The Missing Link in Personal Growth

Personal or professional growth requires not just passion but patience.

Posted Jul 20, 2015

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Source: Getty Images

Anyone who’s ever played in a band or acted in a play knows that the ratio of time spent rehearsing compared to performing is something like 90-10. But what accounts for people’s willingness to abide by this equation—to practice the same lyrics or the same lines for thousands of hours for the chance to share it publicly barely a tenth of the time?

Whether you’re powered by primary motivation (a love of the work itself) or secondary motivation (a payoff), what they both require—and what may well be the missing link for most people in the fruition of their goals and passions, of growth whether personal or professional—is patience. The willingness to put your shoulder to the wheel and have endurance for it sometimes on the order of years.

There’s a reason Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point, insists that mastery in any field of endeavor requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice (the math: 90 minutes a day for 20 years). Passion comes from a word meaning “to suffer,” and it begs the question, “What are you willing to suffer for?”

Because if your creative inspirations, or even your infatuations, aren’t balanced by good long hours at the workbench, they won’t generally amount to much. Unfortunately, most people think of passion as an inherently unstable element, prone to degrading quickly when exposed to familiarity or commitment. We think of it like a booster rocket in the space program, launching people into orbit but falling away once the orbit is reached.

But real passion has real staying power. It’s not just about exuberance, but stamina. After all, it took Scheherazade 1001 nights---three years---to turn the Sultan around. And I have an acquaintance who told me years ago that he was once arrested at an antiwar sit-in and given a suspended sentence with 15 hours of community service. The judge told him he could do any kind of community service he wanted, so when they let him out, he went right back to the sit-in. “I was doing community service when they arrested me,” he told me. Again, stick-to-it-ivness.

Patience is also and often the missing ingredient in the discernment process that helps us identify our passions and callings to begin with; the search for the kind of clarity of mind and readiness of heart that signals our preparedness for what the Buddhists call “right action,” and in the waiting for events to unfurl and talents to ripen. These things seldom burst into being all at once. They grow like the shells of oysters, adding layer by layer onto themselves.

In his autobiography, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek—one of literature’s great stories about living a passionate life—describes an incident in which he comes upon a cocoon cradled in the bark of an olive tree, just as the butterfly is making a hole and attempting to emerge.

Impatient for results, though, he bends over it and warms it under his breath, by which he succeeds in speeding up the process. The butterfly, however, emerges prematurely, its wings hopelessly crumpled and stuck to its body, which needs the sun’s patient warmth, not the man’s impatient breath, to transform it. Moments later, after a desperate struggle, the butterfly dies in the palm of his hand.

“That little body,” Kazantzakis wrote toward the end of his life, “is the greatest weight I have on my conscience.”

We do much damage by not being patient with our own evolution, which by design and necessity luxuriates in an abundance of time and plot-twists. When we try to hurry things up, we communicate to our own souls that we don’t have faith in them, in their intimacy with the creative force of life.

We sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to see if elves are sewing things up. We force the fauna with our hot insistent breath. We rush a verdict so we can get home in time for dinner. We try to make things happen, hoping that in doing so we don’t inadvertently open the darkroom door while fate is developing our pictures.

We suffer from the cultural misapprehension that waiting means doing nothing. Great fanfare, for example, usually attends the moment of inspiration, the aha, the eureka—Sir Isaac Newton’s revelation on the apple, or Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem Kubla Khan, which is said to have popped into his consciousness whole. Little notice, however, is taken of the usually lengthy period that precedes the breakthrough----the period of observation, meditation, experimentation, uncertainty, frustration, fits and starts; the period of asking the questions over and over, of sleeping on it and pitching in our sleep.

We love the answers and suffer the questions. We worship the flower and ignore the soil. We covet the diamond and overlook the pressure it took.

Far from being the transcendent experience we imagine, though, the search for what’s truest in ourselves, for the kind of clarity that leads to an authentic and passionate life, turns out to be largely spade-work. “The more characteristic American hero in the earlier day,” the writer Mark Sullivan once observed, “and the more beloved type at all times, was not the hustler but the whittler.”

The psychologist and minister John Sanford says that whenever we wrestle with our spiritual and psychological conundrums and refuse to let go until we have some sense of meaning, we’re having something of the Jacob experience. We’re wrestling with a spirit through a dark night of the soul, until the sun comes up; symbolically speaking, until illumination.

On the other hand, when we refuse to acquiesce to the true complexity of our struggles and the time they take to unfold, the truth we seek becomes like a knot that only gets tighter when we become impatient and start yanking on it.

But time in itself won’t suffice, because not only the discernment process, but the whole process of unfoldment and personal evolution, isn’t just about being patient. It’s about being actively patient. That is, using your time well, and submitting whatever information and evidence you gather to the scrutiny of the mind, the intuition of the heart, and the gut reaction of the body. It’s about taking up the pickax and digging, chipping away a bit at a time at your stony questions, or feeling your way like a bird that travels for thousands of miles guided only by instinct and the whisper of magnetism.

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