I’ve often questioned the true power of persistence and its relationship to success. Is it sufficient, necessary, or completely unrelated?
Exploring the Relationship
Sufficiency is an easy test, so I looked for a single instance of an individual who vigilantly persisted without achieving success. It didn’t take long to find a baseball article that specifically talked about some incredible players who never quite made it, despite their persistence. These are men that spent years with a dogged determination to become professional baseball players, yet never quite made it – hard work alone is not enough.
I think that the reason persistence is so often confused with a sufficient condition of success, is due to a couple of factors. In startup entrepreneurship, since that’s what I know, those individuals who achieve the highest success are usually the people who are able to get to the outer edges of a particular technology or field. Once one is able to get to those outer edges, they are able to more accurately identify the opportunities available for innovation. However, due to the increasingly quick pace that knowledge is expanding, getting to the edges becomes harder every day. One of the few surefire ways to get to the edge is through persistence. I contend that anyone who passionately pursues a given topic will eventually find the edges.[1. Combined with a sufficient level of intelligence – but this bar isn’t set very high.]
To test if it’s a necessary condition, is to try and provide even a single instance of the achievement of success, that lacked persistence. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately based upon your moral views of having a good work ethic, there are a plethora of examples that disprove the necessity of persistence. From criminals being set free because of faulty police-work, to people winning the lottery, it’s clear that persistence is not a prerequisite for success. Success can and does take place without persistence.
I think that a hint to the true relationship dynamic between persistence and success, lies in the method I just used to determine that persistence wasn’t a necessary condition of success. To make an argument stating that persistence is not your favored method of obtaining success because examples exist that disprove its necessity, is analogous to saying that wearing a parachute is not your favored method of gliding to the ground when skydiving, because people have succeeded without it.[2. Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade survived a fall of 18,000 ft in 1944 without a parachute.]
Despite the inability to label the relationship as necessary or sufficient, brute persistence can be an incredible force. Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10,000 hour rule in chapter two of Outliers
that provides many examples of great success through repetitive persistence. It states that to become an expert in a given skill, one needs to practice that skill for roughly 10,000 hours.[3. About 20 hours per week for 10 years.]
So is that the answer? Conclude that brute persistence is powerful, but that it’s still no guarantee to be enough? I wasn’t convinced and decided to dig a little deeper. Through some research, I stumbled upon a concept called deliberate practice.
The idea behind deliberate practice[4. I intend on writing an essay specifically on deliberate practice in the near future.] is to investigate the type of practice one undertakes, instead of how long one takes to practice.[5. An interesting take on DP is provided in chapter eight of Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.] For example, a psychological study was conducted that asked a group of violinists how often and what form their practice took. The results of the research showed that the most successful students didn’t practice any more than the not-so-successful students, but instead practiced in a deliberate fashion. Their practice was specifically designed to stretch their abilities. It was methodically calculated to find the edges of what they were capable of, and to push them further.
This is uncomfortable work. It’s a stark contrast to the way that most people practice. Most people will “practice” those skills that they’re already good at because it’s easier. Deliberate practice places a feedback mechanism so that the person practicing can actively monitor how well they’re doing. Most people feel queazy about such monitoring because they’ve now introduced an ability to fail, but this ability to fail could quite possibly be the exact component one needs to take their skill to the next level.
While I don’t have empirical evidence of this, I expect that those baseball players who didn’t quite make the professional league, didn’t fail because they didn’t practice enough, but because of the type of practice they conducted. Everyone wants to practice the things that they’re already good at because being good at something feels good. The next time you go to the golf course with your friends, watch someone that you know well on the driving range. Are they practicing those skills that you know them to already be good at, or struggling with the ones that they’re poor at?[6. Since most people are poor at it, count how many people practice sand shots – I’m usually surprised to see 1 in 20.]
I suspect that those baseball players that focused on the parts of their game that they were poor at, instead of doing things that they were already good at, performed much better overall in their career.
Perhaps a more accurate depiction of the relationship between success and persistence, is an individual’s ability to identify what areas of focus, and what feedback mechanisms, will yield the highest return. Their ability to develop and maintain a persistent level of deliberate practice, instead of just continuing to do what they’re already good at, is a more critical indicator of achieving their purpose.
I propose that dedicating a small percentage of one’s time to examining the results of what they’re doing, tracking their progress, instituting new feedback mechanisms, and questioning whether it is the most efficient method of obtaining one’s goal, would greatly increase the efficiency and probability of achieving one’s purpose.
Follow me on Twitter @startuprob. Thank you to Dr. Kenneth Janson and @exploremqt (Jim Argeropoulos) for giving their valuable feedback on this essay.