Albert Einstein and another man were once working on a scientific paper, and when they were done, they needed a paper clip. They looked around and found one, but it was bent out of shape. So they started looking around for a tool they could use to bend it back into a usable shape, when they came across a whole box of paper clips.
Einstein immediately took out a good paper clip, and bent it into a tool that he then used to bend the original paper clip back into a usable shape.
His partner said, "What are you doing bending that paper clip into shape when we have a whole box of perfectly good ones!?"
Einstein's reply was, "Once I'm set on a goal, it becomes difficult to deflect me."
He said later in his life that this little incident characterized him more than any other. It's a silly incident, and a foolish waste of time to bend the paper clip back, but the habit of staying on a track is extremely powerful, and fully worth it even if sometimes the habit wastes some time foolishly.
This world can easily be looked at as a trap designed to take you off course, whatever course you're on. The world is full of enticing temptations to pull you off track. It's full of catastrophes and annoying circumstances that tend to take you off track. It's full of people who want your attention, your energies, and your money to go somewhere other than down your track. Staying on track is a tremendous test of will.
The chief obstacle is something inside your body, something built into your genetic makeup — a curiosity that makes the human species the most successful animal on Earth; a greed for what you don't have, what you haven't seen, what you haven't done, what you haven't heard. A built-in lust for novelty. Combine that built-in desire to gain pleasant experiences with the free-enterprise system, and stir. What do you get? A dizzying land of temptations and distractions.
The world is literally screaming for your attention. Advertisers, salespeople, your friends, your enemies, and your own mother want your attention. They want you to take your attention off your goals for a moment and put your attention on their goals.
Distraction is the chief obstacle.
It doesn't seem like an obstacle, and that's why it's the toughest to overcome. What does it take to overcome it?
TO TRY AND TO FAIL
Gail Borden thought condensed meat was the wave of the future. It was 1844 and people often died from eating tainted meat. Before refrigeration, people needed other alternatives. Borden experimented and found a way to boil 120 pounds of meat down to ten pounds, making it not only easier to carry, but less likely to spoil.
When the California Gold Rush began, he saw a ready market for his product, and he and his brother Tom built a meat-condensing plant and started cranking out the product.
But of course, the Gold Rush didn't last very long. After it was over, his main source of customers dwindled down to nothing and his business went bankrupt.
"Don't infer I've given up," he told a friend. He knew the process of condensation was valuable, and he was determined to convince other people of it. After several more years of experimentation, he wrote in a letter to a friend, "Every piece of property I own is mortgaged. I labor fifteen hours a day."
The price of success. Often it doesn't come easy, especially when you want to make a difference. He wasn't just trying to make a living. He could have just gotten a job. He had a vision, if you will: A big, shining vision a hundred feet tall of the value of condensation. He knew it was useful, and he was determined to bring his vision to fruition. He said, "I mean to put a potato into a pillbox, a pumpkin into a tablespoon, the biggest sort of watermelon into a saucer."
You and I may think this is strange. Who can say why a particular person feels compelled to accomplish a particular thing. But it is good that it works out that way because many of the products and ideas and ways of doing things we now take for granted and that contribute to our happiness and ease of living were at one time weird little obsessions of obscure people in the past. They knew their contributions would be useful even when nobody around them thought so. Their contributions were made because they persisted. Some of the contributions, and this may include yours, would never have been made by any other person if the visionary had given up.
Mr. Borden knew a lot about condensation, but apparently he was condensing the wrong thing. He was persistent, but he wasn't a blind fool. He didn't keep trying to give people what they didn't want. What would they want? What could he condense that would serve humanity?
He remembered an incident aboard a ship. Cows were on board to provide fresh milk (again, this was before refrigeration) for the babies on the voyage. But the cows took sick and four babies died from the tainted milk.
Maybe condensed milk would be useful. Gail started experimenting and found a way to condense milk without making it taste burnt, and opened a factory.
Farmers, seeing this as a threat, started a campaign against this "unnatural" form of milk. Keep this in mind: When you are doing something that needs to be done, even if it is all good, and even if your intentions are pure, there will usually be someone out there who finds your new thing a threat to an already existing status quo. They will try to stop you. They will put up obstacles. What can you do to deal with it? Stay on track. Continuous, unrelenting action toward your goal is the only answer.
