Inspirational quotes often give very bad advice.
In fact, if you want advice, I can find multiple pieces of folk wisdom or quotes from famous people to share with you — almost none of which would agree with the rest. I can give you folk wisdom about never giving up or I can give you folk wisdom about cutting your losses before they get worse. Which one is good advice?
Why is so much of our collective folk wisdom contradictory? And why does following some of this wisdom not seem to help us?
I’m thinking about this tonight because I ran across a quote which was attributed to Winston Churchill: “Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
Is that good advice? I have no idea. I guess if you don’t give up on the thing and your persistence brings it to pass, it was great advice. But what if you spend years persisting — passing up other opportunities — in order to stick with something? If you end up with nothing, it was terrible advice and it leaves your miserable.
I wrestle with this issue all the time. I used to be too prone to giving up quickly. Then I read a lot about persistence and examples of people getting the things they wanted because they persisted, so I became painfully persistent when I truly wanted something.
Another reason I think about it so frequently today is that something which I wrote on the subject six years ago mocks me today. I wrote an article making the case for not giving up on what you truly want. It features an excerpt from Napoleon Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich,” which tells the story of a couple of prospectors looking for gold who quit digging — and gave up — when they were only three feet away from the vein of gold which someone else would find after they gave up and left.
It’s a great story. The graphic I chose for the piece illustrates the lesson quite well. Lots of people preach this lesson. In fact, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton somehow found my article and had a copy placed in the lockers of each of his players when they were going through some adversity a few years back. (It was reported at the time by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a New Orleans radio station, although I can’t find the link right now.)
But when I see people randomly finding that article every day — it’s been read by 47 people so far today, for instance — I sometimes want to find them and say, “Hey, maybe that was bad advice. Maybe you really ought to give up.”
Let me go back to the alleged Churchill quote. He says I shouldn’t give up on something I can’t go a day without thinking about? What if I can’t go an hour without thinking of this thing I want? Does that make it an even better idea? Or does it just mean I’m doomed to torture myself obsessing over something I can’t have — something I can’t force myself to give up on?
I wish I could just say that enough faith and desire will bring us what we need. There are a lot of smart people who teach that faith and intense desire will eventually bring us what our heart wants. But what if they’re wrong?
Pat Terry had a piece of wisdom in a song he wrote back in 1984. In “Truth is Like a Sword,” he wrote, “Demand too much and you may end up empty-handed, demand too little and regret is your reward.”
That line haunts me. When it comes to love, maybe I’ve demanded too much by loving in the way my heart wants to love. I’ve ended up empty-handed so far. I’ve tried to do the opposite, too. I told you recently about a woman I dated a couple of years ago which was really an example of expecting too little — and regret is all I felt about every moment I spent with her.
So how do we know when to persist? And how do we know when to give up?
I often look at the bits and pieces of wisdom that are embodied in quotes — even the ones that I use at times — and I wonder if they’re wisdom or if they’re just our way of saying, “See? Someone else agrees with me!”
If I want to persist — if my heart is desperate to hold onto hope that I can have what I need — isn’t it natural to gravitate to wisdom which agrees with doing what I want to do? I’m not sure that wisdom from the past is anything more than a catalog of words we choose from to justify what we want to do.
I can’t decide whether I regret writing that article six years ago urging people not to give up. At its core, I think it’s good advice — for most people and in most situations. I think we’re far too prone to give up easily. I think we’re far too willing to walk away at the first bit of adversity.
But what if we’re asking for too much — something which we can’t have which we need — and we destroy ourselves by ending up with nothing? Is it worth destroying ourselves in order to prove a point about persistence?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I obsess about them frequently lately. I wish I could answer them. But sometimes it doesn’t really matter what we consciously decide. So maybe it’s a moot point.
Maybe there are times when a heart locks in on something it needs — and refuses to accept a substitute or a second choice. Maybe there are times when it’s not a matter of choice anymore.
Maybe the heart is determined to persist — despite what the brain’s reason has to say — even if that means ending up empty-handed and empty-hearted. I’m not sure I have a conscious choice, because my heart won’t let me do anything else.