April 15, 2014
The Triumph of
Simple Persistence

Winning Life's Battles
In Horizontal Time
    
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This article is excerpted from my book, Goal Setting for the Christian: Harnessing the Stunning Benefits of Focus and Persistence to Realize Your Potential for Christ -- and Your God-Given Dreams.

     

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DURIING THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH a prospector named R. U. Darby helped his uncle mine a vein of gold that the latter had discovered. It appeared at first that they had a prosperous find. Yet the vein soon disappeared, and Darby and his uncle searched frantically for the spot where it continued. Finally, they concluded their prospects were hopeless and sold their equipment to a junk dealer.

The junk dealer consulted an engineer, then began mining the shaft again. He quickly discovered the elusive vein and a supply of gold worth millions of dollars--just three feet from where Darby and his uncle had stopped digging.*

The story brings to mind how our important battles in life are often won by simple persistence. It reminds us equally that we can give up on a goal too easily and are sometimes much closer to hitting our mark than we realize.

When we look at what made the accomplishments of notable individuals possible, we usually find persistence that went beyond the ordinary. Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb only after thousands of failed attempts. He remarked, “The trouble with other inventors is that they try a few things and quit. I never quit until I get what I want.”*

Ernest Hemingway’s writing communicates so naturally that we might assume the Nobel laureate always got it right the first time. In truth, Hemingway reworked his material extensively, revising most novels five times, and The Old Man and the Sea more than two hundred times.

Soichiro Honda was also a master of persistence. The founder of Honda Motors and perfecter of the catalytic engine explained to a Michigan graduating class: “To me success can be achieved only through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, my success represents the one percent of the work that resulted from the ninety-nine percent that was called failure.”*

We might imagine that underlying important accomplishment is usually dogged, backbreaking effort. More typically, the secret lies in consistent effort. Victory comes to those who stay with a dream long enough to reach it. End of story. In so many cases this patient plodding overrides serious limitations in ability, education or resources. Honda developed his automotive company and pioneered major engineering innovations with only eight years of formal education and meager financial backing.

Persistence plays such a compensating role in endless areas of human achievement. Research shows, for instance, that drilling companies which discover the most oil are not the ones with the best equipment or the most talented personnel--but those that dig the most wells.

In real life as most of us lead it, we often find we’re unable to accomplish a goal within the time period we’ve envisioned. Yet when we’re willing to revise our assumptions about time--or to let go of any deadline at all--we succeed. I’m often moved by the examples of people who find a good opportunity for marriage well into their adult years. In every case they are those who, in spite of many disappointments, have stayed hopeful and open to new opportunities well beyond a point that many would consider reasonable. Often they continued doing the same things they had been doing for years to meet people--attending singles meetings and accepting blind dates--until they finally found a relationship that worked. Most will admit the temptation to give up had been strong. They are now exceedingly glad they persisted and never fully lost heart.

Healthy and Unhealthy Persistence

This isn’t to say there is magic in persistence per se. We’ve got to persist at doing the right things. If our goal or our approach isn’t sound to begin with, persistence will work against us. Saul of Tarsus persecuted Christians with merciless persistence; only in time did he discover that he was kicking “against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Yet Paul’s tenacious personality remained strongly intact as a Christian and contributed immensely to the spread of the gospel. Paul opened more new regions for the gospel than anyone else--far and away--simply because he tried and never gave up. If one group or city wouldn’t receive his message, he moved on to the next, and kept knocking on doors till one opened.

While Paul’s success in evangelizing demonstrates the value of persistence, his persecution of Christians before his conversion shows its negative side and offers us a caution. If we’ve made an earnest effort to accomplish a goal yet are failing at every turn, we ought to look carefully at whether the goal isn’t right for us or if there is a fatal flaw in our approach. Occasionally we’ll find that, like Paul, we need to make a radical change in direction. At other times we’ll find that an incremental change in approach makes all the difference.

In other cases--a surprising number for some of us--we’ll discover that we’re wisest to stay the course. The most important step we can take in resolving this question is to get the best counsel available to us. Had R. U. Darby merely sought expert opinion, as the junk dealer did, he would have found that he didn’t understand the fault lines in the mine shaft, which indicated that gold was present just a short distance away. Through the help of others’ counsel, we often make this same gratifying discovery: The problem is neither with our goal nor our approach, but we’re misreading life’s “fault lines.” If we’ll keep doing exactly what we’re doing, we’ll succeed; we only need to revise our expectations about time.

Persistence is often preached as a virtue--an obligation of maturity: “Stick with your studies, son, and you’ll earn that degree and make something of your life.” Yet, much more important, we ought to understand persistence as a benefit to our life as God has designed it. It is often the key to reaching cherished goals and to solving “impossible” problems. While it may seem undramatic to say that slow and steady wins the race, the truth is that many more battles in life are won by patient plodding than through ingenious solutions or miraculous breakthroughs.

Vertical and Horizontal Time

The point is encouraging to keep in mind not only when we face obstacles in reaching goals but when we’re establishing them in the first place. We often write dreams off as infeasible for us that we actually could accomplish with enough time.

