Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
In the age of 4-minute abs, 30-day transformations, liposuction, gastric bypass, internet billionaires who “did it in 2 years,” and various other tales of overnight success, perseverance feels decidedly old-fashioned.
Like something your great-grandparents did. Like the name Wilbert or Hornice, George or Ethel. Like rhubarb and rutabaga. It feels dusty, like some old guy in a straw hat and overalls, out on the farm, clutching some kind of makeshift rag, wiping the sweat off his brow.
In the parlance of the youth, perseverance isn’t very swaggy.
And yet, perseverance is the truth beneath the great lie of our times. Each overnight success is a 10-year grind. Each 4-minute abs success story is backed up by either years of failures or the short-lived gains of steroids.
Because at the end of the day, perseverance, like frugality, manners, work ethic, kindness, and self-sufficiency, isn’t going anywhere. It’s just the facts of life, Simba. It’s just the facts of life.
Perseverance is more than endurance. It is endurance combined with absolute assurance and certainty that what we are looking for is going to happen.
The iPad defines perseverance as steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Let’s pick apart a few of these words.
We’ll start with steadfastness. Steadfast. Resolute. Certainty. Knowing. Knowing is the important synonym here, at least for our purposes on otisfunkmeyer.com. And to the best of our knowledge, knowing always begins with a vision. Having a vision, a real vision, is probably the most important thing that there is if you really plan on having meaningful success. The word meaningful is quite important there, because you can make a lot of money and have a lot of “success” that isn’t due to a vision you are beholden to, and the feeling is fleeting. In fact, it can often feel downright hollow. As though you are living someone else’s life.
Fortunately, meaning is a completely subjective experience. This is all for the better. Because it means that you can do absolutely anything you want. What is far more important than the what is the why. And there is only one right answer to the why: because I have to. I know that this is what I have to do. I don’t KNOW why. I just know I have to.
This knowing is the calm in the storm. As one failure leads to another, as one humiliation leads right into another seeming dead-end, this knowing is what causes you to fight another day. So for God sakes, look within. Stop lying to yourself. Find out what you really want, what you’ve always really wanted. Because as I hope you know, one day you will be a distant memory. And as you lay dying, that will be the question that faces you: Did I do it? Did I even try? Now that this is all over, was I brave or cowardly? Inspirational or a cautionary tale?
Repeated Failure, a Repeated Theme
I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Can you imagine what it feels like to have made it to the pinnacle of achievement in your field–in Michael Jordan’s case, the NBA–and not only that, but to have molded yourself into the preeminent player–and then, when everyone is counting on you to show the world yet again why you’re number one, you miss.
That is a feeling most people spend their lives shying away from. Doing ridiculous amounts of hard work to make themselves the center of attention, and then failing.
Well, as they say, it’s turtles all the way down.
For the reason I bring up Michael Jordan is that most likely if you’re reading this, you’re not yet at Michael Jordan’s level of achievement. So not only are you having to fail in front of people, you don’t even have the confidence of people knowing that you’re a star. You’re just a random person in the world, failing at something. You have nothing to fall back on. You are a nobody, and you suck.
To briefly reiterate the previous section, this is why the vision is so important. The only thing preventing you from wanting to just off yourself now and get it over with is the knowing that you are NOT a nobody. You are SOMEBODY. And you can see it so clearly. You know it. It’s just a matter of actually getting there…
Believe in Yourself, John Lennon
Guitar groups are on the way out…the Beatles have no future in show business.
-Record label rejection letter
You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to be back to drivin’ a truck.
-Message to Elvis Presley, just before his success
The first step before anyone else in the world believes it is you have to believe it. There is no reason to have a plan B because it distracts from plan A.
The Unbearable Heaviness of Rejection
Stephen King is both one of the most successful and most prolific authors of all time. His first novel, Carrie was rejected by thirty publishers when he first submitted it. He was so defeated that he threw the manuscript in the trash. His wife picked it out and forced him to persevere. Lucky number thirty-one was the ticket and the rest, as they so smugly say, is history.
I don’t know about you but that shit sucks. That’s the main reason I write this stuff. To show myself, over and over, what a shitty fate it is. Sending stuff out, putting yourself out there, really trying, and then rejection.
And you can’t say you weren’t trying either. So many times, you can like KIND OF try. KIND OF give it a shot. And then at least you can say you didn’t really care. You only sort of thought that she was cute. You didn’t REALLY want that job anyway.
