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

Posted in Game Design, Work.

14 Comments

  1. You theorize that persistence wasn’t necessary to get your current job and be successful with it. But in order to qualify for that job you need two things, which is your PhD and a deep insight into the Japanese language, culture and the Japanese way of understanding. And those are not easy to achieve. (For example I remember that you got a special mentioning for your 100 % attendance rate at Yamasa.) Hence I see there more persistence that you are giving yourself credit for.

    I guess what I want to say is that persistence alone is no guarantee for success, but no persistence is a guarantee for failure.

  2. Curious what your dissertation was in?
    Thanks for this article.
    Another RPG Developer friend posted the link to it in my feed on FB and I came to read it

  3. Christian: I was exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect. I did say it was a rant. There is a certain minimum level of persistence necessary to achieve anything. If you want to be a writer, for example, you have to actually finish something. If the “something” is a novel, that needs quite a lot of persistence.

    The important point is that I abandoned philosophy, pretty much completely, for eight years on the grounds that I couldn’t get a job in it — and then got a job in it. While still not doing any. The common idea that you definitely won’t succeed if you quit is not, actually, true.

    The overall point, however, is that sometimes the right thing to do is give up.

    TadK: The philosophy of understanding. It came out as a book; it’s the one in the Amazon “Books by David Chart” sidebar that isn’t an RPG book, and it seems to have come down markedly in price. (Original list price was on the order of $100.)

  4. Sounds familiar!

    I spent a decade studying physics. I earned two degrees with honors, medals, citations, etc., paying for that education with scholarship and fellowship money awarded on the strength of my record. Despite my achievements, I was unemployable as a physicist – not because I sucked, but because the world did not (and does not) need more than a few new theoretical particle physicists each year.

    I have since spent more than 19 years working on RPGs. Though I cannot claim that I made GURPS a household name or a financial success story, I shepherded it through two editions, the latter of which I designed; kept it a going concern for 19 years; and oversaw hundreds of projects. I did not and do not suck. However, I am essentially unknown next to most every developer who has been around for as long me – and many newcomers – because this business saves kudos for true designers, not product-line editors and custodians.

    If we are using fame and fortune to rate success, then, I can say that neither one nor two decades of persistence brought me success. But wait! The transition from academia to game development saw me go from dead broke, unemployed, and unpublished to gainfully employed and published. This occurred overnight, after my grasp of game mechanics impressed someone who spontaneously offered me a job. It involved discovery, not résumés or interviews or any kind of hard work.

    Thus, my experience is that spontaneous change, and recognition for skills that might have nothing to do with your hard work, are what begets success. Persistence yields familiarity and security – noble in themselves – but not recognition. A decade of persistence at academia left me poor; two decades in game development have mostly left me in the shadows. I am grateful to be educated and employed, but if someone who wished to be wealthy and respected asked me for a tip, I would say, “Seek change, make noise, and get discovered!”, not, “Work really hard to earn your place.”

  5. I think Sean and David’s names are recognized more among fans than they realize: I am often amazed at how much the younger generation remember authors and talk about them when my generation focused more on systems and games: I had a conversation a few weeks back with a young Marcus L Roland fan. I found this unusual, because he identified as a MLR fan not a Forgotten Futures fan or similar. Likewise a number of my friends who are authors or tv writers seem to get significant personal following these days…

  6. I have bought books with the name David Chart on the cover because the name David Chart was on the cover. And it was the relative financial success of people like Sean (hi, Sean!) and Steven Marsh (who got the job I wanted, and whose link brought me here) that inspired me to say “Screw THIS!” and get out of the RPG business.

    But let me tell ya about seeking change, making noise, and being discovered: It got me fired.

    I’ve decided the real world is even more random than RPGs.

  7. It’s very interesting what you say. Sometimes life gets easier (and happier) when I give up on something that wasn’t really meant for me.

  8. Sean: It is a relief to see that I’m not the only example.

    CJ, Montejon: Thank you. It does appear that I may have underestimated my success a bit. Only a bit, though.

    Montejon: I sometimes get the feeling that “it’s all random, and nothing we do really makes any difference” is closer to the truth than any of the inspiring maxims you hear. I don’t think it’s actually true, though, and I suspect that believing it would undermine what ability we do have to make a difference.

