Persistence Ain’t All That

This post may come across as something of a rant, and possibly also as a humble brag. I have to concede that I’m ranting a bit, but I would like to emphasise that there is nothing humble about the bragging parts, and that I am entirely serious about the humble parts.

This rant was inspired by my misreading* of a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s blog by a (different) successful author. In it, she repeats the claim that persistence is essential, even the only essential thing, and illustrates it with her life story. It is true that persistence appears to have led her to success. There are a number of other famous examples of this available.

The overwhelming level of sample bias here robs the evidence of all meaning. What about all the persistent people who haven’t succeeded? Nobody listens to their stories, because they are nobodies. Why would you take life lessons from someone who has failed? Well, because if you only listen to people who have succeeded, you get a seriously distorted picture.

So, in full awareness that essentially no-one is going to read this, because I’m not famous enough, I’m going to tell the echoing ether that persistence isn’t enough, and isn’t even necessary.

Let’s take “not enough” first. I write and develop roleplaying games. I need to say that because hardly anybody has heard of me. I’ve been doing it professionally for 20 years; longer than Chris Pramas at Green Ronin, and a lot more people have heard of him. He even has a Wikipedia page.

I’ve not had a rejection letter for roleplaying games since I returned to them after deciding that they were not Satanic, around the age of 18. So, that thing about everyone having to collect piles of rejection letters? Not true. I’ve won an Origins Award and a gold ENnie award, helped out by the name recognition of Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein•Hagen, but for a product, Ars Magica Fifth Edition, that was essentially my work. The previous four editions, which were not my work, did not win. I’ve been developing Ars Magica for longer than anyone else, and I’m getting close to having done it for longer than everyone else who has had the job put together. John Nephew has not fired me. He’s even given me pay rises and bonuses from time to time.

I do not suck, at least not as a roleplaying game author and developer. Because I am not depressed, I know that I do not suck. I do not suck, and I have kept this up for 20 years. Talent and persistence, getting published, I must have succeeded, right?

Wrong. Obviously, I don’t make a decent amount of money from roleplaying. Nobody makes a decent amount of money from roleplaying (except Robin Laws). But further than that, I have almost no name recognition. I’m working on a new roleplaying game, Kannagara, but does the fact that I am working on a new roleplaying game create any buzz anywhere? No. Now, we aren’t talking about fame. While people in the industry will recognise the names I’ve been dropping, I suspect that only the most dedicated roleplaying fans would do so in general. That’s the level I’m aiming at, and haven’t reached.

So yeah, persistence doesn’t always work.

I’ve also written a novel, and tried the online crowdfunding model. That was Tamao. That didn’t work, either. People I didn’t know did send me money. One guy even sent me $25 a couple of years after I’d finished, when it was obvious he wasn’t going to get any more story out of it. So, it doesn’t suck. Strangers don’t send you money because you wrote something that sucked. And I finished it. Wrote the whole thing in a year. That’s persistence.

No success yet.

Then there’s my blog. Not this one. I’m not so brazen as to claim persistence here, but my Japanese one. Every day, for nearly eight years. Recently, at least 1,000 characters (roughly 500 words equivalent) every day. Frequent and regular updates with new material, sustained over a long period of time. That’s how you make a successful blog, right? I’m averaging about 100 views per day, and no comments. That’s not a successful blog.

But I’ve not given up. I still do it every day. It has been great Japanese practice. Lots of persistence here.

No success, though.

On the other hand, let’s consider an area where I wasn’t persistent. Philosophy. I got a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge 15 years ago. So, yes, I was persistent enough to finish a dissertation. I then spent five years trying to get a job in philosophy. Failed.

So I chucked it in and came to Japan.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a job, which I’m still doing, based on having that PhD. The content of my work has steadily got closer to the content of my dissertation, to the point that, this year, I will be directly applying my PhD to my work, in the private sector. The job doesn’t currently pay brilliantly (start up), but it pays a lot more than minimum wage. And a lot more than roleplaying games, novels, or blogs — at least for me.

This means that the area where I wasn’t persistent, the area that I abandoned pretty much completely for eight years, is the area where I currently seem to have the most success. It has at least as much promise for future success as any of the others as well.

Persistence: not needed, and not enough. Rather overrated, all round.

When you are struggling with something you want to do, but are not succeeding at, the big question can be framed as “Which story am I starring in?”. Are you starring in a story of someone who holds on to their dream, struggles through the difficult years of no recognition and piles of rejection slips, before finally succeeding? Or are you starring in a story of someone who wastes his life producing things that no-one wants to read, dying with piles of manuscripts that do not become interesting even posthumously?

Obviously, if you’re in the first story, you should not give up. Keep pushing! Keep writing! Persistence!

If you’re in the second story, you should quit now. Do something more productive with your life. Everyone has something to offer to the world. In your case, this isn’t it. Abandon the illusion that is holding you back, and find your calling!

So, which story are you in? It’s really, really hard to tell. In fact, I suspect it’s impossible to tell. That makes it unfortunate that the two stories recommend diametrically opposed courses of action.

This is why living a good life is hard. The decisions are not easy. There are no universal prescriptions that will always lead you to the right decision. Sometimes, you should give up. Sometimes, giving up will actually lead to success in the area where you gave up. And sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you should be persistent.

Sometimes you should do what you love. Sometimes you should recognise reality and do what is necessary to live. Sometimes your family should come first, and sometimes you should prioritise work for a while to make sure that your family has a home and food. Sometimes you should stand up for what you believe, and sometimes you should keep your head down and wait for the persecution to pass.

There are no easy answers, and most people never get to know whether they made the right decisions. So, if you are a struggling writer, you have to decide for yourself whether you should give up. I’m not going to recommend either option. Giving up worked for me; persisting worked for other people.

I’m afraid you have to run your own life.

* The original post was by Kameron Hurley, and it turns out that her point was that she had redefined “success” in terms of persisting, so that the lack of other kinds of success wouldn’t put her off. Since that is what I have done for my Japanese blog, I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The post above still stands, however. Back