The Myth Of Persistence

By Anita Garner

By the time we come to the last days of 2020 in this Year Of Our Angst, some of us are going to need a reboot. We’ll be looking to retool, reinvent. Our tribulations  may not end when the year does but we need to get ready for what’s next as soon as we poke our heads up out of this mess.

Thank goodness reinvention can be called on as many times as we need it.  I’ve already tested it several times and if, like me, you don’t get it right the first or even the third or fourth time, it’s good to know there’s still a way forward.

There are people who know a lot about exactly this subject.  I found two of them talking about this on the radio at KALW Berkeley, California a few years back and I made notes.  I was listening while Marty Nemko,* career counselor, hosted his weekly show, “Work With Marty Nemko.”  His guest was Rick Newman,* author of the book,  “Rebounders, How Winners Pivot from Setbacks to Success.” I recently  contacted each of them for clarification on a couple of points.  (*More information about Rick and Marty below.)

The try and try again theory I grew up with doesn’t always work.  In the past I’ve stuck with some losing propositions way too long.  I asked Rick about the myth of persistence.  Here’s what he said.

“It would be great to get your failures out of the way fast, if you were mature and wise enough to learn what you need to from them! Alas, most of us aren’t that wise when we’re young, but failing smartly can make us wiser. I wrote about persistence being overrated, or misunderstood, because the bumper-sticker version of this suggests you should just keep trying the same thing if you fail at it. Just come back swinging again and if you take enough shots you’ll finally succeed.

That’s not what I found in my research at all. If you fail at something, you need to understand why, or do your best to understand. Once you think you understand why, then you’ll know whether you should try the same thing again, try it again but do something a little different, or give up and do something completely different. Some of us just aren’t good at things we wish we were good at. If you keep trying to succeed at something you’re not good at, just because you wish you were good (like me playing electric guitar), you’re missing the point. If you try at something and fail, maybe what you need to learn is it’s not for you. At least you tried!

Persistence is really important as long as you’re willing and able to learn what you need to come back for another shot. But nobody should keep trying the same thing over and over, in the same way, if they keep failing at it. Sometimes failure produces the lessons we need to succeed. Other times, the message is, try something else.

Marty’s radio show drifted away, as many of our favorite radio shows seem to do, but career and life counseling are still his focus.  There are blogs, a podcast and regular contributions to Psychology Today.  Here’s what he said when I asked about trying and trying again.

“I’m fond of singer Kenny Rogers’ advice: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold em.”  The problem is that it’s not usually easy to figure when that is. Best I can suggest  is to consistently ask yourself, “Are the chances better of my having more or more important success if I persist at least a little longer, or am I likely to have a better yield if I redirect my efforts.”

Here’s one more theory, originally attributed to Buddha.

“When the student is ready the teacher will appear”



*More about Rick and Marty.

Rick Newman is the author of “Rebounders” and three other books and columnist for Yahoo Finance.  Click the book cover for Rick’s website with contact information.

Marty Nemko, Ph.D is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, California and the author of 10 books. Click the picture to go to his website.