Is Perseverance Toxic?
A founder had an extraordinary business. By any external measure they were hugely “successful”.
And yet, they’d hit a low point. They’d driven out for dinner and drinks then woken up at home in the morning. They walked outside and saw their car parked in the drive. They couldn’t remember how it got there. Couldn’t remember driving it home.
They’d been persevering at work, despite not enjoying it, for years. It was costing them enormously – physically, emotionally and in their relationships. They’d had enough. They’d decided it was time to go, they just needed to figure out how.
We had conversations about it. Where had the enjoyment gone? How would they navigate the transition out? What would they do next?
One day, they mentioned generosity a few times.
“What does generosity mean to you?”
They leaned forward.
“That was the time I travelled overseas to help in a charity.
And, now you mention it, we used to have monthly events in the business where we’d bring in a local charity and raise money. We haven’t done that for years.
If we were to do that again it would be a growth strategy for us.
It would also be a great defensive strategy. The landlord at one of our locations is trying to kick us out. It would be much harder for them to do that if we had the local community onboard.
Actually… Can we go for a walk?”
The energy shifted. For 90 minutes we walked by the river, revisiting very specific behaviours in their past that brought generosity to life. Could generosity be brought back into the business and their day moving forward?
That was the switch. From throwing it all in, to not just sticking with it, but growing the business to increase their impact. Big time.
There was the performance conversation scheduled for that afternoon, leading and managing hundreds of staff, challenging conversations required with business partners, figuring out a new org structure to handle the growth…
The challenge, the effort, the adversity – none of that had changed.
But their relationship to it had.
Quite suddenly, the perseverance was in service of something more.
Before we go further, there’s a hypothetical I’d like you to consider.
I smash glass on the floor in front of you.
I ask: “Would you be willing to walk over the glass in bare feet?”
So I change just one condition – same smashed glass, same bare feet.
Now I ask you to bring to mind the person most important to you in the world. They are in distress on the other side of the glass and they need your help.
Then I ask: “Would you now be willing to walk over the glass in bare feet?”
Typically there is the opposite response.
What does the change in response show?
It shows that humans are terrible at suffering pointless pain. But, when we are clear about the importance of what it is on the other side of the pain, we won’t just endure it, we’ll embrace it.
The pain doesn’t change, but our relationship to it does. We are now willing to accept it in service of doing what matters to us.
The broken glass is a great metaphor for the thoughts, feelings and physiological sensations that show up in tough situations like stay/leave decisions or sitting in the void of transitions, or asking a “dumb question”, or challenging a boss, or holding someone to account, or speaking up, or stepping in…
Very rarely do we lack information about what to do in these situations or even how to approach them.
Nearly always we need to understand the importance of why we would attempt them in the first place.
Themes of Importance
When I reflect on the specifics of the founder conversation, I see a few themes:
- They reconnected to a core value: Generosity.
- They were immediately able to reflect on their past and point to specific behaviours and events when they felt they were bringing that to life. These were times of high energy and high impact that truly nourished them.
- They could see Generosity play out across multiple areas of their life: work, giving, travel, relationships etc.
- It was not about changing who they were or adding something new. If anything it was a realisation that one of their core values had been buried. Now that it was uncovered, it was time to bring it back to guide behaviour.
- As such, they were immediately able to see how it might be consciously brought back into present and future contexts and exactly what that would look like as behaviours or words in a conversation.
Persevere or Not?
I was asked recently what percentage of people choose to stay and what choose to go in these kinds of situations. I don’t know. And I’m not sure it’s useful to know – everyone’s circumstances are different.
I’ve found the more useful questions to ask myself are:
- What is truly important here?
- What is the short term pain, long term benefit of this decision?
- What is the short term benefit, long term cost of this decision?
As the serenity prayer goes:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I’ve felt the cost of persevering and have seen it in many others, regardless of how shiny the veneer or how many trophies in the cabinet.
I’ve seen people slowly lose themselves as they hung onto jobs, relationships, businesses, identities that buried their most important qualities and values.
I’ve grown up in a culture that said quitting was for losers.
I’ve grown up in a culture where the stories of perseverance in the face of adversity are celebrated and rightfully so. People are extraordinary.
But how often do we stop to consider the costs of perseverance? On ourselves, on our health, on the people around us, on what is truly important to us?
If perseverance is solely for its own sake or for the sake of ticking the next box, then I say hell yes. It’s toxic.
If perseverance is in service of values, of impact, of contribution, of something more important, then I’m all for it.