The Power of Persistence
What can this squirrel teach us about persistence?
I went camping last weekend, out in the mountains among pine trees, campfires, and squirrels. As I sat in full, mindful enjoyment of the environment, I noticed that the squirrels around me never stopped. They paused to chatter at me or each other, they kept their awareness of their environment, avoiding the fire and the humans. They were focused on gathering food for the winter and they never lost their objective, even when distracted for a moment by other squirrels or curious dogs.
Did you know that there are an estimated 1.12 biliion squirrels in the U.S., alone? I may not be a biologist, but I am willing to hazard a guess that it has something to do with their persistence. They never stop. They are constantly looking for, storing, or carrying food. They aren't particularly smart, or careful, or even secretive about where they store their food. They're talkative, so you know where they are. Even when they forget where they have hidden their cache, it works in their favour because they are basically planting the seeds, so they grow a food source for their future generations. Squirrels are persistent.
- Having a purpose will give you energy to keep going
- If you thought it was a nut, but it was an empty shell, just keep looking
- You must persist if you expect to eat
Purpose will keep you going
Sometimes I hear people use the word "lazy" to describe themselves or others. It's a word laced with judgment and it certainly does not motivate anyone to change. I prefer to use the phrase "in need of motivation." Motivation is the reason you want to do something. In order to get up off the couch, something has to motivate you more than the comfort of the couch motivates you to stay put. Eventually, even the best binge-watching has to at least pause for a bathroom break. Your full bladder is a great motivator. Hunger is also a motivator for getting up off the couch. These are basic needs that are impossible to ignore.
Obligation and responsibility work as motivators, sometimes. If you join a group exercise class, you are now obligated to get up off the couch at 5:30 every Tuesday and Thursday so you don't waste the money you paid for the class. Responsibility can be an effective motivator if you have a mortgage to pay and children to feed and clothe. This is how so many people stay off the couch most of the day. They are motivated to go to work, so they can get paid, so they can afford to have a couch. All of these motivators are great for surviving. Just like the squirrel, we can be sure we will eat this winter because we are motivated to work for our food.
Here's the challenge: Humans are more complicated than squirrels. It isn't enough for us to work to make money so we can pay our bills and sit on the couch when we're done. Unlike squirrels, we get depressed if that is all we do. We require a bigger Purpose. Without it we lose the motivation to persist. Purpose is a much more powerful motivator than obligation or responsibility. Purpose gives us a reason to push ourselves to grow and develop. Purpose gives us a reason to live. A squirrel's purpose is simply to store enough food to survive the winter. Because humans are more complex than squirrels, I cannot just hand you a Purpose and say, "here, try this on for size." You have to find your own. This is the tricky part, especially if you have the biology that tends toward depressive episodes that sap your motivation. An important part of depression treatment is helping you figure out what your purpose is. Without it, your motivation to get off the couch can seep away. If you are not sure what your Purpose might be, now is a good time to start looking for it.
The purpose of a squirrel is to find food, hide it, and raise more squirrels. Your pupose is likley more complex. Maybe it is about raising the healthiest, happiest children you can. Maybe your pupose is to make people laugh and forget their troubles for a few hours at a time. Maybe it involves traveling and working with people around the world. It could be any number of things, but it is an important part of personal happiness. Without it, you could find yourself sitting on a couch, watching the squirrels practice persistence.
You thought it was a nut, but it was an empty shell
How many times have you thought you found the "perfect" something, then ended up disappointed? A squirrel will eventually learn how to spot the empty shell, but not until it has been fooled once or twice. If you look at your past disappointments as failures it can be diffciult to keep going, to persist. If you choose to see those "empty shell" experiences as learning opportunities, however, you can find the motivation you need to rise to the challenge. Maybe someone fooled you with fast talk and you ended up spending a year doing something that did not get you where you hoped to be. Rather than chalking it up to a failed experiment, analyze what that person did to convince you. Now, you know what it looks like when someone is all talk and no substance. That empty shell will not fool you again. What other lessons did you learn from the experience? Did you discover the ability to pull together a team, even in a toxic situation? Maybe you learned how to speak up. Maybe all you learned was what you don't want. It's still a valuable lesson. You've cracked that empty nut. Now, on to the next tree.
You must persist if you want results
When you learned to walk, you began the process by learning to crawl, then to stand, then to take a few steps, holding on to something or someone. You took a few triumphant steps on your own and everyone cheered. The fact that you fell many times only made you practice more. We are born as persistent as the squirrel is. Toddlers and squirrels don't tell themselves that they should give up, that it's too hard, or that they aren't good enough. As a result, they persist until they succeed.
If you look at your goals as too lofty and give up, you will not get off the courch. We already talked about where that leads, so there must be a more effective method than sitting on the couch and crying about failed ambition. Luckily, I have one for you. It's called persistence. It starts with baby steps, one at a time. Start with your lofty goal, then break it down into smaller goals. Take those goals and break them down into practical pieces. Then, take those pieces and break them down into manageable action items. It's analogous to building a staircase into the side of the mountain, then climbing it, one step at a time.
Say, for example, that you've always dreamed of starting your own business. You have a talent and a passion for turning a "bad hair day" into *FABULOUS*. You would love to own your own salon, specializing in extreme makeovers. Your doubts scream, "no way! You have no idea what that entails and you'd fail miserably. Just stay at your office job and be happy you can pay your bills." If you leave it at that and give up, your dream gathers dust and your mental health suffers. In other words, you are unhappy and you automatically fail. If you take the next step (tell your doubts to hush, you've got this), and explore what it takes to open a salon, you can begin to see how possible it might be. First, you notice what successful salon-owners have done. You look at the practical parts (finding a location, marketing, licensing), the experience and reputation parts (they worked in other salons, gave free haircuts to homeless, won an award in a makeover contest), and the personal parts (learned to quiet the doubts, asked for support from someone, overcame fears, and faced the possibility of failure). Next, you break it down further. What would you need to do to get the proper license? Who might be willing to act as your confidante and coach, when you need it? Then, break it down to action items you can do today. For example, all you have to do today is research business coaches. Tomorrow, you can call one and set up an introductory appointment. The next day, research licensing for your area. Maybe look for an opportunity to volunteer in your community this weekend. When you break it down like this, persistence is manageable. All you have to do is the next action item on your list.
The squirrel remains persistent by looking for the next nut. If it worried about how it was possibly going to save enough to last all winter, seeing a mountain of nuts in it's head, it might get overwhelmed and give up...and starve. You might not literally starve if you give up, but your happiness will starve. So, take that amazing dream and break it down into manageable pieces, so you can persist and succeed!
It's your life. Are you ready to love it?