Mastering the Art of Quitting

Our belief in the value of persistence colors the way we tell our own stories and the lessons we take away from the stories we’re told. This belief is so interwoven into our way of looking at life that it’s hard to see it any other way.

As children, we fall asleep to the rhythms of the Little Engine’s “I think I can, I think I can,” which teaches us that both persistence and the power of positive thinking are the keys to success. From the get-go, we learn that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” along with dozens of other sayings that make it clear that we must hang in and soldier on.

The emphasis put on persistence is part of American mythology, perhaps because the founding of this country demanded it—surviving the first harsh winters in New England, forging west over treacherous and sometimes hostile terrain, having the gumption to set out for thousands of miles and stick it out. Tenacity provides the backbone for the American Dream—whether it’s the rags-to-riches climb, the come-from-behind victory, or a variant of Rocky the fighter facing down the odds. Seeing persistence as the key to success is also democratic. If hanging in there is what’s required, then all the other characteristics and advantages one person might have over another—education, class, privilege—are taken off the table.

Where the ancient Greeks saw Sisyphus, Americans see a potential hero in the making.

The Little Engine and its grownup counterparts dominate the collective thinking so completely that we like our success stories mixed with at least a dash of failure and preferably a pinch of impossible odds so that in the telling, persistence comes to the fore. Would we admire Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb as much if he’d succeeded on the first try? The answer is no because we wouldn’t like it if he succeeded on the first try.

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Persistence makes heroes of animals too—think of Seabiscuit, or the occasional dog or cat that travels a thousand miles to find its way home.

In all of its iterations, the resolve-equals-success formula spawns other cultural tropes, not the least of which is that failure followed by renewed effort is intrinsic to success. It’s not a surprise that the YouTube video “Famous Failures” has been watched millions of times and reposted on Web sites all over the Internet. Its message? If you haven’t failed, you haven’t lived.

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Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein
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