If you want to accomplish something important in your life, you should learn to be persistent and patient. The most important things require systematic planning, effort, perseverance, and stick-to-itiveness. Friendship, love, trust, and success do not come overnight. The overall theme in OEB Global 2021 is “learning resilience” – for a good reason.
Despite this, we live in a time of instant payday loans. We’ve forgotten what patience is because our environment, with all its services and products, has been designed to give us solutions immediately and effortlessly. Technology has made our lives easier, but fast and easy solutions can’t become the norm. If you want to get the cake out of the oven faster, don’t turn the temperature up or you’ll burn it. You have to set the heat low and wait patiently.
Things you can get fast are not as lasting as the ones you have to work for. When we’re just cramming for tomorrow’s test, we forget everything once it’s done, but try to forget something you’ve spent weeks patiently studying. That, you get to keep. Learning some things takes months, years, or even half a lifetime, but those are the things we learn properly. The challenge is that because of the spread of instant gratification from the entertainment industry into everyday tasks, we can’t stand such slow development. We prefer to maximise and optimise everything.
I believe that boredom is important sometimes, perhaps even essential. And yet we continue to try to make everything fun, and our tolerance for a moment of boredom is almost non-existent. Relaxation, enjoyment, and entertainment are important, but not all the time. Has an abundant life deprived us of patience? Stories about our parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods make it sound like they didn’t give up easily, even if some things required a lot of effort. Now when grocery bags show up at the front door at the press of a button, laundry service can be ordered using an app, and we can chat with friends without even getting out of bed, we get bored the instant the internet slows down or any service is temporarily unavailable.
We probably don’t forget anything faster than those things we should be grateful for. Adversity is a good reminder. As I was writing my book “Future Skills”, I broke three bones in my foot, and walking with crutches forced me to slow down my life. But the boredom I experienced taught me patience. I don’t intend to rush so much anymore since I got my foot back.
Our time is our most important resource. We have to actively remember to concentrate on the aspects of life that are worth our attention. We need to define as valuable those things for which we’re ready to endure a little more for a little longer. You know that one friend who isn’t on social media? Take a little extra effort to tell him how you’re doing and invite him to your party, too. Even if things aren’t easy or don’t go according to plan, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them.
We can’t give up at the first sign of a problem or change our minds whenever something more attractive comes along. Confidence in long-term results is central to our success, and we need to be able to say yes to the right things and no to others. Without commitment, there is no depth. Persistence brings meaning, and patience is a virtue. Luckily, these are skills that can be learned. There’s nothing more rewarding than long-term work that bears fruit. I promise that your quality of life will improve if you exercise patience.
The part of my life that has taught me the most persistence is cello lessons. When I was practicing my body and finger positions, I did hundreds of repetitions and practiced every day for years. That work requires tenacity. I hit more than one wall during my early musical career, and my parents got an earful plenty of times about how I didn’t feel like practicing. But now, as an adult, the ability to play the cello is one of my greatest joys. Anyone who admires the beautiful sounds and melodies of my cello is actually admiring the fifteen years of dedicated practice that got me here. I never could have imagined how pleased I would be as an adult that sometimes I gritted my teeth and pushed through.
But the tenacity didn’t come out of nowhere. Motivation is the elixir of persistence and patience. Whenever we feel like stopping and giving up, we’ve usually lost touch with what we originally set out to do. The decision to keep going or to stop depends on whether the long-term reward is important enough. As a child, I had no goals related to playing the cello, and it’s entirely understandable that practicing the correct positions of my finger joints sometimes felt mind-numbing. Even if someone had told me that someday I would be able to play for my friends in the park on summer nights, I still probably would have chosen my Pokémon. But my parents and teacher were able to use small prizes to get me through the worst phase. Children don’t think very far into the future, but adults can—if they’ve really grown up. Another skill related to persistence and patience is the ability to remember the reasons we tackle certain goals.
What we spend our time on depends on our choices, and our choices depend on our values. It’s easy to make choices when we know our values, but if we don’t know what our values are, we’re lost. When I was deciding which high school to go to, I had to make up my mind whether I would focus on sports or music. This choice wasn’t just difficult, it was downright traumatic. However, it forced me to consider my values and what was important to me. I was at the height of my sports career, but I knew that music would give me more in the long run. Once I was clear about my values, it was easy for me to say yes to music. Today when I find myself in a similar situation, where I have to make a difficult choice, I use the same thinking. If I don’t immediately know what to do, there’s usually a deeper conflict. I think for a moment, and then the choice is easy. It’s always a value judgment.
So, persistence requires reflection so you can find your core values and the reasons for your actions. No one can be persistent without goals and dreams. They need to be significant, because if a dream is big enough, we’ll give it everything we have. Working to achieve goals that are bigger than yourself is better than focusing on your own interests. When the chips are down, a goal like becoming famous won’t help you nearly as much as a goal like helping others and increasing understanding. It is only once we’ve worked toward goals that are bigger than our own egos that we are rewarded with the sense of meaning that helps us to be persistent. In the 1960s, there was a NASA janitor who said that what motivated him in his work was that they were sending a man to the moon. Actually, more than four hundred thousand people were working toward that same goal, and they all felt like they were part of something greater than themselves.
A future in which we don’t commit to big goals is too myopic for real growth. Persistence begins when we know what we’re working for and periodically remind ourselves. Everything is hard in the beginning. It took me two years before playing the cello was interesting enough that I took responsibility for it myself. Now I’m thankful to my persistent parents, who didn’t give up on me. Their great hope was that one day I would see that all that work was worth the effort.
Perttu Pölönen will give a keynote at OEB21 on Friday December 3. His book, Future Skills, has just been published around the world.