Why perseverance trumps inspiration

Inspiration is on holiday.

My muse is napping quietly in a corner.  And whenever I attempt to awaken her, she gently groans and rolls over.

Has this ever happened to you?

Have you ever been faced with a project or a deadline and it’s all you can do to get started, let alone complete the thing?

That’s when perseverance needs to take over. 

Perseverance is the opposite of inspiration.  Inspiration strikes.  It is that flash of genius when the solution arrives in an instant.

Inspiration lives in the clouds with the angels.  But, like clouds, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t.

Perseverance, on the other hand, lives in the trenches.  It’s dirty and sweaty and sometimes it smells.

We all live for inspiration, but we need perseverance.

Unfortunately, the curse of a curious mind is that your head is turned by every new shiny object.  We are intellectual butterflies.  Rather than persevere we lose patience and move on at the drop of a hat.

The downside is we rarely follow through to completion.  I am famous for this.  I have started more books, projects, businesses, careers, and Lord knows what else, only to lose interest half way through.

Perseverance is something I struggle with.  Usually it places a distant third to whimsy and caprice.  But struggle I must.

Because with perseverance comes inspiration.  Funny how that works.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield talks about fighting the Resistance.  The Resistance is that unseen yet destructive force within each of us that conspires to keep us from completing – sometimes from even starting – the task at hand.

The Resistance takes many forms and comes in many guises.  Yet the end result is the same – that thing we should be doing isn’t getting done.

According to Pressfield, “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration.  ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’”

The only antidote to the Resistance is perseverance.  It is the simple act of sitting down and doing.  Pressfield continues:

Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.

Inspiration, in other words, is not only found in the clouds, but in the trenches as well.  Through perseverance.

The more we persevere at a task, the more we grind it out, the easier it becomes.  And the longer we toil in the trenches the more inspiration we find there.  Rather than wait for us in the clouds, our muse comes down and sits next to us.

She awakens and starts up a conversation.  If we really get into a flow, she sings.  And so does our work.

There’s really no other way around it.  Inspiration is not something to be sought, it simply arrives.  And the best way to tap into it is to get to work.  Every day.

It’s a hard lesson to learn when you have spent the better part of your life flitting from one thing to another.

It is said that the best way to instill a new habit is to keep at it for 30 days.  But that only gets you so far.  After a month you are just getting started.

The best way to ensure results, to gain mastery and a certain level of success, is to keep at the thing for 10,000 hours.  That’s several years.  That’s commitment.  That’s perseverance.

It’s what Steven Pressfield says separates professionals from amateurs.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that we need to aim for professional status on every little project.  That would be silly – especially if you are thinking in terms of Duncan doing plumbing or carpentry or electrical work.  It’s.  Just.  Not.  Going.  To.  Happen.

But the basic premise holds true.  Waiting for inspiration to strike isn’t going to get the job done either.

Because success doesn’t come overnight.  Only perseverance will carry us through the tortuous expanse separating our initial enthusiasm from the mastery of whatever craft we practice, whether for pleasure or profit.

We must toil daily in the trenches of our very own mental Middle-Earth.  We need to get up and get at it, even when inspiration is on holiday.

“The mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work.”

Not very sexy is it.

The great thinkers, writers, singers, actors, innovators, artists, teachers, crafts people, chefs, anyone who produces anything – they all start their day by sitting down and starting to work.

For every inspiration there have been a thousand failures.  Most of them private, but some very public.

From those failures, from all they teach us and from the perseverance they represent, comes success.  It may start out as a little thing.  A non-failure, perhaps.

Eventually perseverance leads to competence.  And then craftsmanship.  Until some day north of 10,000 hours, we reach mastery.

It’s at that point we don’t have to wait for our muse to awaken, or to come sit next to us.  We have an appointment with her, every morning, at nine o’clock sharp.


One Comment on “Why perseverance trumps inspiration

  1. I love this article, it inspired me to complete works which were not done 🙂

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