Always Pondering The Line Between Constructive Persistence And Futility

Seth Godin made a post on his Medium site last week about persistence. Whenever I see posts praising persistence I always start to philosophize about how one knows the line between constructive persistence and continuing to do something based on sunk cost fallacy thinking–the idea that you have invested so much into doing something you can’t stop now.

In particular, he writes about how 20 years ago he committed to writing one blog post everyday as part of his practice. He admits that doesn’t mean every post will be great, but suggests that the practice has helped make him a better writer.

Certainly this is the type of commitment artists make to their craft. While you might immediately think of classical musicians when I mention this, I know one visual artist that painted every day during his honeymoon (and is still married some 45ish years later); another who sketches at every opportunity, even when he is talking to you; and of course many writers and diarists who have a daily discipline.

But I also know some people who cut back on blogging everyday with a goal of only writing when they had a quality thoughts to share. In my opinion, they achieved that goal. There is definitely a difference between the goal of only expressing valuable ideas and the goal of becoming a better writer, but simply writing every day won’t help you obtain that goal.  I have talked about deliberate practice in earlier posts.

Godin opens his post pretty much directly addressing performers, though it is certainly a metaphor for broader practice.

We’re not entitled to an audience, to applause or to make a living. The work we most want to do, the thing that pushes us to be show up — it might not resonate with the audience we bring it to.

There’s no guarantee, none at all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up. The lack of a guarantee is precisely why the work is worth doing, because it’s the guarantee that we’ve been brainwashed to require, and without it, few people have the guts enough to show up anyway.

I don’t know that he provides any insight into  where persistent labor veers into futility, but the last line does provide one criterion for knowing your efforts are meaningful:

Outcomes are important. Figuring out how to serve our audience is essential. But the outcome isn’t the practice, the practice leads us to the outcome.

Find work worth doing, and begin there.

After you begin, persist with the urgency of generosity. Which is the best kind of urgency.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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