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Why Persistent Perseverance Can Be a Waste of Time

If you’re reading this post, you’re likely a student of leadership (and good for you!) You have no doubt read about the importance of perseverance and persistence in being successful. The problem is this: Perseverance can be an enormous waste of time, especially if you are persistent at it.

The mantra of authors and speakers and trainers is that persistence is the key to success. They often say that successful leaders chased their ultimate dream, no matter what obstacles were in their way: “You can be successful, too, if you do the same!”

When authors and speakers and trainers say that leaders have been successful because of persistence, they sometimes leave out an important detail: The key to success is often persistence and consistency of vision, purpose, and goal, and not necessarily persistence and consistency of approach, methodology, and tactics.

I’ve tagged some well-known quotations about persistence and perseverance to make my point. Consider this quotation:

If at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer. – Alan Lewis

Notice that this quotation from Irish athlete Alan Lewis doesn’t say, “If at first you don’t succeed, hammer harder or faster.” Sometimes you need to change your approach only slightly and it can pay off with huge results. Hence, his advice is to just get a bigger hammer, not use the same hammer you’ve been using for days, weeks, or months. At other times, however, you might just find that you’ll need a screwdriver or pliers from your toolbox rather than a hammer. If your approach hasn’t been successful in helping you reach your goal, don’t be persistent in repeatedly using the same tool in the same situation and expect a different result.

Now consider this quotation:

The secret of success is constancy to purpose. – Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli became British Prime Minister, twice. In 1859, the British Parliament made the admission of Jews to Parliament legal, helping to clear the way for Disraeli’s political leadership. His keen observation was that the secret of success is constancy of purpose. Notice that he didn’t proclaim the secret of success is the constancy of approach.

Here is another insightful quotation:

The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail. – Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill was the author of one of the best-selling books of all time – Think and Grow Rich. In the early 1900s, billionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie commissioned Hill to interview over 500 successful men and women in order to discover and publish a formula for success. Hill’s experience through these interviews clearly placed him in a position of seeing that new plans should take the place of those that fail.

If you find that you’re not successful in using a specific approach to accomplish your goal, don’t persevere. Identify and implement another approach that will help realize the goal that you’ve been striving for.

Do you know of an example of perseverance that should not have been so persistent?

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Totally. For example personally out of grad school I applied to over 55 federal jobs the same way. USAJOBS and faxing/email resumes, forms, and more. While important, I needed NOT to just send more resumes in…but to NETWORK with real people in government, career counselors, and friends for advice.

Brendan O'Connor

Wow, great post, much appreciated and some important nuances of what type of persistence is helpful, and what is not…

An example my way, at the State Department, is a situation where I’d been trying to dialogue with someone on one level to bring about a particular change. That individual wasn’t really willing to have a robust dialogue on the issue at hand, but there was a bit of a watershed experience when I went to some folks at a higher level and found some willingness to address it at their level–singularity or persistence of purpose, but openness (eventually!) to changing my approach, etc. I’m actually working on another issue that I may be able to share more explicitly if it comes through–I’ll wait to see how it fleshes out…


Excellent post! My observation and experience is that when the method to success lasts and lasts, and becomes a habit, put on the auto pilot and coast. We don’t see the new mountainous terrain looming in the distance. Suddenly inefficient evasive maneuvers are needed just to survive- and not only does the old method no longer bring success- it brings serious problems, and even failure. Pay attention, be flexible, evolve with the rest of life- success is indeed a moving target! Thanks for the words…

K. Scott Derrick

Steve – Good example. We could talk for weeks on that subject!
Jon – Nice quote. As I was drafting this post, I thought of that one as well.
Brendan – Wonderful example. Keep us posted if you can.
Results – Great metaphor with the mountainous terrain in the distance. How true!