Hard work and practice do pay but persistence that borders on obstinacy can be self-defeating.

There is an apocryphal tale of Robert Bruce and the spider. We all know about that pesky spider that wouldn’t give up, and thereby inspired Robert Bruce to try, try, try again. We know the story because we have read it ad nauseum as children. And today’s children are also being told about the value of persistence. But I think the message should come with a caveat. One should ask two questions: Persistence in order to achieve what? Persistence at what price?

I know someone who is a poster-girl for persistence. Asha (name changed to protect her identity) is on a mission to clear the IAS entrance exam. She has taken it twice before, both times with disappointing results. Her most recent effort fetched her a rank too low to qualify for any appointment in the foreseeable future.

So she has moved on to something else, right? No, wrong!

Riding a carouselShe is hard at it, preparing for attempt number three. When I visited her the other day, her parents were also there. “I know she has it in her,” said her father, and the mother nodded fondly. Asha chimed in, “I’m working really hard. Even if I don’t make it this time, I have one more chance.”

When her parents moved away, Asha told me wistfully, “I want to make my parents proud. They wanted at least one of their children to join the IAS and my brother decided to become a lawyer. I can’t let them down.”

“But is that want you want to do? Is it your dream too?” I asked.

Asha didn’t know the answer to that one. She hadn’t thought about it. It was as if she had got on to the wooden horse in a carousel and was going around in circles waiting for the ride to be over.

What’s wrong here is not that Asha is attempting an exam for the third time. What’s wrong is that she doesn’t know why she is doing it. She hasn’t even thought of a career or a life which doesn’t have the letters IAS in it! And she has spent four years of her mid-twenties following a dream that isn’t even her own.

Her persistence may pay off in the end, and for Asha’s sake I hope it does because she is well down that one-way street. But when she is waiting for her persistence to pay off, is she paying too high a price for it?

No, I am not saying “if at first you don’t succeed give up and move on.” If we were to follow that philosophy, many of us would not succeed at anything worthwhile. Hard work does pay, and practice does make perfect. But persistence that borders on obstinacy can be self-defeating. There is a time to move on, and learning to recognise that moment is a useful skill.

Obviously there can be no formula for this. But there are some general rules of thumb. For instance, we should recognise our strengths as well as our limitations. The idea should be to leverage our strengths, maximise our natural advantages, rather than working to a pre-conceived formula, whether our own or someone else’s.

Self-beliefWhy does this matter so much, you may ask? What’s the harm if someone wants to keep on and on at something through multiple failures? Because it could sap the morale. More dangerously, it could erode self-belief. It could raise the ‘I’m no good’ bogie. That’s a crushing burden to carry through life. It could ultimately lead to envy of others, bitterness, and other such unattractive qualities that make relationships difficult in life.

That doesn’t mean we should swing to the other extreme. A dabbler or dilettante may not achieve anything substantial in anything because his attention is on the next adventure even before this one has run its course. The rule, as in so many other things in life, is to go for the golden mean. Hopefully, with your equanimity and sense of humour intact!

Malini Seshadri is a freelance writer. Email her at: malini1seshadri@gmail.com