Talent Is Not Enough: The Importance of Persistence

Everyone's got talent. What's rare is the courage to follow where it leads.

Posted Jun 24, 2019

The cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, once related in an interview that on the morning of his second day of kindergarten, when his mother came in to wake him up, he rolled over and groaned, “What, again?”

Of all the characteristics that might mark you for success, none, I think, is as important as persistence, the willingness to stick with it, to go to your desk day after day as if it mattered, as if the work you do in the world or the service you render or the passion you nurture makes a difference. And it does.

Passion, after all, isn’t just about exuberance, but endurance. It’s sometimes shoulder-to-the-wheel stamina and patience on the order of years. If your creative inspirations, for instance, or even your infatuations, aren’t balanced by good, long hours at the workbench, they won’t generally come to fruition. Author Malcolm Gladwell even calculates that mastery in any field of endeavor requires at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. And here's the math on that: 90 minutes a day for 20 years. Most people, though, would rather just skip ahead to the part where they're awesome.

Endurance is the knowledge that success takes time and is attained by the slow, incremental adding on of one day's labor onto another and another, the cumulative effect of innumerable small steps and minor achievements. Sometimes it will pay off relatively quickly, as when Voltaire cranked out Candide in three days. Other times you'll pay for a single body of work with a third of your life, as James Joyce did when he spent over 17 years writing Finnegans Wake.

Either way, what's required is the discipline and devotion to pursue your passions wherever they take you, from the first illumination through all revisions to the final execution, and then out into the world (because all callings are ultimately about service). Everyone's got talent, but what's rare is the courage to follow it wherever it leads, especially toward the edges of the map where there be dragons.

The writer Michael Ventura calls it “the talent of the room,” a term he coined in an essay on the vagaries of the writing life, but it goes for anyone involved in creative work. “Unless you have the talent of the room, your other talents are worthless. Writing is something you do alone in a room, and before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years—how many years—can you remain alone in a room?”

Fer Gregory/Shutterstock
Fer Gregory/Shutterstock
Source: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

Again and again, you'll be brought around to facing the challenge of simple discipline—not easy, but simple. You do it or you don’t, and your callings work themselves out accordingly. You either do or you don’t comprehend that a call often asks you to have the patience of weavers and plowhands, and that it will sometimes find you prowling back and forth like something caged, but that the fate of all faith is that it will eventually be tested. “We don’t know enough to despair,” says Sam Keen in Fire in the Belly. “Despair is hidden arrogance: I have seen the future and it doesn’t work. Hope is rooted in trust in the unknown. Work, wait, and hope. That is enough.”

Compared to talent, persistence is a modest, even lowly virtue. But it's an essential one. It's the beast of burden on whose shoulders your callings and your crafts are carried to completion. Without it, your gifts and talents will never see the light of day. But the discipline needed to persevere doesn't arise solely from grim willpower, or holding yourself to task by the scruff of the neck, and certainly not from fear, though there'll be days when you pull yourself up to your work as if to a chin-up bar.

Discipline is a natural byproduct of your commitment to your own integrity and authenticity, to doing what you love and what you must do. “Those who have a why to live,” the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche once said, “can bear with almost any how.” There seems to be a direct link between perseverance and the degree of meaning a thing has for you, the sense at a really deep level that you know why something is meaningful to you, why it's important for you to pursue—why bother? And you must have an answer to that question that satisfies the cynic in you.

Unfortunately, discipline has something of a bad name. When I think of it, I think of spankings and trips to the principle's office. I think of punishment. But discipline is nothing more than the concentrated effort necessary to get work done. It's by not being disciplined that you truly punish yourself, because without it you drift endlessly, and your dreams recede from you.

After Michelangelo died, a piece of paper was found in his studio on which the old master had written a note to his apprentice, a message that speaks eloquently of endurance: “Draw Antonio, draw Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

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