The Dark Side of Persistence

The Dark Side of Persistence

June 15, 2018

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.” – Ben Franklin

Never give up.

That sage advice can be found on posters in locker rooms or aspiring workplaces everywhere. It feels good and powerful to say.

But what the cool posters and Ben Franklin fail to tell us is:

Persistence is a terrible thing.

If you’ve ever watched a network mystery show (48 Hours, 20/20, etc.), you know that most episodes tell the story of a man who ended up killing his estranged partner.

And, inevitably,¬†we find out the man just wouldn’t leave the woman alone. He followed her and watched her and was jealous of her, long after the woman had moved on to better things.

You know what that’s called? Stalking.

You know what stalking is? Persistence.

Is that what Mr. Franklin meant?

Or if you consume podcasts or interviews, you’ll definitely come across stories about the lowly neophyte who wanted the attention of a famous person in his field.

The neophyte kept calling and calling and emailing and emailing and, golly gee, eventually the famous person gave in.

Wow, what a neat story.

Wow, what a horror show.

Anyone who ever called and called me for lessons (after I said no) during my tennis career wouldn’t have eventually gotten a smile and an appointment.

They would have gotten a restraining order.

That persistent lesson-seeker isn’t noble, he’s a nuisance. At best.

In fact, the persistence is exactly the reason why I’d never agree to a lesson with a person like that. Any other strategy might have changed my mind–but not that one.

Yes, maybe one mail boy persisted his way to a vice-presidency. But we never hear about the thousands of other annoying mail boys who persisted their way to unemployment.

Or how about sports?

John McEnroe, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, was obsessed with becoming the #1 tennis player in the world.

He played way more tournaments than he should have and shoved friends, family, and anyone else out of the way during his pursuit.

He ravenously hunted that ranking, never stopping for a second no matter what the cost.

In 1981 that persistence won out. McEnroe became #1.

And when it happened, McEnroe described in his book how lonely he felt. He got to #1, went back to his hotel room and no one was there to share it with him. He was melancholy and alone.

That’s what his persistence produced: sadness.

It turns out that persistence is only useful when we strive for ideals, not individual things or people.

If we’re persistently kind, we end up surrounded by friends.

If we’re persistently grateful, we end up happy.

If we’re persistently hard-working, we end up providing value for other people.

If we’re stalking, annoying, or obsessing, then Ben Franklin was absolutely wrong.

Giving that up is the only noble thing to do.

My book is called The Inevitability of Becoming Rich, and you can find that here.