How to Persist Even When Every Instinct Tells You to Give Up.

A recipe for persistence when trying to achieve really big goals

Imagine after years of training, you’ve made it to the Olympics. Well done.

But there’s a last minute twist. They’ve changed the rules. You now have to compete blindfolded. And you aren’t even told which direction to throw the javelin. Also, no one will tell you how good or bad your throw was until the medal ceremony (they will block your ears so you can’t hear the anguished screams if your javelin ends up piercing a few spectators).

What are your chances of winning? Non-existent? Abysmal? Something worse than abysmal?

But hold on, there’s another twist. The event doesn’t last a day or two, but goes on for 15 years.

In this case, not only are you unlikely to win but most people would give up long before the end of the event out of frustration.

What’s this got to do with persistence? Some of the most challenging (and also most rewarding) goals force you to persist even if you can’t see any progress.

15 Years Without Knowing It Would Work

Sir James Dyson is the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner and consequently owner of a multibillion dollar company. But when he was starting out in 1978, he built 5127 prototypes before he found a design that worked and it took 15 years before he was able to fully bring his invention to market successfully.

In the meantime, his family was struggling. His wife Deidre had to teach art to support the family, grow their own vegetables, sew the family clothes and they were at risk of losing their house. On the positive side, Netflix hadn’t been invented yet, so that was one less bill to contend with.

Let’s imagine after 10 years of this, how Mrs Dyson must have felt watching her husband tinkering about in the garage with vacuum cleaner parts like it was a perpetual Sunday afternoon, while she was working her ass off to keep them fed?

Mrs Dyson (holding carving knife in a less than friendly manner): “It’s been 10 years James. We’re getting nowhere. Nothing is happening. When are you going to give this up and get a real job?”

James Dyson (oblivious): “It’s going to happen soon, I promise you” (lying, because he has no idea when or even if it will ever happen) “By the way, I’ve run out of money for the next prototype. Do you think you could get another part-time job?”

And at that point he was still 5 years away from success.

Put another way, if a friend of yours had been working away at a new invention and had gone 10 years without success, would you willingly invest your life savings in their business?

The Turkey Problem

In the book, the Black Swan, Nassim Taleb talks about the “Turkey problem” (as originally expressed by Bertrand Russell).

Imagine a turkey being fed every day by a butcher. Each day that goes by the turkey grows more and more confident that the butcher must really love and care for it. Each day of being fed adds more evidence of this until the last day when the turkey becomes Thanksgiving dinner.

What we are talking about in this article is a variation of the turkey problem. Each day that went by without Dyson earning any money, his wife was getting more and more “evidence” that her husband was deluded, clueless or both.

As we will see, in many situations, not just entrepreneurship, there are often no credible signs of progress. And if you looked purely for evidence of advancement, you would find none and likely not continue.

Success is non-linear

Maybe we don’t admit it to ourselves, but Keanu Reeves hasn’t got the greatest dramatic range and most of us want life to be linear. We want to put in some effort and get some immediate and encouraging feedback that we are going in the right direction.

Unfortunately with most goals you will pursue, the returns are not linear at all. In many cases, despite lots of hard work it may appear that you’re making little progress at all.

Let’s look at this in more detail:

1. Success doesn’t come in fractions

Dating: A single person who meets their dream partner after 100 dates, does NOT meet 1/100th of their ideal match at each date (“I met the right ear lobe tonight!”).

In fact after 99 extremely frustrating dates, they won’t have 99/100ths of their ideal match, but probably a deep loathing for humanity.

Until the moment they meet the right person, there is little evidence of progress.

Working towards a promotion at work: Similarly each time you feebly laugh at your boss’s bad jokes, you don’t get an update of points earned towards a raise. And you can’t get one fifth of a promotion.

