And Yet She Did Not Persist

I’ve always been a little leery of the praise heaped so lavishly on the concept of “grit,” stick-to-it-tiveness, persistence. I respect people who honor values that dignify life, especially in the face of adversity, but I also know that I tend to cling to my decisions a little too tenaciously.

If I said I’d graduate with two bachelor’s degrees, then wild unicorns could not stop me from bagging both sheepskins, even though I could plainly see the music history degree was a testament to a closed chapter of my life. I have never, in fact, overtly used it (Valentine Windham scowls at me).

I have stayed in relationships too long, stayed in jobs MUCH too long, and I will probably stay in this house too long, if I haven’t already. Sticking with the practice of law meant I missed the indie publishing gold rush. Living in this house means I spend thousands just managing the danged trees. The cost of a relationship beyond its expiration date is hard to even think about.

But I am “not a quitter.” Sometimes, that means I’ve been a fool instead, wasting my fire on people, institutions, and situations that are no longer a good use of my resources if they ever were.

I’m also leery of grit-is-the-answer because it supports two myths, the first being that of individual agency. If you just persist–climb every mountain, ford every stream!–if you are determined enough, you can move mountains. But if you’re Latina, you will be moving that mountain at a wage, on average, about 55 percent of what a white male would be paid. If you’re quite short, major league basketball is not going to make you an offer no matter how persistent you are.

Yes, you can be the first in your family to cart tons of dirt across the valley, but all the time and energy you spend moving that mountain is then not available to tackle the institutional barriers making your wheelbarrow much smaller than the other guy’s. As long as some people–by institutional design–get the tiny wheelbarrows, and other people get bulldozers, fewer mountains will be moved overall. The myth of grit, while professing to support the moving of mountains, can actually keep the biggest, highest mountains exactly where they are.

My other peeve with grit is that is valorizes suffering in place over the courage to admit a screw up, the courage to backtrack, or to rethink and assert the right to quit.  In some circumstances, grit prioritizes rigidity and stoicism over self-reflection, flexibility, and humility. This isn’t working, can be one of the scariest, most freeing admissions we can make–also one of the saddest–and I probably haven’t made it often enough or soon enough.

So how do you know when it’s time to rethink a decision, let go of a plan, or admit defeat? When does grit become more problem than solution for you? Chime in below, and I’ll put three more names on my ARC list for Miss Delectable.


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37 comments on “And Yet She Did Not Persist

  1. There used to be a joke, “I never realized why I always had a headache until I stopped beating my head against that brick wall.” I believe there are lots of things like that; we don’t realize until we stop doing something how negative it is for us. With the Pandemic, many of us have been forced into stopping things which have been bad for us and it’s been a relief. I have to admit, many times I’ve been in a position where it hasn’t been my choice to stop something but it turned out to be the best thing.

    • And for a lot of us, one of those bad things was a long commute. Working from home was, “not an option,” until in about a week flat, half the country’s major corporations found it was their only option. Now? Who needs all that high overhead office space when employees can donate their kitchen tables, extra bedrooms, and studies to the corporation’s bottom line?
      Amazing what the profit motive makes possible.

  2. My dad pounded the concept of diminishing returns into all of us, from every angle. However, he also never changed direction without a plan.

    Sometimes he forgot to tell Mother.

    • Marianne, I’m making a note of the ‘diminishing returns’ and having a plan before changing directions. Your dad sounds like a very wise man.

    • Diminishing returns is a good one, as is sunk cost. We invest in our choices, and sometimes just cannot walk away from that investment when our energy would be so much better off invested elsewhere.

  3. I wonder if grit and determination are gifts for the young and idealistic? I remember thinking I could get a lot of things done when I was younger. I was determined.

    Like you I stayed in a job too long and missed opportunities and held on to one sided relationships. I felt I had to stay in the job to support my family and didn’t realize that I was the one maintaining the friendship. It took me awhile in both cases to see the light, pivot and move forward.

    I think determination can get you through tough times. This past year has been tough. My husband was determined to make sure we had meat, veggies,cleaning supplies and tp. He went shopping once a week to 2 different stores. As a family, we learned that it was ok to live a simpler social and work life.

    • It’s that fine line, between determination that helps us persevere through adversity, and determination that puts blinders on us. I’m not as good as I need to be at sensing the difference. I end up like Wile E. Coyote, barreling well past the cliff edge, and then I happen to glance down…

  4. Good morning Grace
    Your post rang a bunch of bells for me. Not job, but I’m luckily self employed and can work when I feel like it. Relationship yes, at 34 years I had just started down the ending path when death took it out of my hands and somewhat assuaged the guilt. Not entirely. My house, full of 40+ years of belongings and memories has become an increasingly worrisome problem that I keep putting off. I haven’t quite reached the “this isn’t working” point but it inches closer with every addition sign of age. My great grandmother apparently categorized her side of the family as determined and her husbands as mulish. I think the later applies to me.
    I did like the image of the stuck super freighter and the front end loader…seems to epitomized life in lockdown, that and Sisyphus with the rock.
    Thank you for all your posts, they make my weekend

    • Mary,
      I thought about that image, because on the one hand, it’s bailing the ocean with a teaspoon, but on the other hand, with TEN tugboats, round the clock dredgers, and a larruping high tide, that excavator did help get the ship free. The bigger picture is a plan, teamwork, AND persistence resulted in eventual success.
      But then, pay me $15 billion a day to solve a problem, and I might be pretty motivated too!

