THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

Are You Persistent Or Just Stubborn?

Over these many months, I have been offering various ideas, thoughts and suggestions on how to create an improved experience of life. (See my free archive for an array of articles.)

The dialogue has been rich, sometimes contentious, and generally forward moving. If you're just joining, we have been looking at the difference between real positive thinking (positive focus supported by positive action) and the kind of rah-rah wishful thinking that many have labeled positive thinking.

If you're wondering how this could become contentious, well, suffice it to say that some people know how to find limitations in just about anything, even something like holding a positive focus!

Of course, part of the challenge is trying to offer something useful in the space of a blog. That gets a bit easier if the reader is looking from the perspective of "how might this work?" It becomes a bit more challenging if the reader is looking to point out examples where something won't work.

Indeed, as I have suggested many times over, these ideas do not, in fact, work. At least, not on their own. Ideas only seem to work when the recipient is willing to engage, not just read and criticize without the benefit of actually applying the idea suggested.

Last week, we took on the notion of resistance, stating that what you resist, you are stuck with. All kinds of comments came in, ranging from agreement, to disagreement, to those who wanted me to know that other people have said something similar before me.

A good question arose, however. What's the difference between resistance and persistence? And where does being stubborn fit in?

How do you know if you are being persistent or just stubborn?

There's an old story about Thomas Edison and the light bulb, a story which may or may not be true. However, the point of the story will probably resonate.

On the way to light bulb, Edison experimented with thousands of different filaments before he settled on a carbon filament that would last for hours. Once the light bulb became somewhat available, the story goes that he was interviewed by a science editor for a major publication. The editor asked Edison how it felt to have failed so many times with the thousands of previous filament experiments. Edison replied something like, "Fail? I give you light bulb!" The editor stubbornly persisted, "but look at all your failures along the way!" To which Edison simply pointed out, "The light bulb had thousands of steps to it along the way. Had I viewed the previous steps as failures, I never would have wound up with light bulb. I just didn't know how many steps there were before we would wind up with light bulb."

Again, who knows if the story is true or not. But the point is still quite valid.

Lao-tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I like to say that he left out an important element: "a thousand mile journey takes all the steps it takes."

What the heck does that mean? Well, the "scientists" out there might measure their average stride, divide into a thousand miles, and come up with some relatively "precise" descriptions of how many steps are required.

However that "logical" approach leaves out something even more obvious and logical: over the course of a thousand mile journey, there just might be an occasional detour along the way: the bridge that is out, the river that is swollen, or simply the beauty of the waterfall just off the trail. Take the detour, ford the river downstream where it is less treacherous, or take time to enjoy the sights, and that journey may wind up with a few more steps to it, and even become a bit longer than a thousand miles.

To the Edisons of the world, or the intelligent traveler, persistence is staying clearly focused on the outcomes, being mindful or obstacles and feedback, and choosing to stay on track. If the critics of holding a positive focus were in charge, you might be reading this on the back of a shaved piece of wood, illuminated by a candle.

Of course, stubborn can look an awful lot like persistence. However, there is a primary difference - at least from the frame of reference that I am using here.

Persistence is characterized by "will power." Stubborn is characterized by "won't power."

Of course, I have just now provided all manner of fodder for the critics again. "Will power" is in quotation marks because it is meant to be a place holder for an idea, the idea of maintaining a sense of direction, commitment and willfulness in terms of doing what it takes to achieve the result. That can all break down if the individual is in some form of delusion about anything from the goal to their ability.

I can be persistent and hold all the positive focus I want on anything from running a 3:40 mile to flying off the top of the building and reality is still going to take hold. Neither of them is at all likely to happen.

So back to the "will power" vs. "won't power" notion. People who hold a positive and realistic focus on an improved circumstance or experience, usually tend to experience something more uplifting, energizing, peaceful, joyful or generally positive as they move forward on their thousand mile journeys. Sure, they can get bummed out by the challenges along the way, but the combination of persistence, positive focus, and realistic expectation combine to produce that more generally uplifting experience.

Those who hold the "won't power" focus, the one we are calling stubborn, may well be energized, but rarely do they experience anything that could be called uplifting, peaceful or generally positive. In fact, they often can experience the power of their negative focus right in their gut.

Want an example? Try saying right out loud, "No I won't." Try it again and this time, raise your voice just a bit, even an elevated whisper will do. "No I won't." Once more and this time, add gritting your teeth as you forcefully assert your "won't power."

Now try saying, "Yes I can." Or "Yes I will." I'm betting that most of you will notice a significant difference in how you feel saying one over the other. Most of us will recognize the constricting nature of "No I won't" while "Yes I will" or "Yes I can" will tend to produce a more uplifting experience.

Do you find yourself resisting life, stubbornly fighting against what is present? Or, are you more positively focused, doing what you can in the face of mounting odds? Do you find yourself looking to improve the quality of your experience or circumstances? Or do you just plain give up?

Next week, we will delve into another aspect of what it takes to change a challenging situation: how to persist, not just resist, and wind up with a life that is thriving, not just surviving.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.