06/25/2014 06:26 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Persistence: Are You the Little Engine That Could or Wile E. Coyote?


One of the seven characteristics I've discovered in interviewing successful, happy women over 50 is that they are persistent. Persistence is a good thing, right? You probably heard, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," more times than you care to remember. We're taught at an early age that a big part of success is simply keeping at something. One of the women I interviewed, Sharon, created a highly successful enterprise because she kept walking into local businesses and pitching to them until somebody finally said yes.

Here's the thing, though; sometimes, success comes from giving up. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the fantasy that we should be able to do anything that we never see the reality that every human has limitations. Now, I'm not saying that the minute something doesn't work it's time to move on. With age, though, comes the wisdom to stop, reflect and assess. Is there something you might do differently, or is whatever you've been attempting outside any reasonable expectation of success?

Contrast our old friends the Engine and the Coyote. We all know that Wile E. Coyote will never catch the Road Runner. He doesn't have the speed, the stamina, the wit to accomplish his goal. He'll never be any faster than he is. He'll never be able to run longer. And, unfortunately, he's not nearly as clever as his intended dinner. Wile E. Coyote doesn't see this. He's not reflective (well, after all, he's a cartoon character), so his behavior will never change. The Little Engine, on the other hand, does stop and think about his situation. He knows that he has more strength to draw on. He's willing to test one further push.

I know I've both persisted and walked away. I persisted in a career in organizational development for many years -- probably a few more than most sane people would have lasted -- in part because I'd been raised to believe that you stayed in a job wether you were happy or not. Eventually, I paused, reflected, assessed and quit. The situation was never going to change. Like the Little Engine, I could continue to take on each project and push uphill to make it successful. I could even enjoy those successes. The problem was that I couldn't change the organizational climate that was making me miserable. Like the Coyote, I tried harder and harder for a number of years. I finally realized that and never had a second thought about moving on to what has become a deeply satisfying life.

Sometimes, persistence can be the worst possible choice. It will keep you stuck in a never ending loop. I'd choose informed persistence every time. So, who will you be? Engine or Coyote?