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I have always wondered about the relative merits of hanging in there and keep pushing up against life’s obstacles (perseverance), on the one hand, and continuing to do what clearly does not work and suffering the inevitable consequences of uncontrollable repetition (perseveration), on the other.
The dominant market mentality encourages us to keep trying no matter what the consequences are. We have faith that if only we try hard enough we’ll break through to the other side. So that’s why every writing guru recommends that even after the 200th rejection slip a writer should still continue submitting poems, stories or essays as though “there’s no problem” whatsoever.
But on the other hand, the classic definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing and expect different results.
So at what point one should stop and reevaluate one’s position? Under which circumstances one should think “perhaps I should be doing something else in life”?
I personally have changed my course a few times in life, roughly after 4 years of trying something and realizing that it wasn’t working for me. And I have never regretted my decision to leave behind the things that did not work for me as a career (print design, journalism, and screenwriting). Technical writing and communication, on the other hand, has worked beautifully for the last 12 years and I wish I started this wonderful career much earlier. But then, hindsight is always perfect, isn’t it?
A recent scientific study has corroborated my personal feeling that we tend to persevere and keep doing the same things when we are under a lot of stress. Stress is what turns a normal behavior into a deeply ingrained habit, even when the results are either hurting us or not bringing the positive results that we yearn for.
“Reporting earlier this summer in the journal Science, Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues described experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”
When under stress, the lab rats continued doing what was clearly not working for them whereas non-stressed rats did not show similar self-defeating activity.
Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, “This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut. We’re lousy at recognizing when our normal coping mechanisms aren’t working. Our response is usually to do it five times more, instead of thinking, maybe it’s time to try something new.”
I think when our writing career is not going where we want it to go, when we are facing a lot of rejections, we should first try to lower down our stress level by doing whatever works… talking to a friend, going for a short vacation, exercising, etc. Because to me it’s clear that the action we take under stress will more likely to be a repetition of whatever did NOT work in the past than a fresh approach that might yield a new and positive result.
I know — it’s not easy to lower one’s stress level at will. But it’s equally true that a decision to “persevere” taken under stressful conditions will probably be a repetition of past habits instead of a cool evaluation of the alternatives available to us.
In writing life stress is something we should all try to avoid in order to see what works and what doesn’t in our career and take a fresh approach to our problems. Dr. Sousa’s research confirms that.