But this stuff man, it’s brutal. You work hard, you craft something, you revise it, you polish it, you show it to friends and family and trusted advisors, you man up, grab your cojones, and you send it out, and bam. Fuck off. You suck. You should quit. You’re no good. Little kids laughing at you. People pointing at you. Mocking you. And it’s not even in your head. You’re not just delusional. It’s actually happening. People are literally making jokes about you. Taking the time to write you a letter telling you that you should stop. Other people around you finding “success” and there you are, confused and unsuccessful and broke. Holding on to some stupid dream. A dream that keeps encouraging you to just humiliate yourself AGAIN.
Man. What do you say to that? The only thing you can really do is just get all Buddhist and accept what is, let the feelings pass through you, and get up again. Cuz you always have to get up again. No matter what, until that fateful day you stop breathing, you do wake up and you do have to do something.
What I am always amazed by, when I get beyond the flashy tales, is how goddamn much successful people believe in themselves. How they have developed an almost superhuman ability to brush off failure and just keep going. Just. Keep. Going. Despite failure, despite rejection, despite pain.
If it Wasn’t Bad Enough, Success is Also Fleeting
Steve Jobs is like the most famous and inspirational dude around as I write this in mid-2012. He revolutionized three industries (computer, phone, music), he changed the face of consumer design, and he did it in many ways through sheer force of will.
When you look at his life story, the part that sticks out to me so much is the part where he gets fired from the company he not only started but turned into a billion dollar juggernaut. Can you imagine that? All your dreams come true. You are a wild success. You become rich, famous, and have your choice of cars, clothes, castles, and cougars.
And then they fire you.
Another one of my favorite stories in this regard comes from Pete Carroll, perhaps the most winning college football coach of all time. Through a series of bizarre synchronicities, I had the opportunity to meet with Pete several times and ask him about his career. He told me what he told everyone: it’s not whether you reach the top, it’s how long you stay there.
I was suitably inspired.
Much to my chagrin, a year after I met him, all that success he had achieved, much of which it turns out came through cheating, was stripped away from him. He was banned from college football. His titles were taken retroactively taken away. His top players were shamed.
And it made me realize that this life, while incredibly short, is also, at the exact same time, in some kind of trippy yin-yang paradox fractal, incredibly long. And all the good that you do, if it is based in some way on getting over on someone else or taking what seems like the easy path, or “doing what everyone else is doing anyway,” ultimately leads to disgrace and failure.
And so we find that whether hard-won and rightly earned, or hard-won and rightly lost, success is fleeting. There are already grumbles that Apple, the company that Jobs founded and then lost, re-joined and then took from the brink of bankruptcy to become the most powerful corporation on Earth, is losing its way. Less than a year after his death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In Which We Find Success is About Becoming
If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
When Colonel Sanders had his idea for Kentucky Fried Chicken, he was a 65-year old man living off a $100/month Social Security check. Sanders believed that his recipe was good and that people would pay for it. Sanders was right. His 17,000 restaurants grossed $9.2 billion in 2011.
His journey was a slow one however. He was apparently rejected 1009 times before finding someone who took him seriously. Each day, he would sleep in his car and put on his white suit and take meetings, believing that his dream would somehow, some way come to fruition.
If we break this down, if we don’t just look at this as a story to tell someone else or be inspired by or go wow about, but try to place ourselves into that car, getting $100/month, wearing a white suit and sleeping in a car, being rejected again, we can look at this a lot differently.
So the Colonel wakes up and puts on his suit. He has been rejected yet again, but he learned something. He learned a new thing. During the pitch, he saw a point where he lost a potential investor. He worded something wrong. He took too long to get to the point. He focused too much on his idea and not enough on the potential return on investment. He saw the eye glance at the stain on his shirt and felt that the person was never fully listening again after that. So he got a new shirt. He reworded that line. He focused on benefits rather than features. And he went to the next meeting. Again and again. Again and again.
One of the strangest things that has happened to me personally in the past four years is that I’ve started to not only appreciate, but see in my own life, examples of the fact that little successes add up.
I always remember Eintstein’s quote from my childhood that “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world”–meaning, small things add up, dramatically. Exponentially even. This is so hard to recognize early on, because early on the effects of compound interest are hardly even noticeable. You turn $1000 into $1060, which then turns into $1125. You made a hundred bucks in two years. Whoopdie doo. But as years turn into decades, which they surely do, next thing you know that $1000 is like $100,000. It’s like some giant snowball rolling down Mt. Everest. It takes time, but the thing turns into a behemoth.
So to get back to the Colonel, each day the progress is pretty much unnoticeable. Even one year to the next, the changes might be difficult to appreciate. But these small things, day after day, add up. They change you. They become the foundation for the next day. You notice that you didn’t lose the investor at this point–now you lost them at the next point.
And then it happens. One day you don’t lost the investor at all.
