Vantage Point: Persistence

A 378Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

We are told constantly that persistence is a wonderful trait, one that is necessary to succeed in life and in business. Perhaps that’s true to some extent, but let me tell you a story.

I live in a house that is more than a century old. So when I started hearing erratic clicking noises a few weeks back, I was worried. Was it water dripping somewhere, behind a wall or in the basement? Perhaps it was electricity arcing somewhere? Because I heard it only irregularly, it took awhile to pinpoint it to one room, and then to figure out the biological cause: a sparrow sitting on the sash of the double hung window and periodically jumping up to peck at the glass. Not sure what to do, I put up one of those dark bird silhouettes. It didn’t deter him. I taped newspaper over the inside of that glass. He moved to the next of the three sets of windows. So I taped the lower third of all three. He moved to the bottoms of the windows. I taped the lower third of those as well.

All was quiet for a few days and then I started hearing him again, only louder. Now he was flying at the windows from the nearby bushes. By this time I wasn’t sure if he was totally brain damaged from thousands of self-induced impacts or just stubbornly determined to get into the house. I taped up more and more paper, as even the smallest uncovered space seemed to lure him. Our darkened dining room looks a bit odd, but it’s now quiet. Perhaps he is pecking at someone else’s windows.

Laser-focused persistence is one thing. Planned persistence is another. Had he made it inside, certainly that sparrow would not have lasted long with our cats and dogs to contend with. He did change his plans slightly as his attempts were increasingly thwarted by paper blocking his view. But it wasn’t an adequate change, merely using the same tactic a few feet or inches to one side or another. And he kept at it for nearly three weeks, hour after hour, day after day. That’s a lot of useless beak bashing.

In surveying, it can be helpful to be persistent. How many times has it paid off to search a little longer and a little further away to find that called-for iron pin? How important was it to dig through mis-indexed records in a county courthouse to find an ancient map or deed that answered questions about a complicated boundary?

On the business side, too, persistence can keep us afloat. When I opened my own business in 1998, I thought I was ready for anything, after so many years of experience that included field crew and survey department management. Since I planned to be a solo practitioner, never wanting to go through the heartache of having to deliver notices of lean time layoffs ever again, it should be easy, right? I had a business plan, experience, connections, and a clear idea of what I did and didn’t want to do.

Hah! I hadn’t expected some of the bureaucratic hurdles one must navigate in operating a business. I was not fully prepared for some of the truly difficult people that I’d encounter and could not hand off to anyone else, even when my red-headed temper was dangerously close to the end of its short fuse. And I hadn’t anticipated all those unsolicited and time-burning sales phone calls that begin, "Hi! How are you doing today?"

During these tough last few years, it might have been physically easy to close the doors and find some other line of work. But mentally it would have been very hard. It was time to sit down and come up with a revised plan of action. I expanded the services I provide, entailing some additional learning and some additional investment in getting the word out. I also figured out more efficient ways to work and use my time. Yes, I am persistent, although some call it being stubborn and hard-headed (sometimes rightfully so). But unlike the sparrow, I adapted, something more than simply shifting to a new windowpane to peck at while hoping for a different result. It worked; I’m working.

There is an immense difference between single-mindedness and informed perseverance. If you can’t relate to the sparrow or to my own tale of tenacity, perhaps the story of the Schaibles will give you reason for more introspection on what motivates you.

This Philadelphia couple lost their 8-month old son to pneumonia this April, a very sad situation. As their fundamentalist faith prevents them from consulting physicians or using any medications, their baby succumbed to what is generally a treatable although potentially fatal disease despite their fervent praying. The Schaibles have just been convicted of murder for Brandon’s death. Why? Because in 2009 they lost another 2-year old son to the same illness also after relying solely on prayer, and had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. Their sentence in that earlier case included 10 years of probation, during which they were to seek medical attention for their seven other children, now ranging up to age 17. But when Brandon fell ill this May, the Schaibles resorted to the same nontreatment, believing the pastor who told them they had just not had enough faith last time. Everyone in our great nation is entitled to their own religious beliefs, until those beliefs endanger others.

True, this is an example of persistence taken to the extreme–although the Schaibles believed they weren’t persistent enough. So what kind of persistence is helpful and what kind is harmful?

Effective persistence incorporates a certain amount of effort invested in looking at the big picture, figuring out what new knowledge or perspective is needed. How do we deal with known problems so that we can change the outcome? Do we need to modify objectives and goals? The answers will be different for each of us.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 378Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE