Thoughts on Persistence

We’ve all been inspired this week by the story of Diana Nyad’s successful swim from Cuba to Florida. Not only was this an extraordinary achievement in terms of distance covered—110 miles in 53 hours, but she swam without the protection of a shark cage. Oh, and by the way, this was Nyad’s fifth attempt. At 64 years old, she’s achieved a goal that has evaded her for decades (and this at a time in life when many of her peers are contemplating the benefits of a posh timeshare in Florida). Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

Nyad’s superhuman achievements have led us to think about the value of persistence. It’s an old truism that persistence will see you through to success. But when does persistence distinguish itself from plain ol’ bullheadedness? Persistence has to be powerful enough to hold up in the face of grave obstacles, self-doubt, even recurring encounters with defeat…and yet persistence can’t run you through a brick wall.

Over the past few years, a few businesses we’ve worked with have suffered in the tough economy. We have been sad to watch them as they make the hard decision to close their doors and move on. The truth is that each one of them was persistent, tenacious even, but the forces of a tough economy won. So what went wrong?

The truth is, great achievement isn’t just about doggedness. It isn’t simply a matter of bushwhacking your way through the jungle until you find your holy grail on a mountain somewhere. You have to be a lot more sophisticated than that…and Diana Nyad is.

We hear a lot of talk in the Bay Area high tech community about the value of the pivot. This is a term introduced by Eric Ries in his New York Times bestseller, The Lean Startup. Pivoting involves adjusting one’s product or business in response to feedback or one’s assessment of changing conditions. Meanwhile, you maintain your vision. These are  the hallmarks of an agile business.

Nyad’s approach to endurance swimming has a lot of parallels to agile business. You adapt to the challenges around you. If you’re threatened by sharks, you get team members to drag electronic shark repulsion devices alongside you. If you’re stung in the face by jellyfish, you hire an inventor to make you a customized silicone jellyfish mask.    The most important point, though, is that you have the flexibility to accommodate the elements and the persistence to keep swimming and swimming…as long as it takes.

So what can we learn from Diana Nyad’s incredible swim? Be tenacious. Be brave. Have courage in the face of opposition. Believe in your capacity to do the impossible. Cradle your ambitions. Innovate continuously. Learn from each failure so you are always progressing, always crossing the distance between you and that shoreline you’re longing for.


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