2. Plateaus

Losing weight: Everyone loves to see the pounds melt off, but (especially as you get older) there are often plateaus where you are doing all the right things but not losing any weight. These plateaus can last days, weeks or even months. This is the point where many people give up, but if they do, they throw away their chances of success.

Knowledge or skill acquisition: When you’re trying to understand something complicated like the final season of Lost, you’ll probably go through hours of being totally confused before something clicks. Actually who am I kidding, you’re never figuring that one out.

Similar with physical actions like a golf swing, you may be working on it for months before it finally gels together and your wife leaves you.

3. Measures are unreliable

Writing a novel: When writing a novel, progress can be measured by things like word (or page) count, or milestones like submitting the first draft, but ultimate success is not knowable ahead of time. This is because word count is not a measure of quality and with publishing, even successful well written works may not succeed.

Therefore none of those measures or milestones are any actual guarantee of eventual success and hence not meaningful.

What Warren Buffett has to do

Warren Buffett’s value-investing approach is an extreme example of a strategy that gives very little positive feedback.

Buffett’s approach involves finding a company with a sustainable competitive advantage and then waiting. Especially if the market is bullish.

When there is a crash or some other event that makes the apparent value of the company plummet, while everyone else is panicking, Buffett swoops in and purchases the stock at a bargain price.

This sounds easy, but it’s not at all. The challenge is:

– Until the crash (or fall in price of a particular company) there is no real positive feedback that he’s on the right track

– He must be confident in his appraisal of the fundamental underlying value of the company.

– The whole time, he has to ignore the market and the rest of humanity pushing opinion in one direction. He has to fight “common sense” and market wisdom, and do the opposite. He must be “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful”.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman says that with entrepreneurship (and this also applies to investing), hitting it big is about being “contrarian and right”. It’s not enough to do the opposite of everyone else, you have to be correct when they’re wrong. (In investing another alternative mode of success is to be deluded and lucky – but that’s not a replicable process).

Warren Buffett has made billions because he has been able to stick to his strategy, not just without any feedback that he’s on the right track, but also going against what everyone else says is the right thing to do.

You Need to Do This Too

This situation doesn’t just apply to Warren Buffett. It is actually relevant to many other areas of life.

Success in big payoff goals means proceeding even when:

– There is little or no feedback or indicator of progress
– Recent history lacks any evidence of impending success
– Sometimes common sense and the prevailing wisdom says that you are wrong

Most people wouldn’t last 8 days without some form of feedback. You’ll need to last much longer than that.

Your reaction is normal

The desire to give up is actually a normal and natural instinct. It makes sense. But think of it this way – to achieve what the vast majority of the population can’t achieve, you will need to do things that they can’t or won’t do.

So if you find yourself in a situation where your success is dependent on staying the course, but every instinct in you will be telling you to quit because you can’t see progress, you’re going to need a good plan.

Here’s 4 things you can do to maximize your persistence.

1. Does it make sense?

It’s easier to stick to a plan when you are sure it makes sense.

– Earlier we talked about a single person going on lots of dates. They might be doubting their sanity after the 99th date but it’s hard to fault their plan. Technically the more people they meet, the more likely they will meet someone they match with.

– When James Dyson was building his bagless vacuum cleaner it must have been extremely frustrating to go through so many prototypes, but he also knew that other inventors like Edison tried thousands of prototypes before they figured out what worked.

It’s worth talking to lots of people about your plan. It doesn’t matter if they are qualified or unqualified. You’re looking for the grain of truth in their objections. You want evidence of whether you’re possibly deluded.

Some people will even get surly or angry with your idea. This is gold. Why are they responding like this? Sometimes it’s because of their own issues or feeling threatened by your possible success. But other times, there is something seriously wrong with your idea and they don’t want you to make a fool of yourself.

By the way, if the overwhelming response from people is complete silence that’s a pretty good sign that you’re screwed.

