The Fine Line Between “Insanity” and Persistence

There is Japanese proverb which states “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

Indeed, persistence, or that not-so-common ability to persevere in the face of disappointments and setbacks, is one of the key factors that separate those who realize their goals from those who fall short.

Of course there is also that catchy, but annoying saying that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” (Thankfully, I’m not the only one who finds this irksome — admittedly, this other fellow is a psychologist too, but I’ll take what I can get…)

So what are we to make of these seemingly contradictory sayings?

Two types of persistence

There is a fine line between persistence of the “insanity” variety and persistence of the “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” variety in which an individual relentlessly but creatively persists in the attainment of a goal – via multiple avenues that may be off the beaten path.

I came across a photographer’s blog posting, which illustrates how he managed to navigate that line between these two types of persistence. The post chronicles his attempt to gain greater behind-the-scenes access to an NBA basketball team over the course of several years. Please take a moment to read it here.

Persistence + ingenuity + audacity + the kitchen sink > persistence only

As evident from this example, there are times when plain old persistence is not enough, and we need a bit of ingenuity and chutzpah to get over the hump.

I once worked with an individual who, upon finding out that she had not been invited to the audition for her dream job despite making a great screening DVD, resolved to prepare as if she were invited and show up at the audition anyway. After consulting with a few trusted advisors, she proceeded to do exactly that, got the panel to agree to hear her, and played a great audition. She didn’t win the job, but left with no regrets.

Of course, I don’t recommend that everybody start crashing auditions around the country (and if by some chance you do, please don’t say you got the idea here), but this brings up an interesting point about regret and how it may play a role in persistence.

Two categories of regret

When it comes to regret, we can have regrets about two things; a) actions – like asking someone out on a date, or b) inactions – NOT asking that person out on a date.

In the short term, we tend to have regrets about both actions and inactions. We worry about how we’ll feel if we go out on a limb and are rejected, but also worry about the regrets we might have if we chicken out and don’t ask for that really cute barista’s phone number.

Research suggests that the balance of regret shifts as time passes, however. In the long term, our regrets are primarily centered around moments of inaction. We have more regret about the things we didn’t do, than those things we did do (even if they didn’t work out so well). In other words, when you look back on your life, the time you asked someone out on a date but were turned down won’t bother you much. However, that time you met your dream date but never asked them out may gnaw at you, as you can’t help but wonder if that may have been the soul mate you always believed was out there, but never did find.

Take action

Ask yourself if what you are working towards is really worth it to you. If the answer is yes, ask yourself if you have really truly explored every possible avenue that is available to you. Did you really do everything you could have? Chances are, there is more you could do.

Remember that we tend to unfairly weight the consequences of unsuccessful actions in the short term, and make it a habit to engage in more courageous actions on a daily basis.

For instance, given a choice between a familiar restaurant and an unfamiliar restaurant, why not try the new place? Given the choice between saying something to that cute guy at the coffee shop or ignoring him, why not say something? Given the choice between letting loose and really going for it in a performance or playing it safe, why not go for it? As the noted author Wayne Dyer once said, “Don’t die with your music still inside you.”

Remember that on the path towards any goal worth striving for, there are going to be obstacles, and that these obstacles are not there to keep you from reaching your destination, but to discourage the others who don’t want it as badly. It’s an opportunity to prove just how much this goal means to you. These are the moments in which to engage in persistence plus, or that more imaginative, creative, and committed brand of persistence where you simply refuse to be deterred by the hurdles that one finds on any journey worth taking.

The one-sentence summary

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”  ~Abraham Lincoln

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3 Responses

  1. Just wanted to leave a comment saying thank you for writing this blog! I’ve been taking notes on multiple posts here — so much good information! I’ve also forwarded the blog to another musician friend of mine. 🙂

  2. Thank you very much for this great article.
    I especially like the sentence: “Remember that on the path towards any goal worth striving for, there are going to be obstacles, and that these obstacles are not there to keep you from reaching your destination, but to discourage the others who don’t want it as badly. ”
    And may I add: “You’ve already a NO, but you can still get an YES, if you ask for!”

  3. Thanks for putting this up. Every musician needs courage to face the unknown and to persist against all odds-in practice, in performance, in everything. Great article.

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