The Gateway Drug: It Only Takes One Hit
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed. You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.
One of the strangest aspects of life, when you don’t have a salaried job, and instead are following a dream of some kind–business building, entertainment, sports, art–is that it really just takes one hit in your entire life to have “made it.”
As the story goes, no one remembers Beethoven’s 1000 pretty good symphonies, but the 5th and the 9th, hot damn.
People don’t really care about all the failures. They fade away. They remember the hits. Which leads to the stories of overnight success.
My favorite story in this regard is Fleetwood Mac, a story I first heard form Malcolm Gladwell. Their hit album, Rumours, which is one of the best-selling albums of all time, is generally thought of by most “fans” as their first or second album. It turns out that it was their sixteenth album and was released fifteen years after the band formed and had gone through more than 10 members.
Can you imagine that? Middling success, near success, unremarkable failure after failure for fifteen years. Releasing albums no one cares about. And then overnight you are the biggest band on Earth. And everyone thinks you just “lucked out.” Just “hit it big.”
It’s enough to make a grown woman cry.
Why the F*%* We Do This
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal…requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle…tireless exertions and passionate concern.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
So why do we do this at all? What is the actual point of all this suffering. I mean, I’m as into the Law of Attraction as the next guy, which states that you effortlessly attract experiences into your life that are congruent with the frequency you are emitting. The basic idea is that all this stuff is effortless. You just stay focused on the reality you want and you go about your day, and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, next thing you know you’re living your dreams.
And it’s all true.
But there’s something deeper. This Law of Attraction is probably the most clever bait-and-switch I’ve ever experienced in my life.
They tell you to get clear on what you want. Check. They tell you to allow it in. Check. They tell you to go for it. Check.
And then you find the truth. That you are scared shitless of what you want. You don’t want to let it in. It’s embarrassing. You have to start putting yourself out there. You have to start really living. You have to get out of your comfort zone. And now it’s even worse because you have this dream that feels so good etched into your consciousness. It’s so real you can taste it and you know that there’s no going back; you ate the red pill and your fate is sealed. You can’t unknow the truth about the Matrix.
And so the slow grind begins. You have some amazing successes. They blow your mind. And then you get scared. When you get scared, you start getting blown out. You fail. Publicly. Your nerves are shaken. The clarity of the vision becomes blurry. And then we hit the perseverance point, as we always do.
You then have to get your courage back and go for it again. And you do. And then more success. More fear. More success. More fear. And all the while, you are changing. You are like the glaciers slowly sliding across the American Midwest, carving out the Great Plains. You are being carved out. You are becoming a different person altogether. Slowly. Oh so slowly.
Just fast enough to remain excited, just slow enough for the whole thing to always feel just a bit agonizing.
And the reason for this of course is that you are not what you think you are. You aren’t a human being at all. To risk being insanely cliche, you are a spiritual being have a human experience. And the spiritual being that you actually are has a completely different set of priorities then the little guy you think you are.
It comes here to learn patience, equality, dedication, clarity. And you are just the monkey to carry out the work. The alchemical work of the ages. Turning lead into gold. Turning carbon into diamonds. A process of squeezing and compression, discomfort and pain, suffering and the ever-present possibility of death.
And yet, like the Phoenix, you do seem to always, time and again, rise from the ashes of your former self, stronger, wiser, with more humility, another step closer. Turtles all the way, bruh…
And if you don’t believe me (and frankly, even if you do), watch this:
You, Chiseled Into Steel
I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented…. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy is sleeping, Im working. While the other guy is eating, I’m working.
See, the goal of all of this is for you to become a person worth being. A hard-working, dedicated, confident, strong, loyal, kind, compassionate, aggressive, vigorous, dynamic, creative human. And so like a good exercise program, life progressively increases the weight, forces you to take on new challenges, forces you to push past what you previously thought were your limits, and it hardens you into steel.
A Final Parable
A man meets a guru in the road. The man asks the guru, “Which way is success?”
The berobed, bearded sage speaks not but points to a place off in the distance.
The man, thrilled by the prospect of quick and easy success, rushes off in the appropriate direction. Suddenly, there comes a loud “Splat!!!”
Eventually, the man limps back, tattered and stunned, assuming he must have misinterpreted the message. He repeats his question to the guru, who again points silently in the same direction.
The man obediently walks off once more. This time the splat is deafening, and when the man crawls back, he is bloody, broken, tattered, and irate. “I asked you which way is success,” he screams at the guru. “I followed the direction you indicated. And all I got was splatted! No more of this pointing! Talk!”
Only then does the guru speak, and what he says is this: “Success is that way. Just a little after the splat.”