Our dogs Conrad and Mae are contained on our five acres by a fence around the border. Since they are often roaming about outside during the day and at night, they tend to keep the wildlife at bay. The deer avoid our property, as do squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits.
Alas, the skunk has not been deterred of late.
Conrad and Mae have been skunked about 20 times so far this summer. Sometime after dark — often moments before we plan to bring the dogs inside for the night — we’ll hear vigorous barking for a few minutes, then silence, and finally the ominous smell of skunk will waft up to the house. (The smell wears off in a few days, so I never bother to bathe the dogs. They just have to sleep in the mudroom for a night or two or three.)
The dogs simply will not learn to leave the skunk alone. They could be sprayed every night for the next year, but they’d not learn. They’re persistent — too persistent.
That brings me to my philosophical point: Persistence is not a virtue. Virtues are ways of acting that are always necessary and always proper to further your life and happiness. To flourish, you must be rational in every waking moment, not just sometimes. You cannot ever temper rationality with irrationality, nor attempt to find a balance between them. To understand that rationality is a virtue is to understand that you’re always right to be rational and that you can never be too rational.
Persistence, however, is something quite different, and that’s why it’s not a virtue. My dictionary defines persistence as “firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”
Persistence is often the right course. If you’re learning a complicated new dance step, training your dog, or developing a new product at work, you’re going to need a whole lot of persistence. That doesn’t imply, however, that persistence is a virtue. It’s not — for the simple reason that persistence is often a mistake. Sometimes, failure is not a reason to “try, try again,” but rather to “stop and think, dammit.”
Let’s consider three kinds of cases in which persistence is a bad idea.
First, instead of persistence, sometimes you should rethink whether your goal is worth so much time and effort.
If college is nothing but a slog, consider whether to quit rather than persist in slogging for another two years. If your old clunker of a car keeps breaking down, consider whether to buy a new car rather than performing yet another costly repair. If your friend blows up at you over nothing yet again, consider whether to demote that friendship rather than muddling through this latest conflict.
Second, instead of persistence, sometimes you need to rethink your methods for achieving your goal.
If your dog isn’t doing what you’re asking in training, try a different technique rather than persisting in the ineffective method. If you’re kids keep annoying you, stop the persistent nagging and try some collaborative problem-solving. If you can’t find critical files on your computer, don’t be persistent about searching for them but rather find some new way of organizing or naming them.
Third, instead of persistence, sometimes you need a break to refocus.
If you’re frustrated with some project at work, maybe you need a short break to clear your head: the answer might come to you while you’re pouring that cup of coffee. If you’re annoyed by a discussion of politics on Facebook, step away from the keyboard to pet the cat. If your dog isn’t responding to your commands in training, perhaps both you and your dog need a break from the pressure.
Again, if persistence were a virtue, a person would always be right to be persistent. Yet as we’ve seen with these three kinds of cases, that’s just not true.
So what is persistence? Basically, persistence is a personality trait. People differ in their natural persistence based on innate personality as well as childhood experiences. People can cultivate their disposition to persist or refrain from persisting by repeatedly choosing to persist or refrain.
Personality traits, I think, should be understood as subject to a kind of Aristotelian continuum. A person can be excessive, deficient, or at the sweet spot of “the mean.” For a person to be properly persistent would mean that persistence is exercised “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.”
That’s not easy! As Aristotle says,
…it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult — to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult) …
With practice, however, we can cultivate the skills required for persisting and for refraining — as well as the skills required to know whether to persist or to refrain in the circumstances at hand.
Mostly, remember to avoid the trap of thinking that persistence is always beneficial. Sometimes, a bit less persistence is exactly what you need!