    Angelina: Yes, exactly.

  9. Okay, it may be a rant, but nevertheless its is a really intereting topic, and there’s a thousand more things I could say about it (and maybe I will *g*).

    For example let’s think about perspective – please have a look at this marvelous Kepler Orrery:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnZVvYm6KKM

    For a variety of reasons I’m certain that on each and every one of those spots there will be humans living in the distant future. And all of them will date their ancestry back to Earth. I disagree with Asimov that Earth will be forgotten. We already live in the information age where no information gets lost, and it will only get better in the future (just think about how much we revere the works of our ancestors). So even with billions of people living on Earth right now, each and every one of us will become a profound ancestor for the quadrillions of people living then. Each one of us and his or her beliefs will become the foundation of religious reverence. So if you are looking for posthumous fame, don’t worry – just keep on blogging 🙂

    Now, thats what I call an exaggerating rant.

  10. @CJ, @Montejon: This is David’s blog, so it is not my place to be soaking up praise, but it would be even more caddish not to thank you.

    @Montejon: Making noise means having to follow up with change. I did not claim that was a smooth path to success, merely a shorter one. Indeed, it may well be short and horrid.

    @Angelina: I gave up studying chemistry to study physics, and then physics for game development. I left English Canada for Québec. I stopped using Sunday afternoons to play video games in order to spend all day on Argentine tango. In each case, life took a turn for the better. Yet to follow up on what I just said to Montejon, each transition had painful short-term consequences – be those bridges burned with academic snobs, linguistic and cultural shock, or sore feet.

    @Christian: Fame could go hang itself if RPG development paid better. It makes me a hack, but if I could choose between (1) a 50% pay raise alongside a curse of auctorial anonymity, or (2) being fondly spoken of by gamers everywhere but with a curse of financial freezing, I would choose the first. My “recognition-seeking behavior” is driven by the fact that RPG editors are not taken as seriously as equally experienced and educated editors in other fields. Were the stakes in the bet “becoming a better tango dancer,” I would have to think much harder!

  11. I found this interesting thanks David. Success for me in my professional field has come through adapting to challenges, conflict and circumstance, often my doing the exact opposite of what the usual path recommended is or surrendering and flowing with the path of least resistance. It’s been interesting, if unexpected.

    As to RPG writing, I’m a published RPG author and that’s a dream fulfilled. You helped make this possible and believed in me, so I am very thankful to you. You should be proud of what you’ve achieved with Ars Magica, for you could have easily rested on you laurels but the legacy you will leave will not be forgotten.

  12. When I was talking up Tamao back in the day, I mentioned it to a friend and he said “Is that the David Chart who wrote Ars Magica?!” So it does happen… and for the record, I’m more of a board gamer than a role player, but I am looking forward to Kannagara!

  13. @Lachie: I think that route to success is more common than we think. It doesn’t really translate well into advice, because it tends to sound like “wait for something good to happen, then take advantage of it”. I’m glad that writing for Ars Magica was a dream come true for you, but I think you need to apply for better dreams.

    @Erik: Thanks! I need to be persistent and get on with writing Kannagara.

  14. I thi maybe the road to succes is taking advantage of opportunity when it knocks. To a certain degree you can activaly seek opportunities, or even semi-actively just associate yourself with a community where something pops right at you. Something that would not have happened had you spent your time elsewhere.

    I noticed this blog entry because of the electronic links I have with David Chart and CJ, both of whom I’ve worked with and met in person. Because I read and post at Atlas Games Forum I noticed an open call some years back. And suddenly there was an opportunity to write something for a rpg, something I had wanted for a number of years, although apparently not passionately enough to actively seek it out. I was amazed to get my proposal accepted, and some time later the challenging work finally resulted in a contribution to a published book. In a foreign language for me. Subsequently I also contributied to a second book, the one where Lachie was first published. And a third one is due in March I believe.

    So, I’ve been persistent in the sense that I sent proposals to Atlas several times and that I worked to refine half-baked ideas into a working product. But no more than that.
    And in my day job as an engineer I’ve never gotten a job by being persistent and sending applications. Well, I did send applications but all were rejected. But I got jobs by having my resume get noticed online, or by knowing someone.

    Oh, and both David Chart and Sean Punch have names with a high recognition factor among roleplayers for sure.

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