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  • Writer's pictureKim Borg

The double-edged sword of persistence







When I started trying to publish my writing (fiction and academic) I always kept a log to track each attempt and the outcome. Originally, the purpose of those logs was to remind me what had happened so far and what was happening at that point in time - it can take months to hear back on submissions! Looking back on those logs, they also serve another purpose: a track record of my persistence . . . and stubbornness.

In the past 5 years, I logged the word 'rejected' 33 times for academic submissions and 22 times for fiction submissions. But within weeks, the log is always followed by a 'resubmitted' entry. Because there's always another option. A different publisher or journal. Sometimes there's helpful feedback, which is an opportunity to improve on the original submission. Sometimes the feedback is less helpful (e.g. "It's not a right fit for us", whatever that means). The pain of rejection still stings, but the effort to try again can be as simple as uploading to a different website and hitting submit again. The fear of another rejection always lingers, but so too does the hope of achieving my goal: publication.

Recently I wrote about how to handle rejection and not let it stop you from moving forward. This type of persistence has been invaluable for me professionally. When I was turned down for a promotion at a previous job, I gave it some time, built my case, and took it to someone more senior. I was promoted. When I was ready for my next professional move, I wanted to choose where I worked rather than wait for an opening. So I started cold emailing (and in some cases LinkedIn messaging) the organisations I wanted to work with. There was a lot of silence and some 'no, thankyou' responses. But that's also how I landed my dream job. When I tried to publish the first academic paper I wrote, it took me two years, a rejection, two major revisions, and a minor revision. But it was published (and by that time I already had two other publications to my name).

The ability to persevere through adversity is absolutely a character strength. Learning from your mistakes and trying again is the epitome of self-improvement, innovation, and achievement. But there is also an ugly side to unwavering determination.

In behavioural science, there's a well-known cognitive bias called the sunk cost fallacy. In short, it's our tendency to continue putting effort and resources into something, simply because we have already put effort and resources into it, even when the benefits don't stack up. This is the double-edged sword of persistence. Sometimes, giving up may actually be the rational decision.

Photo by azboomer on Pixabay

Publishing is one area where the sunk cost fallacy can rear its head. But it's a phenomenon that affects all aspects of our lives, from intimate relationships to financial investments and professional goals. Our emotions - the fear of failure, impending guilt, or even anticipated joy of success - can get in the way and make it seem like the continued effort is worth it. We've all experienced it before. A dead-end relationship, but you've invested so much time and effort in it that it feels like a waste to give up. A renovation project that ends up costing more than it would have to build a new house. A stressful and overwhelming job that you hate, but you keep telling yourself things will get better after the next deadline (hint: it never does).

So how do you tell the difference between persistence and stubbornness?

Honestly, I don't have the answer. Personally, when I'm having doubts about whether it's worth pursuing something, I've sought the opinion of others. It can help get me out of my own head and determine what the 'rational' choice is. This can be effective when you're seeking advice from someone with more experience in the subject. If you want professional advice, look to senior colleagues who are in a similar position to where you want to be in the future. If you want personal advice, check with family and close friends who know your personality and habits.

Another technique I've found useful is shifting focus to the (realistic) future, rather than the past or the present. Revising and resubmitting academic papers can seem like a pain, but there are multiple future benefits to sticking it out, including sharpening your writing skills and building your professional reputation and profile. Over time, this can turn into collaboration opportunities and even promotions. At the same time, if the paper is on a subject that you don't want to be known for, and if the time you are spending on it could be spent on another endeavour that you are passionate about, it might be time to add the word 'abandoned' to your logbook.

If you continue to put time, effort, and resources into something that's not improving, if the ends no longer justify the means, or if the rational choice is to cut your losses and walk away, but you persist anyway - you are being stubborn. In the context of relationships, one of my favourite comedians, Daniel Sloss, articulates this beautifully in his comedy special Jigsaw: "1) Do I admit that the last 5 years of my life was a waste? or 2) Do I waste the rest of my life?"

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