Willpower and Persistence

David Allen, via Flickr

I’m always seeing posts about how you should strive to be this or that. I wonder how much research has gone into whether it’s always possible to “become” something entirely by willpower and persistence; by an unwavering belief in yourself.

We like to believe in this country that all you need is willpower and persistence to achieve the top of anything. I have come to believe that is not the whole story. You also need ABILITY. Without ability, you cannot become a good singer. Without ability, you cannot become a successful artist or writer or dancer or cook or scientist. Without ability, willpower and persistence can only take you so far. So yes, you can become something you want to be by persistence and belief, but only to an extent, unless you have the ability to do more.

When we tell others they only need to work harder at something that does not match their ability, I think we do them a disservice. Not everyone can be brave, or smart, or talented to the levels they would like to be. Or that we might want them to be.

To use a game analogy, as long as you can honestly say you’re leveling up, then keep going. But remember that the 20 year old who wants to be a famous rapper has probably made his life about the pursuit of the dream rather than living the dream if he turns 70 and hasn’t made it. And yeah, it’s never too late to achieve a dream while you live, but you’re probably going to have to scale it back a bit because – here’s that word again – your ABILITY to achieve it has to be taken into account.
My childhood dream was to be a famous writer. At 70, I have to admit I’m not even close to being famous. I don’t even have a published novel. It’s still possible for me to complete and publish a novel, but it would have to be a hell of a novel to make me famous. In addition, my lifelong depression and anxiety issues sometimes keep me from writing at all.

So I have had to come to terms with realizing that though I am a writer, I will never be famous and that my production will never be on a par with say Neil Gaiman. But I can continue to level up as a writer. I can use my willpower and persistence to work at becoming better at writing and at writing as often as I can.
I would never tell people they can be anything they want to be just by willpower and persistence. I would tell them they CAN be anything they want to be – within limits. And that’s really not a bad thing. Not everyone can be rich and famous or insanely talented, but we can all be the best us possible.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Until very recently, I had not heard of Josephine Tey (1896-1952). She was an extremely popular English mystery writer whose early death from cancer prevented her from creating the kind of canon writers like Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie did.

This book features her detective inspector Allan Grant, who is laid up in hospital with a severely fractured leg as a result of a fall while in pursuit of a criminal. He’s a very rational man, who prefers fact to fiction and is finding forced confinement, with the kinds of books people are sending him, to be difficult indeed. But, factual though he is, he has the quirk of being drawn to faces. Early in his career he discovered that he could use what he saw in one to help him determine who was lying, who was guilty. But in a hospital bed, in the years before television everywhere and decades before the internet, the only faces he sees on a regular basis are the cute but bullying tiny nurse he calls The Midget and the tall and comforting nurse he calls The Amazon.

Then actress friend Marta brings him a sheaf of prints of portraits and he suddenly finds himself obsessed with the portrait of a man who – at first glance – everyone he shows it to takes for a judge or some other upright person. But when they learn who he is, their judgement always turns harsh and he’s perceived as a monster: Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings of England.

Grant, with the help of his actress friend’s “woolly lamb” Brent Carradine, an American doing research in London to be near his actress girlfriend, begins trying to untangle the mystery surrounding Richard III – and to determine if he really was responsible for the deaths of his two young nephews, the “princes in the Tower.”

Several mystery writers have assayed the detective-solves-old mystery-while-in-hospital plot, but seldom as well as Tey. Her writing is straightforward but filtered through the droll mind of Inspector Grant, it is charming. In Robert Barnard’s introduction to the recent edition by Scribner’s he says she always had “control of her reader’s sympathies,” and I can attest to that.

By the time he’s ready to go home, Grant has solved the mystery to his satisfaction and discovered that though Richard III is still in the history books as a villain, historical scholars had already amassed more than enough factual evidence to show he was not the hunchback with a withered arm desperate for power that he had been portrayed as for nearly 5 centuries after his death. It was his public reputation that needed rehabilitation.

After I finished this novel, I looked up the news articles on the finding of Richard III’s remains in the Leicester parking lot and his subsequent reburial at the cathedral. Even at this point, the observers were reluctant to bring up his still controversial reign, instead focusing on the surprise of finding such a monumental English historical personage in the way Richard had been found and on the acknowledgement of his status as an anointed king of England.

This brought me back to Tey’s novel where at one point Grant and his friend Marta have a conversation about why it is that people confronted by facts tend to dig in their heels and get angry when those facts contradict their long-held beliefs. And this too was one of Tey’s strong points as a writer: she could weave an observation about our cultural foibles into her story that transcended the story itself, but without being either offensive or obtrusive.

I will certainly read more of her work.