UNITED STATES—Persistence is like the weather. Persistence is something we talk an awful lot about and do precious little about. I was reminded of it when reading a great quote from Jim Watkins, “A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” That’s real purty, but how does it translate into action?
Persistence cannot exist without an aim, so to be following the way of the river, we need a clearly defined aim. Those who set out to develop persistence alone are as lost as a hammer without a nail. There are plenty of aims. Maybe we share some—do my taxes, make a million dollars, write a thank-you note, reveal the table that must be under the stuff. Your aim may be to get back on speaking terms with some family member who is going to tragically lose out on all your wisdom and flaws.
First, find your aim. What’s your need? What do you need to get out from under? A good formula to find your aim is, what is something you repeatedly postpone, talk about, and never do anything about?
Now that you have an aim, set yourself free from conventional priorities. That’s a real trap. Because of unquestioned assumptions about our priorities (particularly those dictated by money and the clock) we rule out many tasks as too big or too small. This notion of priorities and internalized “being on the go” have helped make any number of tasks seem unmanageable. But if we take action on the aim for an allotted time, it suddenly becomes manageable.
Doing a little piece at a time, consistently, will start getting the job done, be it tidying up or building an empire. Maybe there’s one thing that you can attend to only once a week for a limited amount of time. Make the commitment and honor it with the river’s peaceful stubbornness. For me it has been the taming of my bougainvillea.
When this ornamental plant grows, it creates thick thorny branches that must be sawed off and, above, an exuberant tangle of offshoots tightly interweave and trap dead nest of twigs and leaves. (A squirrel once had its penthouse there.)
A neighbor insisted that I ruthlessly cut back the branches to where they were six years ago. “You can’t kill it,” she said. If that neighbor hadn’t spoken I might have been forever deluded to thinking the bougainvillea tangle was a fact of life, forever beyond my control.
Yes, it may often take another person and pair of eyes to reveal a mind-blowing aim, previously unimagined in the bogged-down life.
Remember, too, that we have wonderful tools in our hands. They ARE our hands—to grasp and modify and start the work the moment the eyes see something to be done. And the best tools may not plug into a wall socket. I would not be freeing my devil bougainvillea’s angel if I had followed the conventional wisdom to use power hedge shears. My tools are my hands, a pruning saw, long-handled pruner and a pair of clippers.
And the plant is being freed and neighbors’ notice my house for the first time and comment on the openness in the area. One even noted my cottage’s resemblance to a house in a Greek fishing village. And as the web of twigs and branches are shed, the sky is revealed, and the stars at night.
Whatever your task, know when to stop. It’s as important as starting a job. Relentless persistence is the power of water that cuts through rock and grass that cracks sidewalks 24/7. For we humans with many demands, the power of persistence resides in brief daily or weekly sessions. Decide in advance when you want to stop. It will keep you sane and making headway, even a tiny bit, on something that wouldn’t budge before.
The sky is the limit when it comes to how many aims can be simultaneously pursued. They can be in constant rotation, and the deciding factor is the intensity of single-minded focus any given aim receives. Something I would change was all the times I harbored resentment for tasks that I didn’t feel were in sync with my ambitions. Not a session goes by now with my bougainvillea that I don’t come up with a poem or a punchline. When we lose that baggage of ego and priorities and give our all to the task at hand, whatever it may be, we are unstoppable and inspiring.
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of the comic collection, “Late Bloomer” and “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet,” available on Amazon. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.