If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going
~ attributed to Winston Churchill
My brother and I emerged from the half-mile-long portage muddy and drenched in sweat. The last of the black flies and mosquitoes buzzed around our heads before heading back somewhat victorious into the woods.
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE PART 1 BELOW ⤵︎
We set our canoe and packs down and stared out at what was to be the last paddle of the day. Off in the distance, we could make out our final destination: an island. What had been a sunny and wind-free day when we started the portage had suddenly turned cloudy. Dark clouds, the portent of a storm, lurked on the horizon. Beyond the little cove where we were standing, we could now see waves and a few whitecaps.
“Well, we can’t camp here,” we agreed, looking at our immediate surroundings. “Here” was the mainland, home to black bears and other creatures that would just love to get into our food pack – and who knows what else – during the night. We were in the wilds of Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. Safety was the local variant of a Marriot Courtyard: the tent in our pack, our sleeping bags, and a relatively flat piece of ground on the island in front of us.
We secured our packs in the canoe and set off. As we cleared the relative calm of the cove, we were soon running perpendicular to the wind. To avoid any chance of the waves swamping our canoe, I had to turn us slightly into the wind – taking us away from a direct path to the island.
We settled into our characteristic rhythm: my brother in the front paddling on one side, me in the back paddling and steering on the other. Periodically I would call out “Switch!” and we would reverse sides so as to ease the strain.
The wind continued to increase as did the size of waves, and to avoid taking on water, I had to turn us almost right into the wind — taking us further away from the island. Soon, I could only paddle and steer on one side of the boat that had a bit of protection from the waves and wind.
Fatigued muscles became more fatigued.
I looked at the island off to my left. We appeared to be making almost no forward progress. Turning around was out of the question. The size and pace of the waves would have easily capsized us.
My brother and I had paddled this stretch of water a number of times on previous trips. “Normally” it was a twenty to twenty-five-minute paddle to get to the island. We were now approaching an hour without a break, and we were still a considerable distance away.
As we approached the opposite shore of the lake – mainland again – pine trees cut the wind just enough so that I could turn our canoe toward the island. The wind that had been in our faces was now at our back, and we rapidly closed the distance to that night’s campsite.
Sometimes you just have to keep at it to get where you want to be.
But not necessarily by following a straight line.
I wonder if “perseverance” and “grit” are a bit oversold. Or at least misunderstood. As a young lad, I was constantly reminded to “keep trying,” and I would eventually get right whatever it was that was holding me back.
When playing in high school sports, my coaches always reminded me that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I lived that mantra in college, spending endless hours in the library. Time was my currency for grade success. I never questioned how I was studying.
Working hard and long hours continued in adulthood. It was commonplace for me to put in 60-plus hours a week, not just to get ahead, but to attack what was on my plate.
My friend, Mike, tells a similar story.
“We were operating a newspaper that we had started out of thin air with no money, and we were in the third year of it. And it wasn’t working for us, but it was working for everybody else. It was a very popular paper. We enjoyed it; it was a very creative endeavor. But we were working hundred-hour weeks, slaves to a print schedule and not making enough money to pay our personal bills. So we’re trapped in the worst possible way. We had no time and we had no money, and we had no way to escape the print schedule. We couldn’t get a second job. There wasn’t any time. So we were totally trapped and exhausted.”
Angela Duckworth makes the point in Grit that what leads to success is not talent alone, but effort. Hmmm. Effort – and their considerable skills – alone didn’t guarantee Mike and his wife success.
What gets short shrift in the cheerleading for perseverance and grit is how. Perseverance and grit have sometimes been portrayed or misconstrued as an attitude and behavior taking us along a single pathway. Keep at it, and you’ll move forward on that pathway toward your goal.
But there isn’t always just a single pathway.
A critical consideration that is often undernourished in these discussions is the willingness to pivot. I say “willingness” because departing from a given course of action for some is tantamount to quitting – nay, failing! They’ve already put so much effort into what they were doing that they can’t conceive of not finishing. This is the “sunk-cost bias” at work, and we see it in everything from personal relationships to home projects to careers to wars.
Pivoting is the willingness to stop, reflect on options, and choose to move in a completely different direction. And the idea here is that there are multiple pathways to one’s destination, however one defines that.
My brother and I were forced to pivot on the lake – we had to head away from the island to eventually reach it.
My friend Mike chose to pivot in a completely different direction. He sold the newspaper, bought some trailer parks, and now lives an extremely satisfying life courtesy of passive income. I’m not sure he can even spell “work” anymore.
Pivoting may be the single most important skill we need to teach in schools. Solving today’s and tomorrow’s problems will require thinkers who can deftly move one way and then another, backing away from or avoiding obstacles altogether.
And by doing so, they’ll put the wind at their backs.