Lessons in Prioritising and Persistence

Seemingly obvious prioritising choices can take a backseat as our quest for something to ‘show’ takes the priority. Read on.

You have been asked to train a monkey to sing and dance on stage. We know, it is highly unlikely someone is ever going to ask you to do this, but let’s just pretend for a few minutes. Hypothetically.

What is the first thing that you will prioritise? Obviously, the monkey, right?

While this is an obvious answer, it could happen that you also want to make the stage look nice and spectacular. So, you spend some time building and decorating the stage. In fact, you spend a lot of time building and decorating the stage.

While building and decorating the stage seems like a silly thing to prioritise and you are pretty sure that the major chunk of energy and priority will go to the monkey to be trained, human nature suggests otherwise. Teaching a monkey how to sing and dance on a stage can teach us a lesson or two.

A common peculiarity seen in most of us is that we like to have something concrete. A tangible result is what we aim for. As this article which acted as an inspiration for our write-up points out, we like to have something to ‘show’. Building and decorating the stage is a much easier task than training a monkey to sing. It is also a result that will be visible more quickly; it will be more noticeable. It’s a faster to achieve job.

We often end up engaging in a similar error in prioritising our tasks. We also end up doing something similar to our larger goals and dreams. We want to have something concrete to show. Having something concrete to show is a practical strategy, of course. But we also want to have that concrete thing now. That is where we tend to lose focus from the bigger picture, and we end up over-prioritising things that can are easier to do and will take less time. When the audience comes, we want the monkey to be able to sing. A well-built and well-decorated stage makes no sense if there’s no performer there. A false sense of working hard might set in. Harder work is to wait for the results to show.

We will go back to training our monkey now. Training the monkey to sing and dance will be difficult. It will cost one patience. More time, more energy, more skills to be developed, more training required on our part. (I mean, most of us aren’t equipped with the skills to train animals, forget teaching them to sing and dance, right?)

Again, something difficult often requires more time and effort, but just because a concrete result isn’t there yet, doesn’t mean that there is no result in progress. Learning something difficult, prioritising something difficult could mean that we may not have much or anything to show for some time. Skills take time to develop. Behind one single achievement, there could be months and years of work. A performance might be fun and enjoyable to everyone else, but the one who has trained and the one who has been trained have put in immense work, invisible to everyone else.

So, the next time you want to think about your priorities, think if you need to focus on training the monkey or decorating the stage. The next time you feel frustrated in a project, think if you are frustrated because you haven’t found something concrete, or frustrated about the time it is taking to ‘show’ something. It takes both, prioritising and persistence.

Don’t give up just yet!

If you grew up in a world that didn’t have computers and much modern technology all the time, you probably found many different ways to pass time. One of those would be solving a Rubik’s cube. Solving a Rubik’s Cube can be frustrating, before it gets rewarding. It can test your patience before it can give you a reason to rejoice.

A similar thing can happen beyond a simple game of Rubik’s cube. Things can get worse before they get better. We are often very close to giving up on something and then suddenly, just as we loosen the grip, it all falls into place. Before giving up on anything, it might do us good to keep this in mind: we might be very close to a breakthrough without realising it, even though nothing seems to be working in our favour in that moment.

In addition to the situations when we have been persistently trying hard at something for some time, things can also feel like they are going worse before they get better in scenarios such as changes in operations, management, strategies, and anything new that is implemented. We might feel like the change is not working so far, and hence it must be time to give up on the change and call it a failure.

What can we do to ensure we don’t give up too early?

Be okay with the discomfort of the process: Many of us give up on projects and things when we encounter the discomfort or perception of failure. We might see no results as we pitch in to that client day after day, or we see no results as we continue on a new project, and that absence of an external cue of success can be uncomfortable. The lesson here is to remember that process takes time. We might not realise it, but that client might get impressed by our persistence, and finally agree to our request. Or it takes one tiny breakthrough, built upon the foundations of our earlier hard work on a project, to turn things around. The key is to embrace the discomfort that comes with the process of doing something and not seeing immediate results.

Embrace the journey: It is often an overwhelming focus on the end result that makes us impatient and oversensitive to setbacks. Solving a Rubik’s cube might not be as frustrating if we actually focus on solving it, instead of thinking what a great achievement it would be if we solved it. Embracing the chaos that comes with starting anything new will make us more prepared to deal with the chaos, instead of focusing on negative thinking patterns such as ‘I should never have started this/we should never have decided to introduce this xyz strategy’. Taking it one step at a time, learning from each step, and being curious where our next step takes us and teaches us would be a better mindset to have than being in a rush to get to the end of the task.

Whether ongoing or new tasks or ideas, things might get worse before they get better, because it is after all a process. Processes are rarely smooth, and processes are often rollercoasters with their thrills, drops and highs, disappointments, lessons and tiny achievements before we can end up on the finish line, and look back at the wonderful journey we have had. Don’t give up just yet!