Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss perseverance or persistence, and why it plays a critical role in group dynamics.

Introduction

Graham ‘0:21’: Welcome to Episode 10 of Serious Soft Skills. I’m Bob Graham and with me as always, at least so far, is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college; we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others employ soft skills over the course of our long and illustrious careers, not that long and not that illustrious. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. We’re going to show you that when we talk in the next few moments about perseverance.

What Is Empathy?

Porterfield ‘0:57’: Bob, you already let the cat out of the bag about what we are covering, but I am pretty excited. In these podcasts, we laid out the over 50 soft skills that we have identified through our research and we framed them into four groups — Individual soft skills, a big list with 28; ones where we interact with people, Nexus soft skills, where there are seven; then we looked at Group soft skills, where we work with a team or group; and Enterprise soft skills are the leadership ones.

Porterfield ‘1:32’: Now it’s time to dig in deeper. Today we want to get into one of those Individual soft skills, one of the 28. In our list, we call it persistence. The individual should bring persistence when going after an objective, to not let obstacles get in their way. Persistence is to vastly pursue when undertaking a task even when hindered by an obstacle or distracted by an obstacle.

Perseverance is different from being stubborn.

Porterfield ‘2:07’: We’ve worked with people who have are stubborn. Then we looked at other people who we admire because they persevere. It’s not usually the person who is stubborn that we admire. It’s perseverance. There’s a difference there that we want to make sure we unwrap today. We really need to understand what perseverance means for an individual and how an organization perseveres.

Graham ‘2:33’: Can I tell you a story, Toby? I have a great story about someone who persevered. And when I get to the end I think you are going to know who this person is. I think everyone will know this person.

The Story of a Writer Who Finally Succeeded

Graham ‘2:48’: For purposes of this story, I am going to call him Steve. And Steve when he was a child liked to write. He wrote his first story before he could even shave. His mother loved his story and said it should be in a book. He didn’t think a lot of it. A couple of years later, he sends one of his stories to a magazine to get published. They rejected it. He put the rejection letter on his wall and he keeps writing. He keeps writing. And he gets more and more rejection letters, but he keeps writing. Ten years later, he’s still getting more rejection letters. Now, he is 26 years old. He a teacher with a wife and two children and gets a telegram — back before the Internet — and the telegram is from Doubleday Publishing Co., one of the big publishing companies. They tried to call him on the phone, but he and his wife didn’t have enough money for a phone at that point. But he kept on writing and teaching. The telegram isn’t a rejection letter, but Doubleday wanted to publish his first novel. It was horror story about Carrie White, a teenage girl with telekinetic powers. He got a $2,500 advance for the book and not long after that, the paperback rights for Carrie sold for $400,000. That was the start of the person we know as Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. 

Graham ‘4:37’: I’m a writer so that story of course resonates with me profoundly. But that’s one of those stories when you talk about perseverance, he really stuck to what he believed to be true. He kept writing and knew he would find a place to publish one day. Rather than send the same story again and again, he kept working on his craft, modifying his approach and improving it. Eventually, Doubleday Publishing says they want to publish his book. When you talk about the difference between stubborn and persistence or perseverance, Stephen King demonstrates that in his writing. He didn’t send that same story he sent when he was 10 years old to every publication in the world, thinking eventually someone would publish it. Instead, he kept working on his craft and continuing to refine it and improve it, and getting better. I am sure his first story, the one his mother loved, wasn’t Carrie. 

The Challenges of Perseverance

Porterfield ‘5:52’: You bring out some of the challenges of perseverance. In the Stephen King example, it’s not just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s improvement and a commitment and as you said, a faith that this is what I am supposed to be doing. This is the right direction and I need to keep at it.

Perseverance is a lot about keeping at it at a real, continuing to improve way.

Organizations Must Persevere

Porterfield ‘6:22’: It really crosses over from the individual to the organization. For an organization that has a vision for what they want to be, the goal, the goals of what they want to achieve, staying after that regardless of what’s going on and persevering to work toward that goal is vital. At the same time, we mentioned the word distractions.

There’s a difference in being aware of our surroundings and being distracted and thrown off track fro where we are going.

Porterfield ‘6:46’: We can’t blindly go after things. We need to listen to those rejection letters and see what we are doing wrong, what was good and what was bad. Then we need to make those changes and improvements so those obstacles don’t become barriers. They become learning points and we move forward on them.

