07/25/2014 04:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Pursuit of Persistence


Nature is persistent I think as I observe the plantlets pushing their fragile stems and leaves between stones and bricks embedded in the ground surrounding a New York City tree.

Persistence is the pursuit of a goal in spite of obstacles and is a key element to success. But if persistence is so important, why doesn't it come more naturally, like breathing for example?

Observe the infant: He instinctively struggles to sit up and walk and talk. But beyond early life, many of us loose our natural forward thrust or have trouble maintaining it.

Curiosity and motivation help us persist, but to this day these attributes -- how to nurture and who possesses them -- for the most part, remain mostly mysterious.

What factors influence our drive to persist? Perhaps instead of encouragement along the way, we're exposed to criticism that inhibits our progress. By contrast, an appreciative audience can spur us on like a favorable tail wind.

For example, Ms. S. was raised by a critical mother and a praising father. The contradictory messages led to confusion and doubt and interfered with her goal to become a singer. Before she persisted, she had to become aware of her thoughts and conflicted self-perception that blocked her progress.

Obstacles include fears of many kinds. For example, fear of failure as well as of success. Either case portends change which humans in general shun.

Staying with negative, uncomfortable emotions -- whatever these may be -- from doubt to fear of isolation- plays a role in persistence. Leonard Bernstein, one of the great orchestra conductors of the 20th century and a composer of celebrated musicals like West Side Story, struggled with his fear of isolation. Spending time alone, a necessity in the creative process, was agony for him. He struggled with the question of whether he should devote his energy to composing or to conducting. In a letter to a college roommate, he wrote, "You may remember my chief weakness-my love for people. I need them all the time -- every moment.... I cannot spend one day alone without becoming... depressed" (The Leonard Bernstein Letters edited by Nigel Simeone). Composing was so "lonely" for him, and yet he occasionally sacrificed companionship and persisted in his craft, and in doing so, left a lasting imprint on the American psyche.

Conclusion: Persistence includes enduring discomfort and facing our negative feelings.