I have always considered myself to be a very persistent person.
It was something my dad instilled in me early on.
For most of my life, I’ve been proud of my persistent and tenacious approach—until recently.
Several years ago, I was planning a trip to South America.
We would visit the Galapagos, Machu Pichu, and Patagonia—staying for about a week in each location; the trip of a lifetime.
I had been planning my own adventure vacations for more than a decade, and I eagerly looked forward to coordinating every meticulous detail, making each reservation, and linking each leg of the journey.
One morning I woke up to news that heavy rains had hit Peru, triggering massive landslides that closed all roads to the famed Inca citadel.
I was devastated. The trip was only weeks away.
As my vacation drew near, I became more frantic. I made a huge list of tour companies and began calling and emailing—trying to find anyone who might have access.
When I hit a dead end with buses and trains, I began looking into hiking trips. When the guided hiking trips said it wasn’t safe, I began searching for private helicopter charters that would land there. When that failed, I found one helicopter company that said they “might” be able to fly us over without landing. Needless to say, the cost was enormous.
I called my best friend who was traveling with us to give him the “good news” that my persistence had finally paid off, and we could at least “see” Machu Pichu.
I didn’t get the reaction I was hoping for. His voice sounded more shocked than impressed by my incredible fortitude.
That is when I realized the beginning of an important life lesson.
Only after our phone call did I realize that all my persistence had fueled a growing sense of fear, desperation, and agitation as the trip approached. Instead of feeling gratitude and excitement for the upcoming adventure, I had grown increasingly frustrated and bitter.
Up until that time, I had always used extreme persistence to overcome challenges in my life.
But was persistence always the right tool?
Was it always something to be applauded and celebrated?
Forcing the solution
In his amazing book Sabbath, author Wayne Muller describes an interview with Hans-Peter Durr, who collaborated with renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg for over twenty years.
Durr said that the two of them would often stay up late into the night, talking excitedly about a problem from every conceivable angle, and just when the solution seemed within their reach, Heisenberg would abruptly say, “Wait, I think we have touched on something important here, let’s not talk about this anymore, let’s wait and let it solve itself.”
The genius of his simple statement was like sandpaper to my Western American mind. It went against everything I knew to be true up until that point in my life. In an instant, my philosophical framework of persistence had been cracked.
Why stop when the solution was so close?
Heisenberg is known for introducing the Uncertainty principle, also known as Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which states that the we cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle, such as a photon or electron, with perfect accuracy; the more we nail down the particles position, the less we know about its speed and vice versa (don’t ask me to explain it more than that!).
Heisenberg went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1932, and is credited with the “creation of quantum mechanics.”
After reading this story, I realized that often the best solutions do not come from forcing. They do not come from dogged determination. They might only arise when we cease striving, when we are finally still.
Reflecting on the planning I did for my South America trip, I realized that my persistence was actually a form of resistance. A stubborn refusal to accept reality as it was. And I nearly allowed it to ruin what was still the adventure of a lifetime.
Sometimes, acceptance actually requires much more stamina and will, than persistence. Only in letting go, can we create the space to see things from a new perspective.
The wisdom to know the difference
Clearly, many good things come from being persistent. But sheer persistence is not the only way to go about things. The older I get, the more apparent this becomes.
A few weeks ago, I met with a mentor of mine. Over the years, he has shared many things that I have found frustrating at the time, only to later discover their deep and profound truth. Time has illuminated their meaning.
In our conversation, he reminded me of the opening lines of the Serenity Prayer, which states, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Whether leading our lives, our families, or a business—there is great wisdom in knowing when to persist, and when to stop persisting. When to strive, and when to be still. When to press on, and when to chart a new course.
We must learn to recognize that tricky point at which persistence turns into resistance.
As you go into this weekend, I invite you to reflect on the following questions, ideally with your journal:
- How can you tell when you are forcing something?
- What are the warning indicators that you notice when you should stop, instead of pushing through?
- At what times in your life has the solution come when you finally stopped persisting?
- Are you currently facing any circumstances or situations right now that life may be inviting you to accept instead of repeated attempts to change them? What would happen if you fully accepted that situation, what new possibilities could it bring?
Have a great weekend!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
Want more? Suggested Resources Below
- Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives—Wayne Mueller