5 times when it’s foolish to be persistent.

by Brock Henry

“The only overnight success is a good night’s sleep.” (author unknown)

Success rarely happens overnight.

Most times it takes many overnights. Many times it takes years of overnights.

Consider the following:

• WD-40 stands for “Water Displacement-40th Attempt.” The inventor of the ubiquitous de-squeaker took 40 tries before he nailed the correct formula.

• The “instant hit” Angry Birds was actually Rovio’s 52nd game. It was only after 8 years of arduous trial and error…and near-bankruptcy…that Rovio hit it out of the park.

• Thomas Edison struck out on his first 3,000 attempts at developing a successful lightbulb. It wasn’t until try 3,001 that he struck gold.

• James Dyson, the inventor of the best-selling vacuum in the United States, didn’t hit pay dirt until his 5,127th prototype.


You can call it persistence. You can call it perseverance. Or, you can call it tenacity.

The Romans called it firmitas. Thomas Edison called it “stick-to-itiveness.”

Regardless of what you call it, though, it is absolutely essential to productivity. Because literal overnight success is such a rarity, very little would get done in this world were it not for persistence.

The Conundrum with Persistence

There’s a difficulty with persistence, though. I recently came across the following parable that illustrates it well:

There were two brothers who dreamt of becoming Olympic runners.

They quit their jobs and began to train for the Olympics. They expected it to be hard work, and they were right. Every day they woke up early and trained very hard.

Neither of them enjoyed the training process, but they had a dream and they were determined to get there.

After four years of training, the Olympic trials came and neither of the brothers made the cut.

The younger brother decided that what was involved in being an Olympic runner wasn’t what he expected and it didn’t fulfill him, so he decided to quit running and pursue another vocation that he would enjoy. He found a fulfilling career and was content.

The older brother, however, decided he was going to train harder. He didn’t enjoy training hard every day, but he had a dream of running in the Olympics and he was determined to get there.

Four years later at the next Olympic trials, the older brother didn’t make the cut. He didn’t want to be thought of as a quitter so he continued to train. He never looked forward to his days full of training, but he had a dream and was determined.

Four years later he made the cut and ran in the Olympics.

Everyone congratulated the older brother on his great success. 12 years of hard work had paid off.

Which brother do you think was more successful after 12 years?

The one who persisted despite not enjoying what he was doing or the one who stopped doing what wasn’t working?

The Simple Truth

The simple truth is that not all goals should be pursued with dogged persistence. Some should…in fact, many should.

But not all should.

Some should be abandoned after a reasonable effort is made. Others should never even be attempted.

The trick is having the wisdom to know which category a goal falls into.

5 Types of Goals Where Persistence Should Be Avoided

Let me give you 5 scenarios where you would be wise not to persist.

In these cases, wisdom suggests abandoning ship and putting your time and energy elsewhere. There is not always shame in quitting. In fact, in these situations, it would be counter-productive not to quit.

1. The goal cannot be defined as progress or forward movement. If accomplishing the goal, no matter how easy it might be to accomplish, does not result in progress or forward movement of any kind, it’s not worth persistently pursuing.

Nature favors forward movement and progress. A child naturally grows over time. Time itself never stops…it constantly moves forward.

And so should our lives. Productivity consists of growth and forward movement…progress.

If your goal does neither of these, it is simply allowing you to stagnate…and stagnation is not productive.

2. The goal adds no value to the current state of things. Part of progress is the concept of “enhancement.” Enhancement can come in many forms: expanding something to amplify its existing quality, reducing something to increase its efficiency, altering something to augment its current quality, etc.

Though enhancement does not always take the same form, it is a necessary component in a goal worthy of persistent effort.

If a goal adds absolutely nothing of value to the current situation, it’s not worth persisting toward.

3. Collateral damage is necessary to achieve the goal. The end justifies the means.

Or does it?

If achieving the goal requires running over others or crushing everything in your way, it’s not worth persevering to achieve.


4. Peter must be robbed to pay Paul. If something of equal or greater value must be slighted to achieve the current goal, it’s not worth persisting toward. Worthy goals are worthy because they can be achieved without doing this.

5. You have no personal investment in the goal. A rock-solid personal commitment to a goal can fuel persistence for a lifetime. A lack of personal commitment can destroy persistence almost instantaneously.

(If you are unable to bow out of working toward a goal that you currently have no personal investment in, your best option is to dig deeper inside of yourself to find that connection.)


James A. Michener, the late novelist, once said, “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”

He was exactly right.

Sometimes, after failing the fourth time, the wise person recognizes that it’s best to move on.

Other times, the wise person knows that the goal he is striving for is worthy of ten thousand tries.

Brock’s social media: facebook | twitter | email

  • Jonathon Wilson


    To answer the question with the parable I think that both brothers were equally successful after the 12 year time frame and equally achieved what they set out to do whether they were happy doing it or not.

    Heres an old question paraphrased that suits the purpose well ” Would you mop the floor for 10 years, if at the end of it you got the million dollars?”

    As for goal setting usually we know within ourselves whether or not it’s a worthy goal and whether it should or shouldn’t be continued or if we should change our direction instead,

    Here’s a link to my blog, the topic of this post is never giving up enjoy.