Practical perseverance

I have a problem. I have a bit of a fixation on finishing what I start, of sticking through to the bitter end (whatever that endpoint is in my head).

This “problem”, as I label it, seems as if it should be a good thing. After all, this is how shit gets done.

But situations change, people grow up (or don’t), and some directions are intractable. Here is where my problem becomes manifest. I gravitate toward challenging questions. I have a particular vision for how something is supposed to progress, that if I pound on something long enough, eventually something useful or informative will fall out. But that’s just not how science – or life – works.

I don’t think I’m totally beyond help or hope. My instincts aren’t terrible. I tend to see the promise, not the pitfalls, at the start. But I’m not blinded to the problems along the way. I can see when something is approaching an impasse.

And this is when and where the internal conflict begins, a battle between perseverance and pragmatism. Let me try one more thing … OK, but how long do I keep making “one last attempt”? … Maybe I’m just overreacting to a setback … This problem can’t be solved right now. Typically I debate, I worry, I wonder while I carry on. And then eventually – weeks, months, maybe even years later – I arrive at the same conclusion – this thing just isn’t going to work as planned, at least at the moment.

I sometimes wonder if this is just an inherent personality trait at work or whether we – in science or, perhaps, society at large – overemphasize “stick-to-itiveness”. Keep it up. You’ll figure it out! If you just stick with it, you can make it. Just keep up the hard work. You’ll get it eventually.

I also wonder whether it’s just fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear that I lack of commitment, that I’m not smart enough. Fear that I’m giving up & conceding defeat rather than making a strategically sound move. But maybe above all, it’s fear of change.

Change can be exhilarating but also terrifying. It means moving away from what I know, what I’ve invested in. It means tackling something new. And it means a whole new round of uncertainties. Even if the other thing wasn’t working, I knew it wasn’t working. The old thing might have been broken, and I might not have known how to fix it, but I knew where I stood. Now I have take the risk, take the plunge all over again.

Patience and determination make a difference – in this career and this life. But taken too far, dedication can be damaging. I’m learning which things I should put away to pull out again later and which things I should just let go of entirely. It’s not always easy to distinguish. There have been mistakes, and there will be more. But I’m growing, and I hope I’ll learn to better balance these two parts of my mind – the one that wants to finish what she started and the one that understands not all things can be carried through to the end envisioned.

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4 Responses to Practical perseverance

  1. Klara says:

    I think that this is a problem that all scientists face… When is something so hopeless that you let go of it? When to pull the plug on a project (or relationship for that matter…) that seems to be leading nowhere, but wherein you already invested a lot of resources? Difficult indeed! I think it is hard to let go, because we become too attached to questions, really want to solve them. Or because we already invested a lot of time and materials. Letting go feels like failure then. But not letting go might be an even bigger mistake if it’s really a road to nowhere…

  2. ihstreet says:

    I so identify with this. I think it is at least a more prevalent trait among scientists. And I am as stubborn as they come I think. And I really worry I’m too set in my ways, though i’m making a big effort to get out of the boxes I’ve put myself in (professional and personal).

  3. ihstreet says:

    Reblogged this on postdocstreet and commented:
    Spot on.

  4. Pingback: Changing course, Part 1 | Ever on & on

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