By Barry Maher
Donald Wyman was a woodsman. A tree fell on him, breaking his left leg and pinning the leg beneath it. He called for help for an hour, then realized that there was no one close enough to hear him. If he stayed where he was, he’d die. It was just a matter of time.
So Donald pulled out his pocket knife. He cut off his own leg, just below the knee. He cut through the skin, the muscle, then—with that pocket knife—sawed through the broken bone.
He crawled 90 feet uphill to a bulldozer. He dragged himself up and in and drove to his truck. He hauled himself from the bulldozer to the truck then worked the standard transmission with his right leg and his hand, while holding onto the shoestring he’d tied as a tourniquet with the other hand. He reached help just as he was slipping into shock.
That’s what desire can do. Now tell me how difficult it is to do whatever it is you have to do to reach your goals.
Is desire enough? I could fill a book with quotes from various gurus swearing it is, stretching back to at least 1819, when William Hazlitt said, “A strong passion for any object will ensure success, for the desire of the end will point out the means.” Epigrams like that sound wonderful but if it were really true when I was twelve I would have been dating Brigitte Bardot. No one on this planet has ever wanted anything more.
That’s what I liked about the original Rocky movie—as opposed to Rockys II through XXXIV. It wasn’t the standard “desire overcomes all odds” storyline. Rocky does everything he can possibly do to prepare for the fight with Apollo Creed. But the night before, he faces the reality. As an unranked club fighter with little experience and less training, he has no reasonable chance of beating one of the greatest heavyweight fighters that ever lived. No matter how much he wants it, no matter how positive his thinking, it’s not going to happen. In spite of that, he’s still determined to take maximum advantage of his talents and his opportunity. He’s going to give winning his best shot—why not? But his real goal becomes to go the distance with the champion—something no one else has ever done. He fits his goal to the reality and succeeds on his own terms.
To me, that’s far more inspiring than the typical “zillion to one shot beats the champ” story—because it has a much greater ring of truth. Few Pollyannas would have scripted the movie for Rocky to lose the fight. But I’ll bet that even fewer would have put their money on him if the fight had been real.
Here’s a bit of reality-based positive thinking that’s Pollyanna heresy. We’ve all been told that if we want something we should never, ever give up. Never, ever is a long time. I don’t believe never, ever is for most of us. Remember, all those people in true-life never, ever give up stories that we hear about are the ones who ultimately reached their goal. The screenwriter whose 29th script was plucked out of the trash to become the box office bonanza. The catcher who spent 13 years in the minor leagues before becoming “Rookie of the Year” at age 32. The entrepreneur who finally stumbled on the next pet rock after enduring years of starvation and bankruptcy.
Statistically, for every “against all odds,” never, ever give up success, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, who succumbed to the odds and failed—for one reason or another. That’s why the odds being bucked were as great as they were.
Most of those who didn’t make it weren’t as tenacious or as hardworking as the one who succeeded. But many of them were. Most of them weren’t as talented. Many were. The ones who succeed will tell you that they believed in themselves and that they always knew they would make it. So did most of the ones that failed.
At some point, maybe some of those who didn’t make it—and maybe even some of those who did—would have been happier if they cut their losses and found something else to do that made them happy. A musical-comedy playwright once told me that no one should try to make it in his field unless they absolutely had to write musical comedies: unless their desire was such that they really had no other choice.
Try. Try hard and try smart. If I had to list the single characteristic I considered the most important in any type of success, I would say, persistence. If at first you don’t succeed, learn everything you can from the first effort and try again. And again and again. But sometimes what you eventually learn might be that you should try something else. Or some other variation. Another heretic, Simon De Beauvoir said, “In the face of an obstacle which is impossible to overcome, stubbornness is stupid.” We all know that. Most of us even act on it. We just try to pretend it isn’t true.
The never, ever quit situation may be only for those who, psychologically or otherwise, absolutely have to do what they’re never, ever going to give up. And for those for whom the effort itself is a greater reward than anything else they might be doing, or who can pursue their never, ever while still having a rich rewarding life at the same time.
Max Filer became a lawyer in 1991 at age 61. He passed the bar on his 48th try, 25 years after he’d first taken it in 1966. During that time, he worked as a machinist, raised seven children—two of whom became lawyers—and served four terms on the Compton, California, City Council.
Max never, ever gave up on his goal. But he lived a full, meaningful, important life while doing it.