06/09/2014 01:55 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Don't Quit

A friend recently shared with me a story from her karate days. As she and her cohort began to feel frustrated that they remained brown belts, their black belt still elusive, their instructor gathered them together in a somewhat conspiratorial cluster. "Do you want to know the secret to getting a black belt?" he asked. They all eagerly nodded their heads, waiting to receive this important information, perhaps a new skill they had yet to learn.

"Don't quit," the instructor replied.

There's a lot of wisdom in that.

Many years ago, The San Diego news carried an informative article about "hell week," part of the training that all Navy Seals go through. I still remember feeling sympathetic pain as I read of the many grueling days that the men had to run through varying terrain and water, at times developing sores on their feet but continuing to press on, and the torturous hours they had to lie in the sand with the surf pounding against them.

Almost no sleep, little food or water, and continuous exertion wore even the strongest and determined men down. And as they weakened, their commanders would tell them that it was okay to quit -- that all they had to do was quit and they would get food and rest. Clearly, a Seal cannot quit.

I recently had the pleasure of watching a very bright and capable first year medical student perform his first complete history and physical exam. It was part of the testing that assesses what he's learned during the year and he was nervous. When asked how he felt the experience went, he admitted to feeling awkward and to being disappointed that he hadn't performed perfectly. As the writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton, the "prince of paradox," once remarked, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

If we want to succeed at anything, we usually have to tolerate a period of incompetence and awkwardness if we want to get better at it. Malcolm Gladwell advises that it actually takes 10,000 hours of practice to become masterful. In fact, many skills can be learned in far less time but rarely can we acquire them without work, discomfort, or frustration.

As we work toward a new goal or competence, it can be daunting and discouraging if we only focus on what we still don't know or have yet to master. When we're climbing a hill, if we only look up to where we are going the peak always seems so far away. Periodically it helps to turn around and look back at where we came from. Acknowledge how far we've already come. What have we learned so far -- about the task, the obstacles, and ourselves? What resources or personal strengths have helped us get as far as we've already gotten? What do we need to continue doing? What might we do differently?

And then turn back and just don't quit.