But even if you realize that you’re totally deluded, don’t worry. This is where trial and error comes into it. Don’t be wed to the one approach you have. Know that you can always tweak and changes things if you need to. If one approach really is fantasy, you can shift things (as long as the goal itself isn’t in lala land, in which case this is the least of your problems).

Remove the survival instinct

Nothing will impact your ability to persist more than not having enough money to pay the rent or to eat. So you need to find a way to take care of your basics, thus freeing your mind to focus on the long-term goal.

You need to reduce your overheads and living expenses and then find a way to reliably cover those reduced expenses. As mentioned, Dyson had his wife to teach art to support the family. Simon Cowell moved in with his parents. You could get a part-time job, restrict yourself to caviar every second day or start wearing Zegna instead of Brioni.

A Step-by-step plan for combatting doubts

It’s a fallacy to believe that people who succeed have eliminated their doubts. If anything they’ve learned to manage in spite of their doubts. James Dyson said “I wanted to give up almost every day”.

You will have doubts and you need to deal with them. Here’s a way of doing that.

Step One: Anticipate the doubts

Based on your past experience with difficult goals, write down some thoughts that might come up when things get tough:

For example, some common thoughts when people encounter difficulties are:

– “This isn’t working”

– “It’s too difficult”

– “Other people seem to have a much easier time – so I must be doing something wrong.”

– “Maybe the initial plan was flawed”

– “Game of Thrones is really deteriorating since they outpaced the books.” (Stop it, they’re doing the best they can. It’s still must-see TV)

– “It would be easier to quit”

Many of these are quite predictable, but when they pop into your head they take on a life of their own. And remember it’s not just the doubts that are dangerous but the fact that they often cloak themselves in seemingly logical, “objective” reasons to abandon your current course of action. It’s this air of respectability that is most hazardous, because it’s like they’re sneaking in without you realizing.

Step Two: Challenge the doubts

Once you have predicted some of the doubts that you will have, it’s time to dispute these by coming up with responses to each of them. This way, as soon as one of the automatic negative thoughts come up, you can respond to it with a prepared neutralizing statement.

Let’s look at some examples:

1. If this is your habitual thought: “This isn’t working”

This could be the response you write down: “How do I know that? With many goals, you don’t get any real progress (money in the bank) until the end. Am I sure that I’m not panicking?”

2. If this is your habitual thought: “This is too difficult”

This could be the response you write down: “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

3. If this is your habitual thought: “Other people seem to have a much easier time – so I must be doing something wrong.”

This could be the response you write down: Everything looks easier from the outside.

4. If this is your habitual thought: “Kirsten Bell is a treasure.”

This could be the response you write down: “That is true.”

5. If this is your habitual thought: “I think my initial plan was wrong.”

This could be the response you write down: “Is that really the case or are am I just second-guessing myself because I can’t see any real progress?”

6. If this is your habitual thought: “It would be easier to quit.”

This could be the response you write down: “And start again? Really? What is going to be different next time? I need to stop quitting when it gets tough. ”

Step Three: Regular review

Once you have your habitual thoughts and responses written down, cut and paste these into your calendar program and send yourself a recurring reminder every week.

You can also use this exercise in the midst of a crisis to deal with unhelpful thoughts that arise.

The best way to ensure you stick to the plan

The last thing I want to talk about is one of the most reliable ways to make sure you stick with a plan. It’s so reliable, I’ve used it many times in my life with great success: It’s having no Plan B.

For obvious reasons, if you have no other options (or at least feel that you don’t), then no matter what happens, you just keep going.

Like Cortes burning his boats, you have removed your ability to give up partway through.

It goes without saying, only do this, if you’re really serious about the goal.


One of the greatest challenges of big goals is sticking with the plan even when you can’t see any evidence of progress. But this can be overcome, if you acknowledge the threat and make a plan to deal with it.

The Can Opener Method

Ultimate Guide

Learn the Can Opener Method: A devastatingly simple tactic to help you figure out the next, best step in any situation.

Image credit