Gail continued, and almost went belly up again. But then the Civil War broke out and the Union army thought Borden's condensed milk was the perfect thing for a field ration. His business was saved. After the war, public perception had changed, and his business prospered. Condensed milk was indeed useful, and his company has been providing Borden's condensed milk for more than 120 years now.
On his grave, the epitaph reads, "I tried and failed, I tried again and again, and succeeded." Every obstacle eventually yielded to his relentless resolve. Why? Because no matter what happened, he stayed on track. He didn't give up. He didn't sell out. He was never diverted from his purpose.
Robert B. McCall, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues have kept track of 6,700 people for 13 years. Specifically, they are tracking people who were underachievers in school — people who, according to aptitude tests, had a lot of potential to get good grades, but who, in reality, had low grade-point averages. After 13 years, only about 15% of them had achieved a kind of career success equal to their abilities.
What do they lack? Two things, according to McCall: "persistence in the face of challenge," and they are too self-critical. We deal with the self-critical habit in other places, but the lack of persistence is simply a missing thought-habit. This can be remedied.
You are persistent in the face of challenge if you are in the habit of being persistent in the face of challenge, and you are in the habit of persisting if you are in the habit of thinking in ways that make you persistent. Being in the habit of telling yourself STAY ON TRACK will help. Other good thought habits (things to say to yourself) that can increase your persistence are FOCUS CREATES POWER and DO WHAT NEEDS DOING.
Persistence is an extremely important habit. Think about it. You can't really develop competence at anything unless you persist through the rough parts, whether it's playing the piano or doing your job or being a satisfying lover. Any task you undertake, if it's worth your trouble, will have some challenge in it. Some part of it will be tough. No new abilities can be created without persisting in the face of challenges, even if the main challenge is suffering through the boring repetition of playing scales on the piano.
Ability and therefore accomplishment require persistence. It is probably the most important fundamental to creating the life you want. Keep coming back to the basic fundamentals. The fancy stuff, the nonfundamentals, aren't worth much if the basics aren't in place.
Develop persistence. That is fundamental to achievement. Very few successful people became successful easily. Most of them had to exercise a good amount of persistence to get there, and the same is almost certainly true for you. For example, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was published in 1970. It had sold more than seven million copies in America in the first five years, and it is still selling. But when Richard Bach was looking for a publisher, eighteen publishers turned down his manuscript.
For some goals, for the really good ones, it will take everything you've got to accomplish it. As a matter of fact, it will take more than you've got — you'll have to become more than you are now in order to accomplish it. You'll need to learn more than you now know. You'll need to gain skills you don't have yet.
Relentless resolve can accomplish what seems impossible. In India there are what are called fakirs, which doesn't mean people who are faking anything. They are people who do something amazing that takes years to master, and they do it as a spiritual discipline.
For example, there are some who hold a particular pose, like a certain religiously appropriate position, and they just keep holding it. This takes intense resolve, because of course, it becomes uncomfortable after only twenty minutes. So they go as long as they can, and then they rest. And then they go as long as they can again, and they keep alternating like this, getting it longer and longer until they are permanently frozen in that posture!
They eventually can't move, even if they wanted to. Their disciples have to wash them and force feed them and carry them to the river like a statue to wash them off.
This is amazing. It shows the amazing power of unremitting resolution. Personally, I think this particular application of will power is stupid. There are so many worthwhile things to accomplish in this world, and these guys have developed their powers of resolve to an unbelievable degree and all they have accomplished is to turn themselves into a vegetable! That's really dumb. But it shows the kind of resolve anyone can develop, and it shows that enough resolve can do things nobody thought was possible.
In the Millionaire Mind page-a-day calendar, the authors, who have studied millionaires scientifically, tell about one example of a schoolbus driver who was able to send his children to medical school, private colleges, and graduate school, and then he retired with a net worth of three million dollars. How? Obviously you don't make much money as a schoolbus driver. He was consistently frugal. That was important. But the other part was that being a schoolbus driver gave him a lot of free time every day, and what he did, consistently — staying on track year after year — was read about investments. He saved money by being frugal and then very intelligently invested his money. That's how he did it. Not with a supreme exertion but with staying on purpose no matter what the temptations or distractions.
You will be taken off track again and again until you learn to stick with your purpose. With practice, you can get to the level of Einstein's concentration. And when you can focus like that, you will be a laser beam, cutting through obstacles and barriers with hardly a pause, flying strait to your objective with power and speed.
Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.