The story goes that in the 1870s, the legendary inventor Thomas Alva Edison had, after several thousand trials, failed to find the right material and design for the electric bulb. A reporter apparently questioned him about the lack of results for all his work and investment. Edison famously replied, “I’ve had plenty of results. I now know several thousand things that don’t work.” That interview, it turned out, was just a few months before Edison’s work on the electric bulb finally met with success.
Edison’s story of persisting with a problem finds echoes in the lives of many eminent scientists. Talking about Isaac Newton’s prolific record of discoveries, the famous economist Keynes said, “Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret.” Albert Einstein too is quoted as saying, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
There are parallels in the world of business too. In the 1940s, when Walt Disney’s daughters loved the book ‘Mary Poppins’, he promised them that he would adapt it into a movie. But the author, Pamela Travers, refused to sell him the rights. It took twenty years of persistent convincing by Disney before Travers finally yielded in the 1960s. ‘Mary Poppins’ went on to become one of the all-time great movies.
Jim Simons, one of the most successful investors ever and the legendary founder of quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, counts persistence among the most important guiding principles for his career and life. He says, “Don’t give up easily. Some things take much longer than one initially expects. If the goal is worth achieving, just stick with it.”
The ability to persist and stick with problems despite setbacks, then, is critical to success in any pursuit, be it in academics, business, investments, or in life itself. Yet, this is easier said than done.
My recent conversations with friends who are in the teaching profession tell me that, over the last decade, there have noticed a meaningful decline in students’ ability to persist with problems. While scientists debate statistics on attention spans, anecdotal observations are enough to tell us that, in the face of easy availability of answers from Google or other online sources, there is certainly less incentive for us to persist with problems.
Then there is the issue of our own mode of consciousness through large parts of the day. With the advent of mobile internet, social media and gratification in the form of ‘likes’, ‘follows’ and streaming content, we have now turned ourselves into entities that continuously crave dopamine fixes. This mode rhymes with what author Cal Newport, in his book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ describes as the ‘passion mindset’, where the focus is on what the world can offer you.
Newport instead advocates adopting the ‘craftsman mindset’, focusing on what you can offer the world. This mindset is key to being able to persist with problems, and eventually succeed over the long term.
My own personal experience includes a rather poignant attempt at persisting with a problem. When I was working on my first book KaalKoot, there came a point when, after two years of work on the manuscript, I realized that certain key elements of the plot were not adding up. Since the book was intended to be an intricately woven thriller, this was unacceptable to me. So, I had to, literally overnight, bid adieu to eighty thousand words that I had written, throw the manuscript into the metaphorical bin, and start from scratch. If my focus had been on short-term rewards or dopamine fixes, I would not have found the courage to continue. The only thing that kept me going through those days was the craftsman’s obsession to create a work that I could be proud of.
The good news is that this mode of being, this ability to delay gratification and stick with problems, is within reach for all of us. It requires us to adopt this mindset of a craftsman. It requires us to start enjoying our work for its own sake, like a curious kid confronted with an exciting puzzle. Once we start doing this, our focus shifts to building something beautiful and sustainable, rather than courting easy wins. And therein lies the foundation of success.
S.Venkatesh is the bestselling author of AgniBaan and KaalKoot, a leadership coach and an investor who has held key positions with JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Macquarie. He writes about mindfulness and its link to creativity, business and wealth.