By Kathy Hellkamp
Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.-Walter Elliot
Just recently I finished reading a fantastic book entitled Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag. It is a story of Norwegian immigrants moving to the United States and settling in South Dakota in the 1870s. One family gets separated from their traveling group on the trip from Minnesota to South Dakota because their wagon breaks down. Starting out several days later, they plan to meet up in a prearranged spot. They push their oxen as fast as they can but they fail to find their friends. Per, the husband and father of this family, tries to keep his worries away from his family but they are all frightened. One night he wakes up and starts walking west. At first I almost thought he was abandoning his family but he starts checking the moon and the stars and changes his direction based on these. Finally, in the dark, he finds some left behind food from where his friends had camped previously and now he knows which way to go. He runs back to his wagon and the next morning he has the family on the right trail. Several days later they do catch up with their friends and they reach their destination in South Dakota.
As you can imagine, almost every day, a new challenge presents itself to Per. How do you build a home in a prairie where there are no trees close by? When do you start to plant your wheat so that you get the maximum yield out of your crop? If you start too early, it could freeze. If you start too late, the frost in the fall could ruin your crop. How do you get enough food for your family to last until the first crop comes in? What do you do when the locusts descend on your crops right before harvest? How do you feed your animals when the snow is so deep and blowing so hard you can barely get out of your house? But with each problem, Per worked out each challenge as it came to him. Yes, sometimes that meant working all day and into the night for days at a time to accomplish his goals. Sometimes that meant going against the recommendations of his friends because he didn’t agree with their ideas. Sometimes it meant working hard even though he didn’t feel well. No matter what the situation was, Per was guided by his dream of owning his own farm and the vision he had for a beautiful home and acres and acres of crops growing.
Then right when I finished reading Giants, I went to see The Martian, a movie where Matt Damon, a botanist astronaut, is marooned on Mars for several years. Against astronomical odds, he is able to make a home for himself, plant potatoes to feed himself, and to make a plan to get back to Earth. Throughout the movie you could see Matt run into a problem and then break that problem down into bite-size pieces. Systematically he would work, step by step, to remove every challenge until he had found the solution he needed. He stated that the best way to deal with a problem was to just get started doing something. By moving forward , he was able to clarify his problems and the potential solutions rather than being overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that he faced.
Pioneers of all kinds have always held a fascination for me. I have always wondered if I could have handled the privations and hardships of early American settlers. But even though we usually don’t have to worry about where we will get our next meal from or how we will heat our home during an arctic freeze, in business and in life in general we may be forging new ground in our area of expertise. Are we leading a particularly difficult project right now that has a variety of input coming from our supervisors and some very tight deadlines associated with it? Are we an innovator that is trying to incorporate some new technology into our company and finding that some associates don’t like any changes?
Does it take a particular person to be a risk taker and to finish a task that seems insurmountable? Can we learn to develop the same skills that pioneers had, the same ones that caused them to persevere no matter how difficult the task? Can we find in us attributes that make us tackle the big problem? I think it is possible for anyone who has a large enough vision of what they want to accomplish. Here are three things will help our plan come to life.
- Break the project into bite-size steps. Focus on accomplishing the first step before you start to worry about the next step. In this manner, an endeavor that seemed overwhelming will be completed. St. Francis of Assisi said, ”Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
- An optimistic spirit will facilitate any situation. Matt Damon’s character in The Martian rarely got down. Major catastrophes hit him like the total destruction of his potato crop but he just worked out another plan to feed himself.
- Focus on the big picture. Per, as he was planting his crops, did like every farmer has done thru the centuries. As he plowed, he focused on a spot way out in front of him and kept looking at it the whole time. This allowed him at the end of the day to be able to look across his plowed field and see straight furrows.
Taking these steps will guarantee that we will be able to persevere despite the odds if our vision is big enough.