In startup literature, discussions on perseverance are often turned into an evaluation of whether you should pivot (try something else), shut down the business, or else keep going (stating it’s important to persevere and referring to some populist story like OMGPOP or Pinterest or Fab, who eventually made it because they kept going and going).
I think it’s misleading to founders to pick outliers like these and then tie the two together. Neither angle has anything to do with perseverance – those are tactical business decisions and have nothing to do with your ability to persevere. Perseverance doesn’t mean having false hope building something stupid, or working to do work. And perseverance isn’t all that special, because it’s what all of us have to do.
A new definition
Perseverance is about pursuing a higher goal and developing an ability to deal with setbacks and failure on the way. Persevering is a combination of mindset and habit. Mechanically it’s about having the stamina to actually keep going and doing the right things. Mentally it’s about knowing where to go and how to deal with setbacks right. Perseverance alone will not make you successful, but without it you will never get anywhere, and with it you can go further than most people.
Persevering is about setting the right goal, having the right mindset and doing the right things habitually. Here is what I’ve seen help other people persevere and what has worked for me over and over.
Set a goal
Most people fail to persevere because they have no larger goal in life. Choose one because keeping going without knowing where to go obviously won’t work. Setting a larger goal, not for your startup or occupation, but in general, is where perseverance starts. It is the single most important thing to persevering – the larger the goal the smaller the challenges will seem on the way.
Most people struggle with this. Today you can do anything. There are no walls, there is no Cold War, our generation doesn’t need to rebuild the country, there is no hyper-inflation. You can do anything and still most people are paralyzed by the possibilities. Don’t waste your time – set a goal. If you lack inspiration, ‘putting a dent in the universe’ is a good starting point.
Once you have your goal in mind, just set a target that will get you closer and start walking. Stop constantly questioning the future and the alternatives. Just pick something and do it and, even if you’re wrong, chances are that on the way you’ll unearth very good alternatives. Better ones than if you had done nothing or something small. Quit stalling and start moving towards your goal.
When I was a teenager I desperately wanted to become a management consultant. In hindsight it turned out to be a dumb idea but I pursued it for a while and it got me closer to what I am doing now. As Patton said: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
Persevere mentally – thinking right
If you want to persevere you need a certain mindset and perspective on things to make it through the tough spots. Thinking “right” sometimes means thinking what no one else is thinking – the kind of thoughts that seem odd to other people or are obviously contrarian. Paul Graham describes this nicely in “What You Can’t Say”. Sometimes perseverance involves taking a stance that you might occupy on your own for awhile.
People that persevere expect obstacles and are also contrarian in the sense that they even love and seek them because overcoming them helps them grow. It’s an attitude towards challenges that equates to an opportunity that makes you better once you’ve dealt with it.
One of the inspiring quotes for me in this context is by Arnold Scharzenegger: “I hear this all the time. As a matter of fact, I love it when someone says that no one has ever done this before, because then when I do it that means that I’m the first one that has done it.”
In the face of what feels like extreme challenges (opportunities) you need an unshakeable foundation – self-confidence paired with an unquestioned belief that you will make it through anything. Importantly, self-confidence is a result of skill, not ego. Erich Fromm makes an amazing point in “To have or to be” when he states that ego is what most people groom their entire life; it’s what can be destroyed. Skill on the other hand can’t be taken away from you.
Be what people would call unrealistic. Optimism tends to be your realism. Understand that there are no rules and there is no impossible. Limits are what you impose on yourself – limits are the result of you accepting the status quo and what other people tell you. It is you giving in to the dictatorship of the mean. Realism will lead you to be average.
People that persevere don’t tend to care much about setbacks or dwell on them. They just tick them off their “to-do-list,” learn and move on. Setbacks barely even compute. It’s just the starting point and it’s within your power to master them. There literally are no crises – just minor bumps on the road that you learn from. If you want to persevere take ownership of everything. There is no fate or luck. You alone are fully responsible and you own up to and sort things out immediately. It doesn’t mean beating yourself up, it just means you can’t delegate responsibility to achieve or improve. You control everything – especially yourself. Mind over body. You shape your environment and not the other way round.
When things still get you down remind yourself that perspective changes everything. You think you have it hard? You think you’ve come far? You think 20m per year in income is rich? You think solving XYZ is amazing? You think losing your CTO and co-founder is stressful? The answer to all these questions is no. There is always bigger and better. You could always be off worse. Stop being a baby, stop stressing out and get on with things. Stress is real but it doesn’t mean there is a point to it.
Never be satisfied – it sometimes is a sad state of being, but it is necessary. It’s an innate understanding that what seemed like a challenge, a stretch, a couple of months ago is now not even worth celebrating in the grand scheme of things and in light of your next target. Self-gratification will rarely move you forward.
Persevere through execution – Doing the right things
Having the right mindset will lead you to do the right things. People that persevere have certain habits. They don’t buy into the idea of luck, faith or chance. “Getting lucky” is a result of knocking down every single door, trying everything, being at every event – that’s how you force “serendipity”. Never quit from your own accord.
Be a little reckless with what you do – we all start with having achieved nothing so you have nothing to lose. No matter what you think you have accumulated. In the end, it’s not about the accumulated, it’s about the process of accumulating. You want to push yourself beyond the limit, you want to constantly expand your comfort zone and have that feeling of being uncomfortable, because it’s only there that you get better.
Surround yourself with better more ambitious people. You’re the average of the people you spend most time with. If you’re a lion don’t hang out with cats.
Last but not least, it helps being boring by routinizing these mindsets and behaviors, as this will help you not waste energy on making them happen over and over again. Don’t even question whether you should do something outside of your comfort zone or if you should keep going. Jumping first and looking later typically worked for me.
Foster positivity every day. In the end that’s what really helps. I try to actively enjoy every single moment. Even the tough ones. Joy doesn’t equal happiness. Happiness is a high; joy is your baseline happiness even when things aren’t going well. And you can remind yourself of that, happiness anywhere.
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