Persistence Is Underrated

By Steve McKee

A few months ago, I had occasion to attend a two-game homestand of one of the NBA’s worst teams. The games were mirror images of one another; a competitive first half, followed by a mid-third-quarter collapse of the host. Once the team got seven points or so down, it basically just quit and ended up losing by double digits. The fan I sat next to said the performance was typical.

A few weeks ago, I met with a friend who was feeling bored and restless at work. She was frustrated, discouraged and envisioning the green grass that she might find over yonder fence. As we talked things through it became apparent to me that if she stuck with it, circumstances would soon change in such a way that would rekindle her vision and open up new avenues of opportunity for herself and others. Hopefully, it became apparent to her as well.

And a few days ago, I spent a day working a client team through a difficult moment. We had come a long way in identifying the organization’s strategic direction, developing a plan of attack and patiently, steadfastly making it come about. The team is now mired in the dog days of plodding through, wondering when the slog will end. My perspective as an outsider enabled me to see what they couldn’t: a breakthrough is right around the corner. A well-timed word of encouragement may have been all they needed to finish the course.

What all three of these situations have in common, of course, is a turning point, a crossroads, a proverbial “moment of truth.” Sooner or later in every story the protagonist is faced with a fateful, consequential decision that sets the table for everything that happens next. In a movie or novel, it’s entertaining. In real life, it can be terrifying. And the easiest thing to do is look for an escape. In fact, ditching your jet, abandoning your spouse or chucking your job is often romanticized.

Emerson, memorably, put it this way: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

There’s something about that turn of phrase (not to mention the boredom, fear, frustration and other nagging emotions that accompany moments of truth) that makes a dramatic change in direction feel poetic. But note the adjective in the admonition; while consistency can indeed be “foolish,” more often than not I’ve found it to be wise.

In fact, consistency in business is one of four internal dynamics my firm’s research has demonstrated correlates highly with sustained growth. When organizations persevere in pursuing their core competencies, they get increasingly better at what they do, steadily build reputational equity, and little by little, bit by bit make their value propositions increasingly unassailable. The same goes for the leaders that run them.

Those that struggle, by contrast, often find themselves casting about in search of silver bullet solutions. They waste resources, confuse their customers, discourage their employees and have no chance of achieving sustained momentum. More opportunistic than strategic, they’re easily tempted by the false promise of the next thing.

Sometimes you just want to chuck it all and start over. I get it. But when you start over, you’re starting over. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” and the more I see and learn, the more I agree. In fact, in a moment of truth it’s possible that showing up is 100% of success.

I first began writing a monthly column not only because I enjoy it, but because I thought it might be good for business. Six months in I hadn’t received a single call. Six months later, still not a nibble. Six months after that, I faced a moment of truth when someone sensed that I had my doubts and challenged whether the time I was spending was worth it.

But I kept at it, and I’ll never forget the moment in a Midwest parking lot when I received a call from a prospect (who has since become a friend). He read something I wrote and thought I might be able to help his company. That was 14 years ago, and since that time I’ve written hundreds more columns, published two books and earned enough business from that one company alone to justify the investment.

Much has been made of the 10,000-hour rule, the principle made prominent by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. Pundits debate the number and split hairs about what “expert” really means, but it’s indisputable that in the pursuit of excellence there’s no replacement for repetition. What’s true of a chess champion, a master chef or a violin virtuoso is true of all of us: even prodigies need practice.

We’re all faced with turning points. We all come to crossroads. We’re all tempted by the siren songs of change. It’s easy to chuck things and start over. But it’s rarely wise. Even Google rewards consistency; the best way to move a website up in search rankings is to build depth, not breadth. It takes time to develop a respected reputation.

You never know when perseverance will pay off. But it will pay off. Perhaps not always in prosperity, but in proven character, which does not disappoint. If you’re facing a moment of truth in your company, your career or even your marriage, ponder this truth for a moment: Change may appear romantic, but persistence is usually right. And much more rewarding in the long run.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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