In The Magic Lamp, an outstanding book on personal goal setting, Keith Ellis makes a distinction between “vertical time” and “horizontal time.”* Vertical time is that period just ahead of us--the day we are in and our immediate future. Horizontal time is the period that extends indefinitely into the future. We can accomplish certain goals in vertical time; with heroic effort of will, we may occasionally do impressive things--run a marathon in an afternoon, write a major term paper in one day, respond to a crisis that requires sacrificing sleep for a night or two. Yet we’re unable to run at such high velocity indefinitely; we carry out most of our important accomplishments in horizontal time, and not through spectacular effort but one half-step at a time.

The distinction on the one hand is maddeningly simple. Of course we all realize we can accomplish more through patient long-term perseverance than through manic effort in the present; we’ve known that ever since reading The Tortoise and the Hare in kindergarten. Yet having this fresh vocabulary for speaking of the time available to us is helpful, for it aids both our self-talk and our visualization. It inspires us to think more creatively about what our possibilities might be if we allowed ourselves the luxury of no deadline at all, and all the time necessary--even with very small steps--to accomplish a goal. We need all the incentive we can get for such long-range dreaming, for the emphasis on instant gratification in our culture inclines us to do the opposite--to focus on what we can accomplish quickly, then to grow discouraged over how limited our options seem to be.

It is often stunning to realize what we can accomplish with the benefit of horizontal time, by breaking a goal down to manageable steps. Need to write a book of two hundred pages? Sound impossible? One paragraph a day for a year will do it--or several sentences a day for two years. Need to take a graduate program with twenty courses? Two courses a year for ten years will get you through--or four courses for five.

Ellis is a prophet for horizontal time, enamored with what we can achieve in life without grueling effort, by merely moving along at our own pace. The concept is a redemptive one, for it helps us to appreciate the time available to us in one lifetime as an unspeakable gift of God and to see practical possibilities for our life we would otherwise miss.

In Ellis’s own words: “Given enough horizontal time, you can learn to play a musical instrument, master a foreign language, read the collected works of William Shakespeare, dig yourself a swimming pool, earn a college degree, build an addition on your house, learn a trade, write a book, land a new job, start a company, or all of the above. It might take you a year, or it might take you twenty years--so what?”*

Going the Distance--At Your Pace

Appreciating our potential in horizontal time gives us the courage to set goals, even very long-term ones. By setting a carefully conceived goal and embracing it wholeheartedly, we vastly increase our potential for success.

Paul succeeded in his mission and found the heart to persevere through shipwrecks and stonings, because his intention to be a groundbreaker for the gospel was so clearly focused. “[I have made] it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named,” he explained (Rom 15:20 RSV). Paul wasn’t implying that every Christian must have his specific ambition of bringing the gospel to unevangelized peoples; his was an intensely personal one, springing from an understanding of his gifts and God’s unique plan for him. When Paul taught on individual mission, he stressed that Christians should look to the gifts, desires and opportunities that God has given them personally (Rom 12:3-8, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4:4-16). Yet he demonstrated by his example the extreme benefit that comes from having clear goals based on these distinctives.

It helps us too, in finding the heart to set these goals, to remember assurances Jesus gave about our potential for being productive as his followers. He taught emphatically that he intends us to be productive, and that he gives us special help when we seek to invest our life constructively. He went as far as to assure us that we will do “greater works” than he did (Jn 14:12). We seldom think about this astounding promise Jesus made, nor experience the motivation he intended it to inspire, for it is puzzling. How could any of us come close to matching the quality of his accomplishments?

Keith Ellis’s distinction between the two types of time available to us helps in explaining what Jesus must have meant. Jesus certainly didn’t mean that any of us could surpass the works he performed in vertical time. Even the most gifted healer among us could not match his degree of miraculous healing--which included raising the dead--nor could the most gifted evangelist impart salvation. Yet most of us have far more horizontal time available to us than Jesus allowed himself during his earthly mission. It’s within this context that we have the possibility of a more substantial quantity of accomplishments--plus the potential for achievements that require substantial time and focus to carry out.

It’s this thought--that God intends our life to be uniquely productive in horizontal time--that, more than anything else, can give us the courage to dream big and set challenging goals.

Whatever the pressures upon you in the upcoming weeks, let me encourage you to give some generous time to personal planning. Set aside time to be alone with Christ--an afternoon, a day, a weekend perhaps--for the purpose of gaining his perspective on your life. As best as you can, peer into the future and ask yourself this question: What things would I most like to accomplish with my life if I could take all the time needed and deadlines are not required? Among the possibilities you entertain, consider whether one seems uniquely to fit your life as God has designed it. If so, then embrace that aspiration as a life dream. Commit your dream to Christ, and prayerfully establish a strategy for reaching it--step by step by step. Continue to seek his guidance and provision as you move forward.

Just one further word of encouragement. If no meaningful long-term vision emerges, wait for it--give it a fair opportunity to develop. The dreaming process takes time, and we must patiently persist with it like everything else. It’s to this end that Scripture tells us to seek God’s insight as we would hunt for hidden treasure (Prov 2:1-6). The good news about searching for treasure is that sometimes our effort seems futile--yet by digging a bit further . . .

Go for the gold, my friend.

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