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Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work: Developing Persistence

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Is the power of persistence a change-agent in your life and in the lives of others? Alan Lurie looks at Dr. Seuss's Sam-I-Am for the answer.

Try Them, Try Them: Developing Persistence

Last week, I walked past a coworker’s office. His door was open, and I quickly stepped in to say “hi.” As I turned to leave, though, I noticed an unusual book on his credenza that immediately grabbed my attention. Most businesspeople have the typical retinue of business books in their offices—such familiar titles as Good to Great, Who Moved My Cheese, Freakonomics, and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I would not have been surprised to see any of these titles in his office. This particular book caught my eye because it seemed so out of place in the office of a hard-nosed New York City real estate broker, but its orange/red cover was immediately recognizable. I knew this book intimately because I read it several times a week to my children when they were little. I smiled at him as I looked at the picture on the cover—a catlike creature standing on two feet, bent over, staring incomprehensibly at a plate of odd-looking green food. Although I hadn’t opened this book in more than 15 years, I could still remember many of its familiar whimsical rhyming verses.

My coworker saw my reaction. “Green Eggs and Ham is the best book you’ll ever read on marketing,” he said with a returned smile.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote Green Eggs and Ham in 1960, and it has been a staple of children’s bedtime reading ever since. The book is a whimsical tale of two characters; one—named Sam-I-Am—is a small, energetic, enthusiastic, bright yellow creature (of some sort) with a red hat, who tries continually to convince another odd-looking creature—who is never named—to try a plate of green eggs and ham. This unnamed character is a gloomy, pale creature with a crumpled black hat, who repeatedly states that he does not like this dish, and Sam-I-Am repeatedly tries to get him to give it a taste. At the end, the unnamed creature finally consents to try the dish and, surprisingly, loves it! The two then walk off happily, arm-in-arm. That’s the whole story.

On its surface, Seuss’s story appears to be a simple children’s story. As with all of Seuss’s books (as with any enduring fable), below the charmingly quirky surface are resonant and sophisticated messages. As my coworker saw, among the messages of Green Eggs and Ham is a lesson on one of the key elements for success in any marketing and sales strategy—persistence. Sam-I-Am refuses to give up and will not take “no” for an answer. In the end, his persistence results in a “sale” and a new loyal customer. Sam-I-Am is, in fact, an expert salesman, who uses persistence skillfully. When one approach fails, he quickly and flexibly changes tactics. As his potential client refuses to try green eggs and ham in one place, Sam-I-Am suggests that perhaps he will like them if they are tried in different locations, with different companions.

Sam-I-Am also embodies another key attribute of persistence. He faces rejection with a positive attitude. Seuss draws him as always cheerful and optimistic, even after the unnamed character flatly tells Sam-I-Am that he does not like him. How many of us could avoid taking such a remark personally and find in ourselves the determination and optimism to keep trying? In spite of this overt and caustic remark, though, Sam-I-Am happily continues to convince the other to try his product. He does so because he knows that the rejection is not personal. Sam-I-Am manages to persist cheerfully because he keeps his ego out of the picture and focuses instead on the message. Seuss’s name for this character gives us a clue: Sam-I-Am. He knows exactly who he is (am?) and is comfortable with himself. He knows that the other’s rejection is not a reflection of anything wrong with him as a person, but is simply an obstacle to be overcome.

There is yet another essential quality of persistence evident in Seuss’s story. At the end of the book, after the other creature finally tries green eggs and ham, Sam-I-Am looks on proudly. He has been confident in his product all along and always believed that if the other simply tried it, he would like it. Sam-I-Am knows that green eggs and ham may sound a bit odd, and that stodgy, stubborn, complacent creatures will immediately say “no,” but he also knows that green eggs and ham are delicious (though not kosher...). Sam-I-Am believes in his product and knows that what he is offering is of high quality. At the end of the book, the un-named character actually thanks Sam-I-Am for convincing him to try something new. Like Sam-I-Am, in order to sustain our enthusiasm and to ethically continue to try to convince others, it is crucial that we believe in what we are producing, saying, and selling. Blind persistence for a faulty product, service, or idea is not a virtue.

As we scratch deeper below the surface, we see that Sam-I-Am is more than a salesman. He is a spokesman for the power of persistence as a change-agent in our lives and in the lives of others. When we select a worthy goal and persist in our commitment to see it through, regardless of rejection and self-doubt, we can overcome almost any obstacle and limitation. As we know, this is not easy. Along the way, setbacks may tempt us to lose confidence. Naysayers may convince us that we cannot achieve our vision. We may simply decide that we are too tired to continue. Dr. Seuss lightly and humorously tells us that the force of optimism will always overcome that of pessimism, if we can only consistently muster the determination to keep going.

So what lessons have we learned so far about the quality of persistence from Dr. Seuss?

  • Don’t give up.
  • When one approach fails, try something new.
  • Stay optimistic.
  • Don’t take rejection personally.
  • Believe in what you are pursuing.

Dr. Seuss also teaches a more subtle, spiritual lesson on the nature of persistence. At the beginning of the book, we find the un-named creature sitting comfortably in an armchair, reading a newspaper. Sam-I-Am bursts in on a fantastical vehicle, carrying a plate of the unusual dish, announcing change, risk, and the possibility of something new, shattering the other’s comfort zone. The un-named creature resists, stating that he does not like this change, even though he has never even tried it. In this way, Dr. Seuss’s creatures are archetypes for the struggle between our inclination to settle for the status quo and our ambitions to create change; between our craving for energy and our attraction to lethargy; between a desire to try something adventurous and the lure of playing it safe. The un-named creature, sitting safely in his chair, is called to try something new; something that he may actually like; something that will change the way he views the world. Yet he continually resists. His resistance, however, is not based on facts or experience, but is a stubborn refusal to respond to this call—a refusal to enter the unknown and accept the risk that comes with changing his old habits.

In the end, the un-named creature finds himself in the dark, on a runaway train, plummeting into the ocean, submerged in open waters, surrounded by strange onlookers, as Sam-I-Am asks yet again, “Try it?” At the end of his rope, his resistance worn out, this stubborn creature finally agrees and, to his surprise and delight, instantly finds that the thing he has been so actively resisting—the thing that has taken him completely out of his comfort zone—is actually good for him. Sam-I-Am is his persistent messenger for change, who will not let him off the hook and who continually reappears until the change is embraced.

At its deepest level, Dr. Seuss’s book is a story about the persistence of the call to growth and change. If you have experienced this phenomenon, you know that, somehow, the same message continues to reappear in your life—perhaps in different guises, from different people and different situations—and that this message will continue to pursue you until you consent to listen and act. Then, like the un-named creature, you suddenly discover that the thing you have been resisting is actually good, and you are then grateful that the unwelcome messenger, consistent in his message, had the persistence to not give up on you. This persistence softened you, wore down your natural resistance, and made you receptive to change. As a saying from an anonymous author teaches:

  • In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins. Not through strength, but through persistence.

Now, perhaps you may think that this is an overly ambitious reading of a simple children’s book. Well, maybe so. But try it, try it!

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