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be persistent- but when?


We’re all familiar with the old adage that only persistence counts, that being persistent will get you everything in the end- the money, the car, the fabulous friends, not to mention the country mansion, and yet who hasn’t met someone who has persisted very well indeed…at the wrong thing.

Being persistent- well crying kids are rather good at that. They wear their parents down until they cave in and offer them an icecream to shut up. Is that the right model? Might be.

On a long distance walk persistence is very useful. You know what succeeds- walking- so you just keep doing it.

But very often people persist, or develop the habit, before they’ve found out what succeeds. They persist in doing something that doesn’t work. For decades sometimes.

Persist at what succeeds. Drop what doesn’t.

How do you know though? Weren’t razor blades shunned by everyone at first? Wasn’t Hary Potter rejected by 19 publishers?

Well, you have to be a bit more canny than that. You have to do your own thinking for a start. It’s amazes me how ready I am to take an appealing off the shelf concept such as ‘be persistent’ without really unpacking when and where it is appropriate.

You have to be sensitive to signs.

Your Mum liking something sadly is not a sign.

Your best friend liking it is not a sign.

A slight unwillingness to talk about it in public to people – acquaintances say, is probably a sign that it isn’t great. Whatever ‘it’ is.

Do you find your project attracts ‘luck’- ie. interest from others, or do you have to work really hard to get anyone to notice it at all? Good stuff needs some pushing- but not that much.

Do people talk about it to other people? If so- then you’re in business. Do people buy it for other people- another good sign.

But the key good sign is when the idea, product, whatever, is talked about in a positive way (not lampooned!) behind your back. When you get the email or phone call from someone saying  “I heard about it from X I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch”- that’s the key sign the thing has legs.

It is developing its own life. It’s going viral. Breeding without needing to be in the intensive care unit of PR and advertising.

Where does persistence come in? Well CD Baby founder Derek Sivers says you must be persistent in inventing and improving your ideas- not persistent in repeating the same mistakes. Once a project shows some promise, keep honing it, keep optimising what works and shelving what doesn’t.

Or take a leaf out of the book of the guys who invented hula hoops and silly putty- they had hundreds and hundreds of ideas that didn’t make the grade. They just kept trying them out. When something caught fire- pretty early on- they pumped the oxygen of publicity into the project. Otherwise it was left to die its own death.

If something is available and no one wants it- it’s a very good sign it’s probably better to move on. Persist in generating new ideas, or improving things so that they are generally acceptable, instead of persisting with something that has proven it has no appeal.

Impro is a good way to roadtest lots of ideas and quickly find out their appeal. You keep making up stories with a partner and ditch anything as soon as it seems dull. What you find is that 90% of good stories seem good from the word go, from the initial package and set-up. “A man-eating shark terrorises a US resort”- yes please. “A brainy shark learns algebra with a brainy kid”- er, maybe. “A man gets on a bus and goes home.”- not really (not unless his wife has left him or his dog has started talking when he gets home).

So, another sign worth bearing in mind is the instant appeal the idea has. If it’s hard work to describe it to anyone, if you get embarrassed telling your friends and family about it, it may not be such a great idea. But be canny. If your family have a certain ‘view’ of you they may be down on an idea that is really very good. But if a stranger, with no agenda, likes the idea it’s a positive sign.

Isn’t this like market research? Kind of. But it’s finer and more subtle. Potentially much better. Look at all the crap out there. Some focus group gave it the thumbs up. Companies are rather poor at coming up with what people really want. (One reason why Apple were such a rare delight for years). Mostly corporations (or corps(e)) push old stuff that’s more or less OK. Well, that works if you have a massive ad spend and a low unit cost, but mostly you want to be working on stuff with more promise. You need to be more sensitive than a group of paid volunteers ‘assessing’ a product.

Persistent learning and adjusting are what’s required, dynamic persistence if you like; rather than static persistence- doing the same damn thing for ever.


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