How Do We Decide When to Persevere and When to Quit?

Perhaps next time I will be successful… Perhaps it will only take once more…. How would you feel if you stopped just before you were going to be successful and so robbed yourself of what you had been hoping for…?

How do we know when to quit? The traditional advice to, “Try, try again” is balanced by an observation from Robert Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love, to the effect of, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up — there’s no need to look stupid”. In this post I’d like to examine persevering.

Hope

Perhaps perseverance is the outcome of hope. We think that something is possible and we do what we can to bring it about.

It seems entirely possible to me that we can live in a way that doesn’t trash our planet — so I take public transport when I can and when it is not too inconvenient, and I eat a mostly vegetarian diet (as organic as is affordable). My hope for our planet comes out in these behaviours.

If something seems hopeless I am far less likely to persevere.

A Realistic Hope

This relies on an assessment that something is possible. This kind of hope isn’t just a ‘leap of faith’ but includes data and reasoning.

Values

We all need to live with ourselves. Sometimes we do things that are difficult or have great costs for us because we need to live with ourselves. A community worker I know intervened in a street fight because he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t. In these situations we feel that we don’t really have much choice.

We can persevere in some situations because we feel that we don’t have much choice — if we want to feel good about ourselves.

Habits

Habits are similar too, but different from perseverance. It is true that when we do something habitually that we do it repeatedly (just as with perseverance). However, it seems to me that doing something habitually is different to perseverance. My thought is that habits can be fairly automatic — done without reflection or intention. When I think of perseverance I think of consciously maintained behaviour. When I think of perseverance I think of it as a choice — that there are other possible options (even if we couldn’t live with ourselves if we took them).

Reluctance?

Sometimes perseverance can have a sense of maintaining a behaviour that we don’t want to do. I don’t think this has to be the case. I think ‘perseverance’ works as a description of making steady progress to a desired goal. It does seem to include the notion of labour and hard work.

Doing something that comes easily and naturally isn’t described as persevering, however much we do it.

Guilt-Tripped By the Future?

Perhaps next time I will be successful… Perhaps it will only take once more… How would you feel if you stopped just before you were going to be successful and so robbed yourself of what you had been hoping for…?

All of which is true. And all of which is a recipe for burnout. I think we need some way to stop doing what we are doing and not just persist forever.

How Do We Know When to Persevere?

It seems to me that our intelligence needs to be involved. We need to have made some assessment of the situation and what results our efforts may have. To do something with no prospect of success is more likely to be described as ‘folly’ than ‘perseverance’.

I think it is wise to question our perseverance when we are not enjoying what we are doing. It is quite possible to enjoy our activities — even if they have little prospect of success. (For example, we may enjoy a game with an opponent who we know will very likely beat us.)

I think it may be admirable to persevere with something we don’t enjoy because we don’t wish to compromise our values. I come from a tradition — Christianity — that values martyrdom: so I am aware of this possibility in a very strong form. (In the secular tradition there is Socrates drinking the hemlock). My concern is that this is done by choice and with the feeling that this is genuinely what we wish to do.

I think too that we need to have some sense that there are alternatives available to us, especially when we are persevering with something we find difficult or painful. To keep doing something because we have tunnel vision, haven’t considered even that there may be alternatives, seems like a pretty bad idea to me.

This is all easier said than done.

I’m someone who likes things fairly stable and predictable (the thrill of the rollercoaster life is not for me). I find it easy to persevere and not question whether I should (whether there may be an easier way to achieve what I hope for). I can end up wasting a lot of time and effort. I have found a couple of things quite helpful:

  • Taking time out, taking the time to reflect and consider. The best way for me to do this is journalling (I am someone who thinks in words). Other ways can be forms of meditation or physical activity (going for a walk can help clarify our thinking and intentions).
  • Slightly different is taking the time to do something different, giving yourself a break by doing something different. This can really help when I am getting obsessive about something — even something as simple as making a coffee or taking a shower.
  • Talking it over. Getting another person’s perspective can be incredibly valuable in my experience. The number of times that someone has pointed out the bleeding obvious to me are too numerous (and probably too embarrassing) to recount.

I’d like to hear about perseverance in your life. Do you value perseverance or think it usually makes sense to move on quickly? Do you think that you have persevered too much or too little in your life? Let me know in the comments.

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