Perseverance

May 7, 2008

Firstly and most importantly, I have absolutely no idea why this post is titled ‘whales and dolphins, yeah’. Does everyone else get this but me?

It’s got me thinking about perseverance, though. Perseverance is a character strength, and as such, Peterson & Seligman would have one believe that it’s an inherent trait. Maybe it can be improved a bit, but not much.

Personally, I think that’s bollocks.

I’m also someone who’s never had to work hard. I either aced all my classes in school or ignored them. I have a truckload of A grades and a non-trivial handful of Fs (ask me what mark I got on my first year undergrad paper in Fluid Mechanics), but very little in between. And then, of course, I left college and started in the world of work and had to learn how to work from scratch at twenty.

I do not recommend this, let me tell you. I pulled a lot of entirely unnecessary all-nighters because I had no idea how to work. I was great at displacement activity of all kinds – my filing systems were always perfect. Actually getting stuff done, not so much. And I never really nailed it. Fifteen years in the workplace and only a looming deadline could shift me off my arse.

This has been pernicious for me in quite a few ways.

On the surface, it’s stopped me doing a lot of stuff I’d love to do, professionally and in my personal life, because I’ve been so scared of the learning process. I’ve become convinced that I can’t do new things. I’ve turned down jobs because I’d have had to learn new things – things that I would now love to be able to do. I paid my builders a lot more than I needed to because I refused to engage with them and therefore they obviously ended up doing a lot more than they had to do. Et cetera.

But it’s also had a deeper effect. It’s stopped me from acting like a grown up. I’ve used ‘I can’t learn new stuff’ as an excuse to let me stay a victim. And then I found countless opportunities to prove myself correct. I made myself and my then boyfriend miserable because I ‘couldn’t’ learn skiing. Yeah, right.

About seven months ago, I started writing an inventory at the end of the day. Very boring stuff – what I’ve eaten, what I’ve spent, what I’m grateful for, how I’ve behaved, what I need to fix, and so on. It takes me ten minutes on a good day, fifteen if I’m not concentrating. And I’ve done it almost every day. There are now over two hundred entries.

And it’s changed my life.

It’s changed my life because I’ve learned that I can change myself. I can persevere.

I spent thirty years believing that I would never change. There are things I do really well (mathematical logic, talking, buying clothes) and things I do really badly (relationships, physical activity, computers) and this is fixed in time for ever and ever. And one of the things I did really badly was doing what I said I would do, sticking to things, perseverance. I would never have believed that I could decide to write an inventory and do it, and keep doing it. But I have.

So I don’t believe I’m fixed in time any more. And because of this, I’m changing other things too. I’m changing things I thought I was stuck with for ever and ever, like talking and eating too fast, like being anxious and stressed all the time, like relying on other people to fill the holes in my self-esteem. I’m becoming happier than I ever thought possible.

Roy Baumeister’s research on self-regulation shows that it’s like a muscle. If we flex it regularly, it grows and we become stronger. Self-regulation in one area of our lives overflows into all the other areas. People who stick to an exercise regime can become more punctual. People who cut an unhealthy habit or substance out of their lives can become more disciplined in their work life. Et cetera. My inventory has led me to change in every aspect of my life.

We can learn to persevere. It’s never too late.

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9 Responses to “Perseverance”

  1. Sarah Jane Says:

    It’s a lyric from a song called ‘Perseverance’ by Terrorvision.

    More when I’ve read the rest of the post.

  2. Sarah Jane Says:

    And actually engaging with your post…

    I’ve never really seen myself as fixed in the way you describe. In fact, for me part of the process of the last few years has been discovering the extent to which I still am the same person as I was when I was 17 (seriously; half my life ago and in many ways the way I feel at the moment is closer to how I felt than to how I’ve felt at any other time since). I’ve always known I could grow and change and learn to do new things. One of the things I most want to keep doing in my life is learning new things!

    So I think that the barrier I’m currently breaking through is a bit different from yours. My first instinct, when confronted with something I don’t know, is to go and find out about it. I read novels set in foreign countries with an atlas to hand; historical novels make me go and research the period. Google and wikipedia have changed my life for the better in so many ways. But what I’m having to do here is find out what it is I don’t know before I can even start figuring out how to rectify that.

  3. Alithea Says:

    Timely advice for me – I feel like I used up my lifetimes supply of perseverance to complete my PhD but it’s been 4 years now so I really need to find it again! Maybe I should try that inventory thing too…

  4. Francesca Says:

    Reply to Alithea:

    I don’t think it matters what you try. That was just the thing I stuck at. I didn’t choose it – I just realised on some level that I absolutely had to stick at this. So I did. It’s all quite random. I think that anything would have done.

  5. Francesca Says:

    Reply to SJ:

    seriously; half my life ago and in many ways the way I feel at the moment is closer to how I felt than to how I’ve felt at any other time since

    I’m finding it somewhat embarrassing to admit to myself that for most of my fifteen years in the workplace I’ve felt closer to six than thirty-six. But that insight is what’s making it possible for me to think about doing things differently.

    I think that the Internet is good at finding out about data. I’m not sure you’re talking about a challenge at the data level, are you?

  6. Sarah Jane Says:

    No, not data. Nor even information. Finding data and converting it to information are the things that have always come easily to me. Which works quite well in a professional sense – taking financial data and converting it into management information is pretty much exactly what a management accountant does. The trouble is, it very quickly stops being any kind of a challenge – I take the same figures from the same place and end up writing almost exactly the same report on them month after month. And one of the things I have the opportunity (and the remit, really) to do here is to develop and improve the provision of financial information – but no-one really knows what information they want. And that means that I have to work out what questions I need to ask before I can start to try to figure out how to answer them.

    One of the reasons I’d like to do that MSc is because it would give me the opportunity to do in-depth research into possible ways of embedding management accounting practices (which were designed as an aid to cost control in manufacturing industry) to the not-for-profit service sector…

  7. Uncle Simon Says:

    The NYT has a good article on this..

    Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/business/04unbox.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin

  8. Kate Says:

    My best grad school friend and I were talking yesterday, and she forwarded the idea that to be able to change you life, you have to accept your life as it is right now.

    Her example, a divorced friend is negotiating with his ex for more time with their daughter. He’s getting lots of grief in the process. K’s observation was, if you aren’t grateful for and enjoying the time you have, and aware of how some other father’s haven’t even that, you’ll struggle much harder to move constructively towards your goals.

    Was wondering what you two would think of that?

  9. patrickhadfield Says:

    What’s the link between perseverance and resilience? Because I feel resilient, but often not perseverent, in that some battles are not worth fighting.

    What is important and what is not? It makes sense to persevere for the important stuff and not waste time on what isn’t.


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