The Path of Greatest Persistence
“The one thing about you,” my Karate Sensei said, “Is that you have a tenacity greater than most pit bulls that I’ve met…”
Tenacity is derived from earlier words meaning “quality of holding firmly” and “firm, steadfast.” Now a pit bull’s bite is actually not the strongest (so a Google search tells me); so I wanted to choose the pup that would be factually accurate, it would be a mastiff, not a pit bull, unless the measure of tenacity was in how much a pit bull tugs at your heartstrings.
Regardless of the best analogous animal to embody my stubborn qualities, I have now come to recognize, and accept, that tenacity is one of my greatest, and yet most treacherous, qualities.
Tenacity comes into play when life goes sideways, or in my case, when it goes into the washing machine cycle with at least two days’ worth of training gear in a heavy-duty cycle. In the past two months, I’ve passed a short but extremely stressful PMP audit on my application (completely “random” my ass!) and caught a bought of COVID that rendered me basically useless. I’m still, as of this essay, recovering from a self-induced knee injury.
I’ve also struggled with conflict at work (nothing serious but symptomatic of my ongoing trials to maintain clear boundaries). And my jiu-jitsu mentor has been less than gentle lately, telling me that I must watch “every single triangle video” until I understand how to get the submission.
This would be, as my therapist so eloquently describes it, “a lot.”
When I decide on something or someone, I pursue it. This is apparent in a lot of the life changes I’ve brought on in the last ten years. Before I knew better, when life did not go according to plan, I’ve often upended entire swaths of my existence to try to solve my problems, like uprooting my life to a different city/state; switching careers; leaving jiu-jitsu schools; and quitting a job without a plan. Looking back, these drastic changes were a defensive response given the mental damage inflicted on me through events largely out of my conscious control.
Yet, as I’ve grown in my physical and spiritual resilience, I’ve come to discover that no matter where you go, certain problems will follow you, because those problems are inside of you, and not tied to any city or career. And, new problems may appear over time, as you evolve into a new person.
All this to say that I’ve taken these last two months in stride — not through internalized messages of “what doesn’t kill me dies horribly” or because I’ve checked out completely — but because I’ve chosen to walk the path of greatest persistence, instead of running away.
The word “persistent” is from a Latin verb meaning “to continue with strength.”
Therefore, to walk the path of greatest persistence means to walk the path of greatest strength.
We all know that strength manifests in different ways for different people. It may be brute physical strength or unimaginably powerful mental fortitude in dire circumstances. It may be the strength of one’s faith — or fear. Strength may be expressed in the one rep max, the number of pushups in a minute, or the number of jobs a single parent/guardian might work to support their kid.
Whatever the definition of strength, I’ve observed that the concept has commonalities even across different frames of reference. First, strength comes about through a sustained effort, which is not always easy. When a time frame is concentrated, so the requisite strength becomes necessarily concentrated too. I imagine this like being told to lift a 20 lbs weight 10 times, or a 200 lb weight once. Or, as I often like to remind people, turning 30 — while also being unemployed and infected with ringworm — takes a decent degree of strength to endure.
Second, strength does not last forever and requires energy to maintain. Putting aside what I feel is the crushing existential weight of a capitalistic, corporate existence, I feel that I am best able to ease the mental burdens that I carry when I take the time to develop myself and grow the muscles needed to help me get past the next obstacle, regardless of that path is walking around a brick wall, scaling it, or running through it. It’s about expending that extra energy — energy that I don’t always feel like I initially possess — to close my office door so I can have 45 minutes with my therapist; saying “no” when I need or want to; and taking notes of jiu-jitsu class. Strength is a constant practice.
Third, strength requires an application of force at the right time, place, and degree. Putting strength in the wrong places can result in injury, and while some general principles and best practices apply, it is largely through trial and error that we find that sweet spot in which we can leverage our own strength. I think of my craft as I am working with marble, not clay. I can smooth the medium to my desires, but I need to be circumspect and read the situation correctly.
The same happens in jiu-jitsu. Real strength in a martial artist comes from not only when to push or pull, but when to transition and let go. Real strength is not just chipping away at a stone, but working with it gently like it is clay. Real strength comes from not just pushing forward interminably, but sometimes taking a step back to re-evaluate if your goals are aligned with what you really want.
There is a popular saying from Bruce Lee that entreats us to “become like water.” Most people quote the latter half regarding water’s ability to be formless, yet full of form, and how it takes the shape of whatever receptacle it is in. And so, on its surface, walking the path of greatest persistence may seem to contradict the instruction to walk the path of least resistance. Does the former imply that you should be hard-headed instead of soft-hearted?
I believe that walking the path of greatest persistence is wholly compatible with the path of least resistance, thanks to the first part of Bruce Lee’s famous quote:
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Sometimes, it takes water a long time to find its container. (And, water may never find its final container, as we fill and empty our cup regularly.) That process of “find[ing] a way around or through” is itself the path of greatest persistence, because before water reaches its destination, it must embark on a journey, perhaps one that is winding and arduous.
Persistence is more than just deciding on an endpoint and wanting to reach it, the consequences or the cost be damned.
No, persistence is instead having the willingness to adjust again, and again, and again to the twists and turns, to alter your pace by slowing or quickening it, and to think beyond forward movement as the only solution or option. Sometimes, persistence can be simply exercising the patience of waiting, until the right moment strikes. It’s a judgment call on when to move on and when to stay.
I still have a sore spot when it comes to the feedback I received last year about the lack of my will to win in jiu-jitsu. (Here is my feeble attempt to write through those feelings.) The comment hurt because it was true in some ways and false in others, and so, I couldn’t deny it completely. Yet there can be no question that I have persistence, and that I choose to be on that path, every day. It is inherently part of me, not something that I need to earn through my external achievements or other people’s perceptions.
A luthier crafting a guitar never knows the exact sound that the instrument will make when it’s complete. I think of martial arts in the same way. You’re always working on a craft, but it will be hard to imagine what the final results will look (or sound) like. But if you listen, you might just be able to hear it: the faint echoes of persistence, plucking at your heartstrings.