Being persistent is a strength—right?

I sure assumed it was for a long time. Whatever I went after, I went after hard—from becoming a faster runner in high school, to learning to speak Setswana in South Africa.

I also kind of thrived on logging hours toward a goal because since I was working so hard, I must be getting closer to what I wanted. Right?

Now I see that sometimes I was, and sometimes I wasn’t. And one major time I wasn’t was when I was trying (and failing) to find work that lit me up after Peace Corps.

My approach: Choose a direction aligned with my interests, then work my butt off and try to make it work, whatever came my way.

My results: Three career paths I threw myself into totally, one after the other, that weren’t for me.

Here’s what the process taught me about persistence:

1. Don’t be persistent just to have something to do. Check that you’re working toward a result you really care about.

A few years after Peace Corps, I was struggling. I’d gotten a Master’s and been teaching since I got home—but after a while, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted long term. I enjoyed cooking, so switched gears and enrolled in culinary school.

My strategy with cooking was: Go to school now, decide what type of job to do later. There were lots of directions I could potentially take this: Open a restaurant, teach cooking classes, become a food writer… I could even do something with social entrepreneurship like Hot Bread Kitchen’s Bakers in Training Program for women facing economic insecurity.

I would certainly be able to make something work—and at this point, I had to. I was 31. It was time to settle into a career. I didn’t want to feel behind my peers and broke anymore.

So I tried some tough love with myself. Get trained, then choose a type of culinary work and stick with it.

There are times when tough love may work, but this wasn’t one of them. Sure that one of these directions could suit me, in retrospect I cringe that I didn’t actually research and check that out—see what people’s days were like who did these careers—before investing two years and $15,000 in culinary school.

From the beginning, professional cooking wasn’t a fit. No matter how hard I tried, I was barely keeping up in school. This went on from our knife skills test, to prepping for lunch at our campus restaurants.

Plus, I just wasn’t that into it. Our second quarter practical final was cutting a chicken into designated pieces as fast as possible. Before this I’d been a vegetarian for nine years. What was I doing?

As school went on, I felt further and further removed from who I really was. It’s also worth noting that others noticed this, too—including some I didn’t know well.

But I’d bought these knives and told everyone I was doing this. I couldn’t change my mind again!

So I didn’t. About a year into it, I was biking home from school one night. I wasn’t used to doing that, and the ride felt harder than usual. I stopped by a bike shop to ask if something was wrong with the bike.

“Well,” said the flannel-wearing, scruffy-chic bike mechanic who was about my age, in as nice a way as possible, “you have a flat tire.”

My cheeks flushed as my obvious bike inexperience was exposed. “But if I have a flat tire,” I asked, “how did I just ride five miles here?”

“I don’t know,” he said honestly. Then, again without a trace of attitude, making me want to support this store for all my biking needs for life, he suggested, “Persistence?”

As he changed the tire, I leaned against a wall of reflectors, having a moment. Somehow, this explained so much. We can push and push with something, and yes, get somewhere. But it doesn’t mean it’s where we want to go.

It’s that old image of worker harder all the time to climb the ladder of success—only to ultimately see it’s propped against the wrong wall.

So how do we know when we’re persisting after something truly worthy for us?

We need to gently back up and check in with why we chose these ventures in the first place. Which brings us to the second thing I’ve learned:

2. Explore directions that seem to align with who you are. Be persistent in them for a while. But keep your eyes open.

We’ve talked before on this blog about focusing on who you are and want to be before deciding on a work direction. In general, things feel off (either right away, or later) when they don’t align with who you are on a deeper level.

So rather than just choosing work around your interests, like I did before culinary school, let yourself explore potential directions based on your values. Also keep in mind that what truly brings you alive is a map to what you’re here to give.

All of this said, even when we make a decision consciously this way, we all have times when the reality of it still doesn’t suit us.

The writer Laurence Gonzalez has a beautiful line: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” He suggests that when a plan and reality don’t seem to align, we often ignore the warning signs reality is trying to show us, double down on the plan, and struggle (gulp :)).

One way I now understand what happened with culinary school was I went in with closed eyes. I didn’t want to see what might not work about it, because I didn’t want to start over again.

It’s natural to want to avoid pain like that. But the problem is it just doesn’t work, if we want meaningful lives. We can’t force fulfillment. And the irony is that in trying not to waste time, we often end up losing more of it.

We want to do the most good we can in the world. We want to do the work we’re meant for and live courageous, connected lives. Everyone does deep down.

For years, I was terrified I would run out of time for these things. Now I can confidently say that if we stay aligned with who we are and want to be—if we persist in that—we will ultimately do the good we’re here for.

It may not always seem this way, but it really is a long life for most of us. And persistence is a beautiful and vital strength, of course, when applied toward what really matters.

So start here: Be gentle and caring with yourself in your vocational discernment process. As much as you are with those you love. Breathe. Rejuvenate. Go inward. Reassess.

You’re closer than you think to where you want to go.

I hope this blog was a valuable read—but also hope you won’t stop there 🙂. We can have strong insights, but then easily forget them when we don’t act on them. What’s one action you want to take right now to persist in something that matters to you? Please tell us about it in the comments. Writing it down makes it more real for you, and helps others know they’re not alone. 

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PHOTO CREDIT: William Randles