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Ambition gets you started but persistence gets you to the finish line

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Ambition gets you started but persistence gets you to the finish line

Scott Miker

The other day I heard a quote that I have never heard before.  It was a quote by Bill Bradley who was a hall of fame basketball player, a Rhodes scholar, and a U.S. Senator.  With such a successful resume and covering such a wide range of areas, it is easy to see that Bradley understands how to succeed.

The quote that I heard from Bradley was, “Ambition is the path to success.  Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”

This is such a great quote.  To me this explains so much about failed attempts and the shortsighted approach we all take from time to time.  It is very common to see ambition and assume that is the driving force that accounts for someone’s success.  But how many of us have been inspired to accomplish something but that inspiration slowly fades away over time?

In order to break away from that fading inspiration we need something else to keep us going.  We need to be able to last long enough and keep going beyond where we usually think in order to keep improving. 

When I was younger I played football.  Because of my interest in football I worked out a lot.  I was always pushing the limits and adding heavier and heavier weights.  I grew my strength significantly over a few years. 

I also needed to get quicker.  I would work on improving my speed and run short sprints.  I would do exercises to improve my ability to run quickly for short bursts. 

I did this to improve my strength and quickness.  But I remember that I couldn’t endure.  I was so focused on short, quick bursts that I couldn’t run more than a mile or two and I could only do a small number of reps at a time, even if I dropped the weight. 

It was something mental.  I didn’t see the point and thought it was a waste of time.  I would focus on the pounds I could bench-press not the repetitions.  I would focus on how quick I could run the 40-yard dash.  

But after football ended I stopped exercising.  It took years to finally start getting back to exercising.  And when I did my goals around exercising shifted dramatically.  I no longer cared as much about how fast I was or how much weight I could bench press.  I just wanted to get healthy and in shape.

This approach meant longer stretches.  It meant more cardio.  It meant a focus on going further and further.  And in the beginning, I wasn’t ready for it.

This is the reason that it was so difficult for me to get back to it after years of not doing anything.  I just wanted to put a little effort into something for a few minutes and then see results.  But this didn’t work.  My ambition would fade and I would end up not doing anything. 

The point is that most of us look to ambition to do too much.  We want that early motivation to push us enough to reach our goals.  But this isn’t enough.  We need something more.

The something more is persistence.  We need to be able to endure and continue.  We need to have a driving force that helps us reach our destination. 

This is why I love the quote so much.  It gets at that point.  By saying that ambition is the path to success Bradley acknowledges the importance of being ambitious.  But he also understands the value in persistence.  He understands that “persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”

But how do we improve in this area?  It is easy to find motivation and get inspired.  That can help with ambition.  But how can we grow our ability to persist?

To me the answer is to rely on the systems and habits techniques.  In order to sustain something we have to look at it systematically.  We have to use repetition and the stickiness associated with the right habits. We have to start small and keep the focus on doing it over and over again.  We have to be flexible and lenient in order to overcome adversity. 

If we can focus on systematic improvement we can grow our ability to persist.  By doing this we can utilize this “vehicle” and have it take us towards accomplishment and success.