The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perseverance as "continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition."
I don't usually check definitions, but I knew perseverance meant more than stubborn, even when I was confronted by the word for the first time. By the chair of the Department of Physical Sciences. My first week at college.
After attending his "demonstration lecture" during a College Week visit, I enrolled in the only undergraduate class Dr. Gelbaum taught. Instead of beginning with a review of what we should already know or a syllabus or rules, he opened with, "What is the most important characteristic of a math major?"
In the class of over a hundred students, surprisingly few hands went up.
"Intelligence." Helpful, but no.
"Memorization skill." No.
"A big coffee pot." Chuckle.
"Lack of fear." Closer.
When he'd called on all the raised hands, he looked at us and sighed. "No more hands? No more guesses?
"I asked you this question because you will never make it as a math major at this institution if you don't have perseverance."
A few gasps. One person got up and walked out of the lecture hall.
I wish I could remember all of the rest of his opening as well as the beginning, but here's what I remember.
“Perseverance makes other people think of you as stubborn, because you fail, then you try again. And again. And again. Not exactly the same thing, but you try to solve the problem in another way, with another tool. You work on the same problem for weeks, looking for a thread of logic that will unlock a solution or find a way to finesse a more elegant, shorter way to the answer.
“When you're in physics or German class, your mind wanders to the rough edges of a solution. When you're playing a game of pick-up basketball or sitting on your board out in the ocean surfing, an approach you haven't tried surfaces and you stop, look for paper and pencil and sketch out a new idea.
“When you fail a homework quiz because you couldn't make headway on just one out of the twenty problems and that was the one problem on the quiz. When you fail a test because there was a new kind of problem on it, one that forced you to analyze and synthesize what you've learned to create a whole new technique and you didn't have time to finish it once you figured out the approach. But you attend quiz sessions, visit your professor during office hours, and burn that proverbial midnight oil until you've figured out something new, something you'd never been able to do before, you are a math major.
“Because you have perseverance. When things get hard, when you don't understand what's going wrong, when you don't know how to make it better, you keep working on it. You find research. You talk to others. You read papers. You start and stop. You throw away a lot of attempts. But you keep following your dream, you keep working on your problem, because it's become the most important thing in your world and, eventually, you will solve that problem and present it to others to enjoy, to learn from, to build into the future.
"End of lecture. Read the first chapter in your textbook. Do all the problems that you can't."
Dr. Gelbaum's first lecture coalesced everything I needed to hear and remember about perseverance. And it gave me a very important word for my adulthood. I persevered and got that math degree, then a master's. I persevered in my career as a mathematician.
And when I decided to write, I persevered when a friend read my first book and offered the name of a writers' group I should join. Every time I receive a chapter back from one of my critique partners, I persevere and edit words that need some finesse, even though they were the best words I could think of at the time. When my editor tells me my character arcs aren't strong enough, I go back and analyze what is missing, then I synthesize a solution.
To be successful, writers need every characteristic mentioned by Dr. Bernard Gelbaum. We have to persevere in the face of all the changes in the publishing industry. We have to persevere just to finish a book that has a chance of being bought by readers who are hungry for our stories. We have to persevere and market our work so readers can find us. All while life swirls around us.
But if we can juggle all that's necessary, if we push through every rejection, every less-than-five-star review, every time we don't think we can make a deadline, that perseverance muscle gets stronger. And we're better for it. We soldier on.
We know that we can do anything. Be anything. And we are. Writers.
How have you soldiered on—in your writing life or in life? What character trait helps you the most to get through the times that make you willing to quit and give up your dreams?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.