Another Story About Perseverance

Graham ‘7:15’: I have another story about perseverance. I had a student last year who wanted to go to medical school. She was an undergraduate student. She realized that she had to write a great resume and a letter about why she wanted to go into med school. She came to me. I had taught her a year or two before. She didn’t know how to write it. She wanted to meet with me and talk through it and show me drafts for comments as she went along. She came with a first draft that was pretty rough. We talked through it, and she took copious notes about everything we discussed. Then, she goes back and a week later and wants to meet again. She brings me a next draft, which is much better. And we talk about more improvements. She continues to improve it. She came to my office over about three months six times. By the end, she had a great piece. She was willing to persevere. She wanted to go to medical school. I am happy to say she got into medical school. I was one of those people who wrote a letter of recommendation. I knew she was someone who could do the work. It was easy to say that because I had seen all the work she did to get into medical school. She had her eye on the prize. The prize was medical school. The hinderance for her was getting that letter they need to be good enough for them to accept me. She knew where she was going and she knew what she needed to do to get there. It was just a matter of traveling that road. I can assure you a senior in college has plenty of distractions. All of her courses and friends, everything go on around her — but she kept to her commitment to get the best letter she could so she could get where she wanted to go. That’s an example of those whole idea of perseverance that is a little easier for us to appreciate. It wasn’t her saying I am going to do something unrealistic. Medical school was realistic. It was just a matter of her achieving these things to reach that objective.

Can We Get Better at It?

Porterfield ‘9:45’: You just got us to our next point. If we drill into that a little bit, we have to figure out how to practice, how to learn to be better at perseverance. Your student example gets at an element of that. She had a clear goal in mind. She knew what the obstacles were that she needed to overcome to get there. When we talk about obstacles and getting to a goal, I think of Randy Pausch, a faculty at Carnegie Melon University. We lost him a few years ago to cancer. A case of perseverance, but at the same time, he wrote the book, The Last Lecture, and did several videos on it. He talked about perseverance. He said that those obstacles are not there to get in your way. They are there to see how badly you want it and to keep the other people out. That’s sometimes a good way to look at things. Your letter is a great example of that in that medical school was the goal, a big obstacle for her was that essay, and keeping the eye on the prize. I’m going to get into medical school, but how do I get past this obstacle. Who can help me? What faculty members? Who can read it?

Perseverance has to start with choosing the appropriate goal. Once we know what that goal is, we have to know what the real obstacles are.

Graham ’11:09′: Isn’t it also being realistic with ourselves as well. Knowing what those obstacles are can be hard to admit. Admitting you are not a great writer and coming to a teacher for help is not an easy thing. It’s not easy at all. For me, it’s hard to ask for help all the time. I can only imagine that is fairly common for people. But before you can ask for help, you have to acknowledge that you are not as good at something as you may need to be. 

How Perseverance Helps Entrepreneurs Succeed

Graham ’11:44′: You look at a lot of entrepreneurial efforts going on and you see that someone has a great idea, but they need to bring other people into that to build that team that can achieve the result. Because they cannot do it themselves. 

Most of us don’t have the expertise to be able to do something start to finish. When we bring in team members to help, we give ourselves a huge advantage.

Graham ’12:07′: When we say, “Toby, you’re really good at certain aspects of what we want to achieve. I need your help to achieve these things.” We see it today in this podcast. We didn’t script it out real well. You have some real strengths that most people would not know, but it works really well. I have to acknowledge that because we had a discussion a couple of hours ago about how I was going to do this one by myself. Your contributions today are far more valuable than it would have been if I had done it by myself. 

It’s the acknowledgement that two heads is better than one, three is better than one, and building a team that allows you to persevere is important.

Graham ’12:45′: The other thing a team does is when someone is down, the other people pick them up. We think of perseverance as a uniquely individual quality. But a team can develop a quality of perseverance, too. You have the person who says we can’t win the football game. We’re down three touchdowns. And you have the guy on the team who says they can score three touchdowns in no time at all. And they get behind him. That person carries the team forward. 

We think of perseverance as an individual characteristic, but a team also develops perseverance. They help each other.

Porterfield ’13:30′: We are right on track with that. It’s such a necessary skill so we put it in the Individual soft skills category. If we’re really going to move organizations forward and we’re going to move forward in our own careers, we have to bring that perseverance to it. We can’t just be cast about and be going here and there. We have to keep on track. Having that group, having other people involved can be a benefit, especially if they are the right people.

Next Week’s Episode

Porterfield ’14:03′: Next week, we will be talking about project management, another soft skill. We are going to jump into another group this time. Project management has some controversy so we will have an interesting discussion. We’ll look at what it means and why it’s valuable to employees and organizations. Thanks for listening, good day, and good soft skills.

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