  5. I had to think about that one for a minute. For me, it boiled down to the Serenity Prayer.

    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

    I wish that younger me knew what older me has learned. I would be both bolder and more compassionate, listen more, speak up when needed, and not tolerate near as much BS.

    I regret more the things I didn’t do than the things I did.

    • That is actually a conclusion backed up by all kinds of research. The road not taken haunts us all, far more than the blunders we can point to, and say, “Dumb move. Oops.” We regret a failure of courage, curiosity, or gumption–whatever it is that inspire us to embrace change.

  6. I took a quiz once for my church where one of my main “skills” for the church was being a martyr. Meaning I would grit my teeth and plow through just about anything. That has its good parts and its bad parts, for sure. It has kept me going through things that I should have thrown the towel in on long before, but I’m stubborn as a mule, haha.
    I think now that I’m older and wiser, I at least stop to ask myself more often, “Is this really where I want to be putting my energy?” But it’s such a hard habit to break!!!

    • Martyrs are also quite popular with the organizations they support too. I mediated more than one “church widow” divorce, and volunteer fire departments are notorious among domestic relations attorneys for wrecking marriages.
      I find as you do that age has imparted some wisdom, some ability to swerve the over-commitments and expired goals. I’ve gotten much better about saying, “Grace, you know how you are… Ditch this, and a week from now you will be glad you did.”

  7. I would be lying if I said I always knew when it was the best time to quit. I’ve stuck with romantic relationships, jobs, volunteer positions, and even some friendships much longer than necessary for different reasons but usually because I didn’t want to be a quitter or layalty that wasn’t appreciated much less returned. The most recent was my last job. I should have quit at least a year ealier because of my own physical limitations (don’t lift heavy objects repeately when you have neck and back problems and are in pain constantly). However, I wanted to make it to my 10 year anniversary. I finally quit 6 months before the anniversary point for a ton of little reasons that boiled down to my immediate manager lying and being untrustworthy to the point that it wasn’t worth the time and energy to deal with him. There was not longer a possible way to justify the good being worth more than the bad.

    • I wish I’d quit practicing law several years earlier–at least. I reached the same point you did–eventually: There is no way to justify the continued wear and tear on me, not for any amount of money. I slipped out the door and that was that. On my worst writing days, I’m still glad I’m done with the courtroom.

  8. I live by one rule, quality over quantity. If it adds to or maintains the quality of your life, i.e. happiness, then it has value and you should continue. If it adds to your resume but you can’t see that it makes you happy, move on. If my 80 year old mother has lost her balance and falls a lot, I won’t put her in a nursing home just so I don’t have to worry. She would be unhappy and would have lower quality of life. I won’t do it just to extend the quantity if there’s no quality. If I love my job, I don’t really care if I could make more money somewhere else because I have quality in my life and won’t sacrifice it for a greater quantity of money. Any change I make has to add quality.

    Relationships are the same. If the quality isn’t there, if you can’t accept me for who I am, I don’t need you in my life. This offends some, but I won’t waste my time on people who only like me if I change some major part of who I am to please them. Then it’s not me they like, but somebody I’m pretending to be to please them, and that doesn’t please me. There are exceptions. I won’t be hurtful or rude. I can maintain pleasant, courtesy but I won’t make that person a part of my inner circle.

    What is a life without quality? If you’ve ever had to make the decision to put down a beloved pet, you understand. It’s selfish to prolong anyone’s agony. Choose quality, not quantity.

  9. I have a policy to rethink any decision with 3 obstacles close in time or 3 biggish obstacles over a longer period. Before that point, I certainly am allowed to reevaluate (some mistakes only take one obstacle to become clear, I’ve made some doozies like that) but I always take a hard look if it has been 3. I may choose to remain on course if things still allign with my values and cost/benefit still is on my side, but I have cut my losses many times that I have really appreciated when I look back on it, in a really dodged a bullet kind of way. I am under no delusions that Life is under my control, so I guess I just try to react as wisely as I can.

