Our role models, fictional or real, embody traits we admire. Persistence is often among them. The hero pursues the quest through every danger and discouragement. The detective keeps searching until the mystery is solved. In the writing world, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down 121 times before it found a publisher. Chicken Soup for the Soul garnered 140 rejections. Few people choose role models who quit at the first challenge, flitting from job to job, cause to cause, relationship to relationship. We’re inspired by those with the motto, “Never give up.”
Never give up? Really? Experienced chess players resign when their position is hopeless. Surely real-life investigators often need to set aside a cold case, even if their fictional counterparts always succeed eventually. We never hear about the writers who kept going through 200 rejections and never got published. They might have done better to move on and write something else.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em,” the gambler tells country singer Kenny Rogers. “The secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.” The gambler doesn’t tell how to know whether to hold or fold. Don’t most of us sometimes struggle with this in one context or another?
It’s partly a matter of ends versus means. You can persist toward a large goal while letting go of a particular way you’d hoped to get there. Navigators speak of midcourse corrections, continual adjustments to stay on track toward a constant goal. You can stick to one endeavor, in the hope that eventually it will work, or at some point you can try a fresh venture in the hope that eventually something will work. The artistry lies in figuring out when you’ve reached that point.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.