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The Power of Perseverance

Last week I launched my new blog, “Leading with Character.” Thanks to all of you who tuned in to read about “Doing Something Hard” and/or to comment on social media. I plan to blog once a week, and hope you’ll find a leadership nugget in each post.

This week’s topic is the power of perseverance. If there’s one word that sustained me throughout my entire life, from childhood through my 40 years serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, it’s perseverance. Last week, history was made when the NASA rover, aptly named Perseverance, landed on Mars. For over seven months Perseverance maintained its trackline through space, traveling about 300 million miles to reach its distant destination. Now, with the success of the landing, it seems everyone is talking about perseverance, with stories abounding about how people have persevered to succeed at work and in life.

The thing that struck me most about Perseverance is that it had to land on its own, without human guidance. Since radio signals take over eleven minutes to reach Mars, Perseverance had to slow itself down and choose an unobstructed place to land. So often in life, we humans experience the same challenging conditions. Family, friends, and colleagues have helped prepare us for life’s journey, but whether we succeed or fail in our mission depends on whether or not we have the power to persevere through the meteor storms, gravitational forces, and other obstacles we’ll encounter along the way to our landing place.

As a child, I was painfully shy and lacked self-confidence. When I failed at something, which was all-too-often, I was hard on myself and tempted to quit. But I didn’t. I was the oldest of four children, and the energy of that group of three brothers kept me motivated. My parents also set high expectations for us kids. We were expected to be honest, to work hard, and to never quit. I learned that was the way to do well in life.

My perseverance paid off in high school, where I did well in athletics and academics, despite not being the strongest, fastest, or smartest. That’s because hard work and perseverance level the playing field of life. I was excited when the Coast Guard Academy offered me an appointment to the class of 1982, the third class to admit women. It was thrilling to enter, with trepidation, through that main gate and start the cadet summer training program. But it didn’t take long for a stark reality to sink in: the program was much harder—mentally, emotionally, and physically—than I expected. To make matters worse, joining over 300 other (mostly male) cadets who had been at the top of their classes, I instantly plummeted from being exceptional to very average. It was intensely stressful and there were times I felt completely alone, especially as one of the only women, and wanted to quit. After a while, I noticed everyone struggled with some part of the rigorous training program…I was not the only one. I felt a glimmer of hope! The program was designed to test all of us to our limits, regardless of how talented and strong we might be. I gritted my teeth and learned to take it one push-up at a time, one meal at a time, and one day at a time. Thus, I persevered day after day and made it to the end of the summer.

When I returned to the Coast Guard Academy 33 years later as superintendent (the equivalent of a college president), it was my chance to give back to help the current generation of cadets succeed. I taught them the formula that had served me so well over the years, “Hard Work + Perseverance = Success.” Perseverance is the watch word. Too often, motivated people treat life with a sense of urgency, like they’re running the 100-meter hurdles. They bound out of the starting block sprinting to reach their goals. Then, their foot hits the first hurdle, and they stumble. Instead of getting back up and continuing the race they quit, looking for an easier route to success.

Life isn’t a sprint; it’s an endurance event, like an iron-man triathlon. It takes a combination of hard work and perseverance to make it to the finish line. At the end, when you’re exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally, perseverance is what will get you across the finish line. That’s how I made it through four grueling years at the Coast Guard Academy, and 36 more years serving ashore and at sea on the front lines as a surface operations officer in the Coast Guard. If I could do it, anyone can—if they persevere.

Do you have a personal story that demonstrates the power of perseverance? Please share it with those you lead or mentor so they can add it to their toolbox and be ready when the time comes for them to persevere.

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.