The Pay-off of Persistence

As a country we love underdogs. Some of our most beloved stories are about the persistence of people who didn’t look like they had a chance. Stories that emphasize how little ‘talent’ means in the scheme of things, unless it is accompanied by enough grit and determination to get it over, around, or through whatever obstacles come up. As a nation built on the backbone of individualism, our ideology is rooted in the idea that men and women and pull themselves up in life by sheer willpower – that a country can pull itself up by willpower and gumption against the far greater power of an established and overbearing empire.

Given our history, it is little wonder that we don’t tend to naturally root for the person, the sports team, the race horse, who had everything going for them from the beginning. Whose path was laid down in golden bricks. Where is the struggle? Where is the reward?? We root for the athletes, the teams who had to struggle over and over again to succeed. Who fought through failure after failure and disappointment after disappointment. We are willing to go through those disappointments with the best teams, as long as they don’t give up on us. (Any Cubs fans here want to talk about crushing droughts and the relief of final victory?)

Rocky. Remember the Titans. Rudy. Seabiscuit. These are beloved stories about iconic characters who became iconic through their ruthless persistence and unflagging belief. Persistence is a characteristic that will serve anyone well in life. Whether an athlete or a businessman – or a sales person, as the case may be. You don’t have to be the most brilliant sales person on the floor – with the quickest responses, the most charming persona, the golden tongue. The ability to stick with it – whether “it” be a conversation, a customer, or just a discouraging day – is a trait that is hard to put a value on. So here, without further ado, are a couple of quick lessons you can learn about the art of perseverance.

1. No one else has to believe in you for you to believe in you. 

No one believed that Rudy had a shot at anything he wanted to accomplish – whether it was getting into Notre Dame academics or playing Notre Dame football. And even when he got onto the practice team, no one believed he would dress for a game. As brave, and gutsy, and determined as he was, even Rudy went through low points where he almost gave into the vision other people had for him. The way they measured him. But in the end, all the mattered – along with the wise words of an old guy named Fortune – was that he kept believing in himself and in what he could do. As Fortune told him:

You’re 5 foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and you have barely a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in there with the best college football players in the land for 2 years. And you’re gonna walk outta here with a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In this life, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody but yourself. And after what you’ve gone through, if you haven’t done that by now, it ain’t gonna never happen. Now go on back.

And that scrawny, scrappy little horse named Seabiscuit? He couldn’t run when Charles Howard bought him. Or when Tom Howard started training him. Red Pollard hadn’t won races when he started riding Seabiscuit. We love this story because it is about not just one, but multiple underdogs who started with a combination that no one else believed would work – a huge jockey on a small, runty horse. Of course, in the end, when Seabiscuit beat the Triple Crown winner in the match race that cemented his place in history, everyone believed in him. But even then it didn’t matter. What got the horse and his team of humans through was their belief in each other.

2. You don’t have to be the best to be your best.

Rudy was never going to be the best student at Notre Dame. Heck, it took him four tries to get in at all. But he didn’t aim to be the best student. He just aimed to give it his best shot. His getting into Notre Dame at all was proof of more determination than most Notre Dame students showed in graduating. Success isn’t about comparisons. Unless it’s your current self with your past self. Rudy wasn’t delusional enough to think he’d be the best player on the Notre Dame football team either – he knew he’d be lucky to play at all. But his goal was just to do his best every time he went on the field, even when others told him to give it a rest. Integrity is one of the things that gets you results in life, and perhaps the main thing that gets respect. And integrity is not tied to being the best – only to the knowledge that you have done yours.

Similarly, Red Pollard was never going to be the best jockey in America. He was too big, too bitter, too hot-tempered, and blind in one eye. But he didn’t have to be the best jockey. He only had to be the right jockey for Seabiscuit. He only had to be the best he could in each race he entered – even if that best was with a previously shattered leg. The legend of Seabiscuit didn’t come about because a team of the best people got together with the finest horse in America – it came about because some misfits worked together to make each other the best they could be. As Pollard says in the film’s closing lines:

You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.

So there you have it. Whether you are the business owner or the sales person – be inspired today that success isn’t a result of having the best team, or the best office location, or the encouragement of everyone around you. Success may be about consistently doing your best with where you are and the team you have. It may just be about not getting discouraged – or if you do, not letting yourself quit. It may be about trying just one more time.

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