What I Learned About Long-Suffering
My theme for 2019 was long-suffering. I selected it because it stood out to me as an important quality in shifting my focus towards goals with longer horizons, which has been a growing priority for me. I’ve found I’ve done quite well at taking on projects that last from months to a year or so, but I don’t have many goals I am specifically working towards that have longer in horizon than that. I am at a point in my life where I want to have more of those though, hence this focus.
Throughout this year I took on various efforts that would help me learn about different aspects of long-suffering in order broaden my understanding of the topic. Here are some of the things that I learned.
1. First I should define what long-suffering means to me. I really like the definition: ‘patiently enduring lasting hardship’. The one thing I might like to correct is that this definition seems a bit passive. Both the words ‘patiently’ and ‘enduring’ feel like they imply someone sitting there bearing something – be it something as benign as waiting in line or as gruesome as physical torture. I’ve found that often long-suffering is very active in nature though. I was surprised to learn how active Nelson Mandela was during his time in prison. I had erroneously assumed those were mostly wasted years in his, but in fact, during his prison time he was constantly doing everything he could to advance his cause. Sometimes this was on a very local level, like protesting in the prison for his right to wear pants. But during his prison years he was also meeting with world leaders and writing what would become the start of his autobiography.
2. Passion is a necessary part of long-suffering. In fact, the best way to measure how much someone cares about something might just be to see how much they will suffer for it. Interestingly, the latin roots of the word patience are closely tied to the word passion, which makes a lot of sense. It is literally the property of suffering for what we care about.
3. I have found that sometimes what you care about can get a bit muddled. Do I care about running fast because it is intrinsically important to me, or do I want to be known as the person that did it? History is littered with stories of people that said they cared about one thing, that was nicely disguising their true (though perhaps not even acknowledged consciously by them) goal. Does Elon Must really want to save humanity, or does he want to be remembered as the person that did? Perhaps a bit of both.
4. I have seen this muddling result in a drop off when it is pushed too far. Tech companies are famous for their grand visions of transforming the world, but often making a lot of money ends up being the real priority. I’ve written before about how the people that care more about one of those often need the help of the people that care about the other. It is interesting that both need to see how theirs will be true in order to push through the hard work that rapidly growing companies always are.
5. Even when striving for a goal that will take decades to accomplish, it is really important to have milestones along the way. Whether it is place to rest, or just accomplishments to feel like at least that much is secured. Dealing with incredibly long periods of waiting is mentally challenging and comes with increased risk. Making slow and steady progress in smaller increments comes with many benefits. So my moving towards 20 year goals doesn’t mean I have to give up having one year goals, it just means that more of my one year goals will string together towards a common long term goal.
6. I previously wrote some about how uncertainty can greatly hinder ones ability to endure. It is no wonder the prison guards didn’t want Nelson Mandela and his allies reading news from the outside that showed they had support. Without that knowledge, they might have eventually felt their struggle wasn’t worth it and given up. But with the knowledge that those outside were supporting and watching them, it gave them the strength to continue on.
7. The certainty needed must entail; the goal being meaningful, the impact being possible, and the strategy being fruitful. I’ve watched business leaders lose the ability to push their teams, not because the mission had changed, but because there was no belief in the current strategy. I have seen this both at a team level, where momentum just slowed down, as well as at an individual level, where someone stopped believing they could get a promotion, and so stopped working hard for it, and thus fulfilled their belief.
8. Conversely, sometimes just changing one of those items can boost someone’s ability to endure. Perhaps they still agree the goal is important and possible but they stopped believing in the strategy. Maybe a competitor has a slightly different take on things and that is enough to encourage them. Or maybe it is the same exact strategy, but they are just more willing to believe it from someone new. I suspect this belief is at the heart of a lot of companies, sports teams, countries, etc. changing their leaders and repeating the same patterns – they just needed a little bit more of something to believe in.
9. This year my long-suffering was mostly independent, but as I suffer for the strategies of others and as others suffer for mine, it is important to remember how important belief in both the mission and strategy is in people’s willingness to sacrifice for a goal. I have found big goals always require a lot of sacrifice and the people that are able to figure out what it is that a person cares about, and frame the impact in that way successfully, are able to get that sacrifice from others.