Perseverance—a Life-Saving Skill for This Time

Preserverance, book by Margaret Wheatley

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I’ve just published a book entitled Perseverance. It’s a small book, designed to be carried with you, to be quickly consulted whenever you’re experiencing any of the circumstances or emotions that threaten your capacity to stay the course, to keep going.

I wrote this book for two reasons. The first is that I’m worried about us. We’re working diligently to change things in our communities, our nations, our planet. We are passionate advocates for what needs to change, working tirelessly to restore hope to the future, to create a world where more people discover their talents, learn and grow, and feel fully human.

But the problems are proliferating. They are more complex, impenetrable, overwhelming. Exhaustion and occasional despair are common experiences. And so is the intensifying climate of fear and aggression, not just in the greater world, but in our meetings, in our relationships with each other, us kindred spirits.

How do we keep going, how do we remain grounded and steadfast? How do we not lose our way, or get swept away by the negative currents that swirl around us? How do we become people who can persevere?

The second reason I felt compelled to explore perseverance came from a text message I received from a dear friend who is CEO of a very large non-profit working along the Gulf Coast. I first met her in post-Katrina New Orleans, then worked with her as hurricanes continued to batter that region. One morning, in the midst of yet another heartbreaking, frustrating meeting, she sent me this message: “Every day I have to make a choice not to give up.”

That single text contains the essence of what I’ve learned about perseverance. It’s a choice, a discipline, a practice. It’s a day-to-day decision to stay, even when we’re confronted with failure, anger, criticism, insanity. We don’t persevere accidentally. We have to stay mindful of the circumstances and people that provoke us, to the situations that rob us of our strength, that exhaust us. It’s at these times when we’re provoked, tired, overwhelmed, that we have to make a choice. Sometimes the choice is to give up, to realize we can’t be helpful here, or that this isn’t the right time. Sometimes the choice is to notice our own behaviors, how we’re become aggressive, demanding, angry. Sometimes the choice is to notice the goodness of the people around us, the joy that’s available even in the worst circumstances simply because we’re in this together.

Perseverance is a common human trait, otherwise none of us would be here. All of us come from families and cultures where people have persevered through much worse circumstances than our current challenges. However, we’re also people who’ve been counseled to discover our passion, to fuel our work with hope, and maintain our motivation because we’re making a difference. We believe we need to feel inspired and focused all the time—we ask each other “What are you most passionate about these days?”

But perseverance is different than passion. Very different.

Here’s how I write about this in the book:

“Perseverance is a choice. It’s not a simple one-time choice, it’s a daily one. There’s never a final decision.

Our first “yes”—filled with energy and enthusiasm—brought us here, but it’s of no use as the waters rise and the turbulence increases. By the time we’re surrounded by obstacles and opposition, by aggression and mean-spiritedness, our initial choice has no meaning (if we can even remember that optimistic moment).

This is as it should be. Having to make a choice every day keeps us alert and present. Do I have the resources, internal and external, to keep going? Can I deal with what’s in front of me right now? Do I have any patience left? Is there a way through this mess?

These critical questions require a momentary pause, a little reflection. Rather than just striking out or being reactive to a bad day, we offer ourselves freedom. Do I continue or do I give up? Even a brief pause creates the space for freedom. We’re not trapped by circumstances or fatigue. We give ourselves a moment to look clearly as we can at the current situation.

And then we make a conscious choice. Every day.”

In the next several weeks, I’ll be writing more about this essential skill of persevering. I’m eager to hear your stories, what you’ve learned as you’ve continued on and persevered. Our individual and collective wisdom needs to be visible, for as the poet William Stafford wrote:

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep,
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


: Frances Moore Lappé on fear, family, turning points, and hope.


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