  10. Dear Grace,
    Thank you for the comments on persisting! You have made me think this morning. I live on my parents property which I inherited in New Hampshire. During the pandemic, my income has been reduced. I have been trying to manage a revolutionary war farmhouse and160 acres of forest by myself. This might have been possible 30 years ago, but now at 73 with a bad hip it’s not working very well. After reading your words this morning, I am going to think about where I’m going with all this.
    Thanks, Margaret

    • Margaret… I only have a couple acres, but it comes with a stream, barn, summer kitchen, smokehouse and one of those vintage farmhouses you mention. I’ve been told the chestnut logs in the exposed wall are worth more than the whole house, so when I leave, somebody will probably demolish the house and turn the chestnut into pen barrels and candlesticks. I know my time here has a sunset provision… I can’t keep this up forever, and as it is now, I have to pay for a lot of property help.
      But it’s so pretty, and so peaceful, and I made my stand here–the kid, the books, the lawyering. Someday I will be ready to cut it loose, but today is not that day.

  11. I have definitely stayed too long in friendships that were better off abandoned. How did I know when enough was enough? When I realized that I was investing way more time and energy and care into the relationships than the other person was. When I realized that I DESERVED more time and energy and care than the other person was offering. When a relationship is unbalanced, when it means much more to one party than to the other, when you feel you are simply not important enough to the other person for them to feel considerate of your feelings, it is time to go. Even if that “friendship” has lasted nearly your entire life, it is time to go. That said, I still mourn the loss of those friendships, though I suspect I miss the idealized idea of those friendships more than the actuality.

    • I feel guilty on those few occasions when I cut somebody loose for whom the unbalanced relationship was working. When they notice, they feel miffed, which is probably just more evidence that it was never going to be what I hoped it could be.

  12. This is the theme of my life: ignoring signs of unhealthy decisions, jobs, and relationships!

    I think for jobs, there may come a time (or, many times in my case) where a job just stopped feeding me and I stopped looking forward to the challenge of the job. I (eventually) figured out that I was good at fixing problems, but the mundane, day-to-day processing was hellaciously hard on me.

    Relationships are harder because there’s another person with thoughts and needs involved. And, each relationship is different… so the straw breaking the camel’s back will be individual to the person and the couple.

    Grit has been a lifelong problem for me… I hope, for future decisions, jobs, relationships, it won’t take me 20 years to figure out something isn’t working!! (Where’s that “exhausted” emoji when you need one?!) ;p

    • I forget which book it’s in, possibly “When,” by Daniel Pink, where the author talks about the pruning that goes on later in life. Yes, some OPs are lonely and isolated, but much more us, later in life, develop that quality of quantity instinct Elizabeth mentioned. A few good friends, one satisfying job, a comfy but not too hard to maintain house… we simplify, de-clutter, and focus, and life really can be better than it’s ever been.

  13. In my working career I have come across a few people who in their role of managers team leaders,supervisors,directors,owners.Somehow get their workers to obey their every command and have them running around like headless chickens doing tasks that they should not be doing at all.Giving praise until the worker is of no further use and let go.Loyalty and respect not considered.Usefulness the requirement of the day.PLAYERS who only want you when they are playing.Not for me,no way I get out before they drag me down.Time to go and seek better bosses who treat loyal good workers properly.Bravo to them.

    • The whole US labor market is trying to reckon with the idea that people are fed up with crap jobs, crap wages, crap benefits, and crap work schedules manipulated to cut them out of any benefits at all…. The third quarter of 2020 saw the highest corporate profits EVER recorded, while many families face eviction and bankruptcy. Interesting times…
      I’m glad you navigated around the crap bosses, because they are out there in significant numbers.

  14. Like someone else said, this post rang a lot of bells for me. Too long in a job, too long in a house (several times) and way too long making a decision that was necessary. The good feeling when you finally lost the pressure that you did not really know was tearing you apart is priceless.

    • Excellent point. After I quit lawyering, I traveled to France, and then to Australia and New Zealand (on book business, of course). The whole time I’m out seeing the big world and having a wonderful time, I thought, “What was so wonderful about a child welfare court that I put off THIS to do THAT?” Nothing was wonderful at about it, except the children of course.

  15. When I start cussing over every little thing I know I need to take stock and figure out what is pushing me over my limits.

  16. I’ll borrow an example from a young friend: she was giving me a lift home one night after I’d had dinner with her parents, and on the way she described a bad situation with the management at the restaurant she worked at during her summer off university.
    She and her friend at work discussed leaving; Brittany left, her friend stayed on and things got much worse.
    I suggested that this was a really valuable skill she’d displayed, which was a concept that surprised her. Older & sometimes dumber in the leaving-at-an-opportune-moment game, I admired her strength.
    Your comments made me wonder if we’re sometimes encouraged/manipulated to see stick-to-it-ness as a virtue, by those who may benefit from our continued efforts in losing games. Hmmm.

  17. So the first husband was an ass with a penchant for throwing things. He threw a pewter candlestick and to my horror it tore. I had it repaired out of grit and put a pretty ribbon on it to cover the mend but every time I picked it up the weight difference was obvious. I learned there were some things that could not be fixed.