Yes, patience. And, drive.
Why Elon Musk would be good at peeling grapefruits and how a propensity to action must be countered with perseverance to achieve success.
I got frustrated the other day making breakfast. I was peeling a grapefruit and it was taking longer than the 1.3 seconds that I’d like for it to take. Meanwhile, I was listening to a podcast where Lex Fridman and Elon Musk were talking about engineering rockets, and Elon casually mentioned how many people have tried and failed to manufacture a particular engine he’s prototyping simply because they didn’t keep going when it took longer than they hoped. (There are clearly many things that separate me from Elon Musk. Patience is one of those things.)
High quality patience requires drive.
Patience is sometimes portrayed as passive. If you can wait a long time for a result, you’re patient. If you can just hold on long enough, you’re patient. Yes, these things are true, but I think the most valuable form of patience is active, not passive.
My brother Paul is one of the most patient people I know, and it’s especially evident in how he farms. Every time we call to catch up, I end up asking about his plans for the next growing season and once I’ve done that, I know I’ve got to commit at least another hour to our conversation. But, I don’t mind; I learn a lot from the way he thinks. As an organic farmer, he faces a whole list of parameters for every management practice, from where he can buy seed to how many feet of buffer he needs between a crop he can sell as organic and the neighbor’s fields. He also aims for diverse crop rotations, so he makes plans for 3-5 years at a time. Sounds like a lot of work, right? That’s still the simple part. What makes it especially tricky is that unpredictable factors like weather and livestock can throw off the original plan at a moment’s notice, and when one piece of the plan changes, it affects everything which follows. So, there’s a plan B, and C, and D, and… you get the idea.
Just by listening to Paul talk through these plans, you can tell he has patience. It’s not the “wait around and see what happens” patience. It’s the “I’m going to take action on the factors I can control” patience. He doesn’t make one plan and patiently wait to see if he has to change it; he has the drive to see the importance of patiently making the plans so he’s ready for anything. It’s an active patience, not a passive one.
Fix your commitment issues.
On the flip side, drive without patience results in a lack of commitment. Driven people have a propensity for action, which is part of why they’re often so successful. But, just like Elon’s predecessors, jumping to a new arena to get a shorter wait time for gratification is a sure way to give up right before a breakthrough. The (admittedly oversimplified) story of how Thomas Edison failed 99 times to invent the light bulb before he perfected the 100th one conveys the same idea. I find myself struggling to complete tasks when I don’t see results right away, and I have to constantly fight against the urge to pivot too soon. The best trick I’ve found is to focus on smaller, process-based outcomes. If I set a fitness goal to lose ten pounds, I learn to take satisfaction in going for a run each day instead of obsessing over the scale every morning. It helps to satisfy your drive in the short term without sacrificing the patience required for the ultimate long term goal.
Never give in, except…
There is still a caution here: it is possible to work patiently, with drive, towards a goal either unattainable or one not worth attaining at all. One of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes is as follows:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in…”
What I find interesting is that the final phrase in his statement is nearly always left out. The full quote is this:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” *
Relentless pursuit of a dishonorable goal is not to be admired, nor is continued pursuit of a clearly impossible outcome. Elon and Lex talked about this idea in their podcast, because some critics say Elon’s goals are simply unattainable. His counter is that the physics rule everything else, and he’s calculated the physics—he knows, according to the basic laws of nature, he can achieve what he’s set out to do. This isn’t to say he’s over-confident; he knows it’s possible, which is not the same as knowing it will happen. “Success is in the realm of possibility,” he said. Elon’s drive is rooted in practical awareness of the limitations of the world around him, and his patience is allowing him to keep working to the edges of those limitations.
Patience is power—if you do something with it.
Are you using patience as an excuse for failing to take action? Patience isn’t passive. Channel your patience into something you care about and start moving. Are you letting your drive overrule your patience and dipping out before you’ve had a chance to see results? Take small actions, day by day, to achieve something worthwhile in the long term. I think you’ll find it’s worthwhile in the short term, too. Whether you’re making breakfast or building a spaceship engine, combining active patience with focused drive will make you powerful.
Where do you need to exhibit more active patience in your life? What will you do about it this week? Drop your thoughts in the comments below or tag @miriamrosah on Twitter or Instagram. I’d love to learn from you.
*emphasis is mine. Also if you want to read the full Churchill speech where the quote originated, check out this link.
For my fellow podcast nerds… check out Lex Fridman’s most recent episode with Elon Musk on YouTube or Spotify or find your preferred platform here. While you’re there, listen to more. Lex has a really refreshing perspective on the world. He’s incredibly intelligent but has managed to fend off the cynicism that is often found in people who think deeply.