I say, “let them.” I can hardly walk. We’ve been pushing non-stop for hours up a consistent incline to the top of one of the most beautiful and rugged ranges in the West. It is still dark and this is the last stretch until we are directly in assault of the peak itself. So far we have done 7 up-hill miles in six hours. Lines of headlamps twist their way up the trail behind us. It is interesting to watch the snake of lights curving its way slowly up the mountain. It provides a pulse of life, an urgency. Other people are going for the summit.
At times I lay against rocks trying to slow my breathing to an aerobic state. When we were still in the trees I stopped and wrapped my arms around a pine, every now and again, let it hold me up until my breathing slowed; I turned and stepped back onto the trail, one leg after the other, again. It is a race the way we push each other, and it is not a race, the way we each have to find our own way up the mountain.
The light on the eastern horizon is a strip of purple and orange glowing through a mist from the lakes. Oh, there are lakes. From this vantage point of nearly 13,000 feet, we have the view of gods. Below us, down thousands of vertical cliff feet and farther still, the remnant lakes dot the curvatures of the range. Jenny Lake, String Lake, Surprise Lake, Amphitheatre Lake, and lakes for which I don’t know the names. Off the west side of the Upper Saddle, the exposure becomes extreme. Cliff walls tan and sheer, fall away as if this is the chute to the middle of the world, it just drops and drops and drops into cliffs very far below. I sit on a boulder staring to the west, doing homage in this cathedral, the light of morning pressing its fingers just far enough into the sky behind me that I can see where I may fall. When I climb or even look along cliff walls of this magnitude I cannot help but picture my body tumbling down, cartwheel style, to a bottom I would only know for an instant. I like to think I would have the presence of mind to tuck and flip, make some graceful and impressive aerobatic moves on my way out. Maybe flap my arms and think about flying, like Icarus, feeling the wind in my hair, knowing how close I am to heaven.
I’m interrupted as a guide and his client make their way up behind us, so I move, head to Bellycrawl, a horizontal flake along the abyss itself. This, Chad moves across, unprotected, one hand and toehold at a time. There is no margin for error and I am a mother with two small sons. I remove my pack, send it over to Chad and straddle the flake. I am more secure with all four appendages as an anchor. Today is not the day for a swan dive. We can do dangerous, but we can do dangerous carefully.
At 6:45 a.m. we position the camera for our timed summit shot. Chad photos the steel disk embedded in the rock: 13,770 feet; Grand Teton. We are here on the top of the world to watch the sun roll. It is color and brightness, the haze across the range is light infused, and we are so tired this seems like the right place to nap, the right place to curl up with the wind and the sun, settle into exhausted dreams of jacuzzis and foot massages. Alas, we have two repels and 9 downhill miles on which to torture our knees, ankles, and toes before such frivolity. But for now, we sit at the top, the hard-fought summit, and watch the sun rise on the world in all its orange, yellow and purple glory. For 30-minutes we are exultant. We are gods looking down on creation. We are exhausted and a little giddy, and we are on the top!!!
This would be a nice place to end the story, but contrary to the Disney adaptation of fairy tales, there is life after the happily ever after.
As we keep on keepin on, we must now return to the car. Having not brought hang gliders we must return the way we came, via foot. There is another day’s work ahead of us, and as the exhausted often do, we become giddy. Before we reach the car, we are spouting stupid remarks and giving other mountaineers the superhero sign we have invented on the way down. It is the secret sign we give when we see a helmet and gear that tells us they are going to a peak, not just a lake or an afternoon walk to the Meadows. Chad creates his superhero persona and admits he will wear green tights with a yellow lightening rod on a helmet. His superhero name is In-Cognito. Now, looking back, the whole thing makes no sense whatsoever – so don’t expect it to, but at the time it was hilarious. I decided I would be a superheroine fairy with purple gold wings. This makes even less sense than Mr. In-Cognito, but if I could have flown down that mountain my feet would have been much happier.
We created weird story scenarios, and the closer we got the more tired and sore we became, the rawer my feet got. The last two miles to the car were the hardest of the trip. “Focus on a goal,” Chad said, “something you want at the car.” I waddled down the trail saying my high school locker combination over and over in my mind. It’s just a thing I do when endurance is required.
2:15 pm, we hit the car and I grab the keys, start the air conditioner, dump a bottle of water over my head and take off my shoes. I sit riverside and wash the blisters and grime on my toes, ice water numbing the pain with a different kind of pain.
With my wet butt back in the driver’s seat the trip becomes epic, as they always do. Chad sleeps and I drive to Village Inn for banana-brownie pie and a really bad Philly-beef sandwich.
“Ain’t life Grand,” I say to myself as I pull out onto the road and drive past the big brown sign that says Grand Teton National Park. I look up at the peak we were just sitting on, and it seems impossible and possible all at the same time. So far up, so majestic, so rugged. Just one step – sometimes brisk, sometimes dragging, sometimes compensating for a blister, one step at a time, through the pain, the danger, the exhaustion, and the unknown. That’s how you make it to the top of a mountain. And if you stop, you will not see the sunrise over the world, or feel the satisfaction of a fight well fought, you won’t sit with God in a moment of knowing. That’s just the way it is.
There are a lot of things in life that take persistence. Hobbies, careers, relationships, fitness, heck…persistence is the key to actually making things happen. Not giving up. You want to get published? You want to get to the top of the mountain? You want to get fit? You want a good relationship? You want to ski that line? Learn to catch fish? Become something you’re proud of? Teach your kids to read? Get your kid raised? Run that marathon? It’s going to take persistence. In a world that is filled with immediate gratification, and a culture that almost demands it, persistence may be something we need to think about a little more because it’s so much a part of being the hero. Your story isn’t going to have many action-packed moments if at resistance and roadblocks you just sit down or turn around.
