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Perfecting Patience

August 8, 2012

If you’re anything like me, patience does not come easy. Don’t get me wrong, I am neither relentlessly achievement-focused nor all that goal-driven. I am just as prone to distraction and procrastination as anyone else. But when I think I know what to do, and others aren’t ready to join me to get it done, I find it hard to hold back.

As I have matured (read: gotten older), I’ve come to appreciate the importance of patience and its role in helping me achieve strategic successes. I’ve also come to appreciate what make it distinctive and worthy of my effort and focus.

In my younger years, I was encouraged to be persistent. The importance of perseverance was often emphasized too. I’m sure both of these practices have their place, but they clearly are not the same as patience.

Persistence is mostly about repetition. It’s externally focused and emphasizes doing something over again until you perfect it or it succeeds. This certainly has merit, as no one gets very good at any complex task without repeating and perfecting its essential elements. At the same time, persistence neither requires patience nor particularly benefits from its application. The harder you work, the more time you devote to perfecting execution, the faster you will achieve proficiency.

Perseverance suggests a mindset or internal orientation toward challenging or difficult tasks. We are much more likely to persevere when we think we’re right and all we need is time for people to come around to our view. It’s easier to persevere when we see things happening before others and expect the environment or their understanding of it to evolve in ways that will convince them to see the rightness of our advice. It’s only difficult to persevere when we don’t think that will happen in time to avert a bad outcome or we have to accept accountability for a failure to convince them to see things our way.

If procrastination is about failing to take action when we know we should and perseverance is mostly a question of keeping our powder dry and waiting for the solution to become apparent to others then patience must mean something else altogether.

I have become convinced that patience differs qualitatively from both persistence and perseverance in that it requires the alignment of both of these disciplines. Patience does not imply inaction. Indeed, patient people use their time wisely to perfect the essential elements of their craft. At the same time, they must display perseverance while waiting for the right opportunity to deploy their skills in ways that will influence outcomes.

In these ways, patience is a proactive rather than reactive response to circumstances beyond our control. Rather than resigning ourselves to accept external circumstance, patience affords us an opportunity to work on what we can control while waiting and watching for the right opportunity to arise. In some cases, it also opens our eyes to opportunities to acquire new skills that complement or enable us to fulfill our aspirations.

The discipline of patience requires us to approach problems in a different way. We usually think intentions influence our actions. This view suggests we get the results we desire by aligning our efforts to what we want to achieve. In reality, this works less often than it should because we tend to focus on what we know or think we know, which blinds us to opportunities to succeed by adapting our execution to changing circumstances. Sometimes it blinds us to change altogether.

Exercising patience requires us to recognize that more often than not our intentions follow our attention. We see opportunities only when we look actively for them. As such, patience requires us to adopt a perspective outside ourselves. This demands much more of us than persistence or perseverance. Putting ourselves in the position of others also exposes us to risks because it may make us seem less in control from others’ perspectives.

Anyone with genuine accountability for performance inevitably encounters situations that require her to cede control in exchange for getting others to take responsibility for tasks. This is especially true in a complex world where no one person possesses all the skills required to complete complex missions.

As it has become clearer to me that patience really is the paramount strategic virtue and differs significantly from persistence and perseverance, it has also become clear to me that perfecting patience requires persistence and perseverance. You only become good at it through focus and repetition.


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