I want to share a passage with you from the book The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake. On page 119 there is a passage where an American reporter is over in England, boots on the ground, reporting via radio what’s going on during WWII and the blitzkrieg bombing of England. She is retelling a scene she’s lived through.
“Yesterday evening I found myself once again on my stomach, flattened to the sidewalk for protection after a close call. Nothing had been hit nearby but the sound had been deafening and there are always the three or four seconds right after a bomb when you are too shaky to stand. After a little while, I pushed myself up, first to my knees, and then slowly to my feet. Across the way on the other side of the street, two boys, about ten years old, had pulled themselves off the ground also and were busy trying to back their frightened horse in the stays of their delivery cart. Come, they cajoled, weeping, wiping their tears on their sleeves, Come on, the boys patted and murmured, though they couldn’t stop their own sobs. And slowly, ever so slowly, the animal calmed and stood. Sniffling, the boys climbed up on the cart, clucked and jerked the reins, and went off again down the street.
Waiting and watching. Weeping into your sleeves – those are not the traits of heroes, neither Ulysses, nor Aeneas, and not Joshua. Think, rather, of Penelope. Think of all the women down through the years who have watched and waited, but who, like the boys with their horse, wept and picked themselves up and went on—and you will have a small sense , then, of the heroes here. The occupied, the bombed, and the very, very, brave. This is Frankie Bard, in London, Goodnight.” The character in the book, listening to the radio broadcast stood back from the radio and crossed her arms—she was fairly sure that the radio gal had just redefined the nature of a hero.” –Getting back up, and continuing on.
Sometimes persistence is about making it through tragedy. Like the war. Sometimes persistence is about being able to keep trying so you reach your goal, create what you have decided to create. Sometimes persistence is about retraining your neural pathways to change behavior or thought patterns for better living, for creating habits you want, not habits that have grabbed you and hung on. Sometimes persistence is just waking up every day, putting your feet on the ground, and trying again for whatever feels valuable to you.
While persistence can be seen as the drudgery of pushing through pain and resistance, we can also choose to find a perspective with a little more pizzaz – that persistence is about bravery, about power, about hero stuff. Find a way to insert the fun, and gratitude in your persistent path. What might that look like?
Maybe it involves imagining a superhero costume and dashing, or limping forward on the trail of life, but with the knowledge that what you’re doing is moving from average to greatness, from stagnant to motile, from hoping to doing.
In the book Lead with Story, Paul Smith shares this rendition of President Abraham Lincoln’s life events. I share it again here because President Lincoln could be the poster boy for persistence. He was a man of tremendous resistance to the ravages of life. A man of earned wisdom. And he is one of our countries greatest heroes, and yet his story is one that must have required phenomenal fortitude of heart and mind. A real hero. Let’s take another glimpse at his life:
“When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home and off their farm. Like other boys his age, he was expected to work to help support the family. When he was nine, his mother died. At age of 22, the company he worked for went bankrupt and he lost his job. At 23, he ran for state legislature in a field of 13 candidates. He came in eighth. At 24, he borrowed money to start a business with a friend. By the end of the year, the business failed. The local sheriff seized his possessions to pay off his debt. His partner soon died, penniless, and he assumed his partner’s share of debt as well. He spent the next several years of his life paying it off. At 25, he ran for state legislature again. This time he won. At 26, he was engaged to be married. But his fiancée died before the wedding. The next year he plunged into a depression and suffered a nervous breakdown. At 29, he sought to become the speaker of the state legislature. He was defeated. AT 34, he campaigned for a U.S. congressional seat, representing his district. He lost. At 35, he ran for Congress again. This time he won. He went to Washington and did a good job. At 39, when his term ended, he was out of a job again. There was a one term limit rule in his party. At 40, he tried to get a job as commissioner of the General Land office. He was rejected.
At 45 he campaigned for the U.S. Senate, representing his state. He lost by 6 electoral votes. At 47, he was one of the contenders for the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention. He lost. At 49, he ran for the same U.S. Senate seat a second time. And for a second time he lost. Two years later, at the age of 51, after a lifetime of failure, disappointment, and loss (and relatively unknown outside of his home state of Illinois) Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. He served only four years in office before his final defeat at the hands of an assassin. But, during those 4 years, President Lincoln successfully led the country through its greatest internal crisis, the American Civil War, preserved the Union; ended slavery; and rededicated the nation to the ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy. So the next time you think about quitting because you’ve already tried and failed, ask yourself this How different would the country be if Abraham Lincoln had stopped trying after his first defeat….or his fifth….or his tenth.”
Who you are and what you are here to do, is most often unknown. Some people have a clarity about this, a sense they are following, but I’m certain President Lincoln had no idea he was destined to become the lynchpin that held the United States of America together, nor did he understand the stress, strain, and utter depletion it would require to do what had to be done, day by day, hour by hour, decision by decision. But he moved on, one step after another, and he changed the world.
Who knows what you are here to do, or what I am here to do. Or the impact of our actions and choices, our sacrifices and our efforts. You’ve heard of the butterfly effect – how a butterfly flapping his wings on one side of the world can affect the weather on the other side of the world. It’s often used as a metaphor to illustrate how small things can have large effects. When we keep going, it matters. When we give up, it matters, we just don’t always know in what ways it matters.
If you’re working on a project, a talent, a relationship, a business, beating an addiction…a mountain to climb, remember that if you keep taking the steps up the mountain, you will get to the top. Don’t give up. You can do it!
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