Editor’s note: The following selection on “How to Get Stick-to-itiveness” comes from The Technique of Building Personal Leadership (1944) by Donald A. Laird. It has been condensed from the original chapter.
Metallurgists had developed a new, tough steel with unusual properties. Production executives tried it and reported it could not be used in manufacture, because it was too hard to be worked. They had tried to drill but the drills bent without even scratching the surface.
“Don’t blame the steel,” Charles F. Kettering told them. “It’s not too hard. Your drills are too soft.” And, using diamond-pointed drill, they quickly bored into the new steel.
Dr. Kettering told this incident at a meeting of the United States Chamber of Commerce to show that usually the job is not too hard but that the men may be too soft. They need to harden their cutting edges with some stick-to-itiveness.
The scene shifts to quiet club in New York City. A group of top-flight leaders of American business are discussing the serious shortage of men who are capable of taking executive responsibility. There are plenty of men with sufficient intelligence and knowledge of the businesses, they agree, but these men fail to meet two requirements. The difficulty to find men who can be trusted to keep confidences and men who have shown they have determination, doggedness, persistence — in short, stick-to-itiveness.
There are lots of Jacks-of-all-trades, men who know a little about this and that, but there is a shortage of men who have stuck to any one thing long enough to have mastered it before shifting to something more glamorous. Too many change jobs when they should stick to the old one a bit longer. They give up when they should push on. They start more things than they finish.
You as a leader cannot waver, cannot be unsteady. There are five things that help make you stand firmly, continue steadfastly.
1. Sink Your Ships
People stick to their tasks when they know they cannot retreat. That is what won the liberation of Texas.
The enemy had taken the Alamo, a frightful massacre. Then their trained and well-equipped soldiers stalked the Texas volunteers for weeks. Samuel Houston led his army of 800 grumbling volunteers backward, always backward. Heavy rains came, but the retreat went on through the mud. The grumblings increased. As the Lone Star army was on the verge of open revolt, they came face to face with the enemy at San Jacinto.
The dispirited 800 Texans at last faced a force of 1,600 of the enemy.
And reinforcements were coming to the enemy! General Houston sent a frontier character, Erastus Smith, to cut a bridge over which the enemy reinforcements would have to travel. Smith was known as Deaf Smith, from a defect in hearing, and a Texas county is today named Deaf Smith in his honor.
Unknown to the Texas forces, Deaf Smith galloped off with axes to cut the bridge.
As Houston rode in front of his line, a Mexican bugle sounded in the enemy camp, and muskets spit orange fire at the Texans. The white stallion fell from under Houston, and he jumped on a cavalryman’s pony.
“Hold your fire, men!” he shouted. But a few Texans fired back. “Damn you, hold your fire!” And Houston resumed his patrol of the harried lines.
A lathered mustang snorted up the plains. It was Deaf Smith returning.
“Fight for your lives!” Deaf Smith shouted in a voice like a cuckoo clock. “Vince’s bridge has been cut down!”
The Texans mistakenly thought that this was a bridge that would make their retreat impossible.
Houston signaled his frightened men with his hat. “Remember the Alamo! Remember the Alamo!” he cried. The Texans took up his cry and dashed forth.
At sunset Houston fainted; his ankle was shattered and he had lost a bootful of blood. There had been only six Texans killed, twenty-four wounded.
The battle itself lasted less than half an hour, which shows the fury of men who think their retreat is gone. Houston’s handful of men, thinking their backs to the wall, had killed 630 of the enemy, wounded 208, and taken 730 prisoners.
And one of their prisoners was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, commander in chief and president of Mexico.
Every schoolboy knows about the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!”
But there is a real lesson for leadership — of oneself and of others — in the high-pitched cry of Deaf Smith: “Vince’s bridge has been cut down!”
Cutting the bridge did keep Santa Anna’s reinforcements from reaching his main army in time. But more than that, the Texans’ misunderstanding of the news instantly gave them the desperation of a singleness of purpose.
Cutting bridges makes history by forcing greater determination.
Julius Caesar saw to it that his soldiers stuck to their jobs. As soon as the equipment was unloaded from the galleys, he had the ships burned and sunk offshore, in full view of the startled warriors. There would be no retreating for them, no ships in which to get away when the fighting got tough. They had to stick to it — or else.
Many people help their stick-to-itiveness by, figuratively, sinking their ships. They deliberately make it impossible for themselves to quit.
One automobile agent in the Northwest, for instance, ordered a whole trainload of automobiles from the factory. In past years he had sold only a fraction of this number. He only had enough finances to take the automobiles a carload at a time. But he worked like never before to sell the first load, then rushed with the money to release the next carload. He sold all the automobiles, because he had to. He knew how disastrous it would be if he quit.
Wise managers set quotas that strike their men as impossible, yet the men crash through and do the impossible, time and time again. A “reasonable” quota or goal does not encourage stick-to-itiveness.
A young self-made man suddenly found himself in the president’s chair of one of our largest advertising agencies. He was determined to make a success of the job, so he departed from the usual policy of deep secrecy about plans. He told people what he was going to do for the business. They thought he was bragging, but he wasn’t. He was sinking his ships. He told them so that, when the going got hard and he might be tempted to quit, he would have to eat his own words.
That was not the first time that he had sunk his ships and got results. He had been a heavy smoker, had tried to quit several times, but always slid back into his chain-smoking habits. But when he told several associates that he had quit, then he did not dare to smoke. He has not smoked since that morning.
By sinking his ships, he made retreat more unpleasant than fighting through to a winning conclusion. Sticking was less embarrassing than quitting would have been.
Tenacity of purpose is helped by knowing that one has to live up to something.
Tell the world in advance, or, at least, tell someone who will know and disapprove if you don’t stick to it.
Cut off your retreat. Then it is either sink or swim.
And you’ll swim.
2. Change Your Grip, Not Your Goal
Discouragement is a natural enemy of stick-to-itiveness. Yet discouraging situations are inevitable. Progress toward a goal is never uniform. Some days we spurt; then may come a disappointing week when no progress is made. This is what psychologists call the “plateau of despond.”
These plateaus of despond were first discovered in experiments with persons learning telegraphy. Each learner had periods when, practice as he would, he could not improve either speed or accuracy. After a week or so on this discouraging plateau, Eureka! suddenly he would begin to gain. And there are plateaus of despond for practically every human activity.
These plateaus make many folk give up. A businessman came to me a short while ago. He had started an undertaking that had gone well enough for a while, then seemed to slump. He was ready to quit, lose his investment, and start over again at something else. I knew that he was an ardent golfer and that he had threatened to quit the game a few months before because he couldn’t improve his score. He was at a plateau in his golf then, just as he now was in his business. Friends had talked him into having a golf professional coach him, rather than quit the game.
The professional showed him how to make a slight change in the way he gripped the clubs. This change bettered his score by nearly ten points. He was elated with the results, remained an enthusiastic golfer. He did not quit the game; he merely changed his grip.
I reminded him of his golf experience, and he quickly saw the similarity with his present business predicament. So we looked for ways to change the approach, the grip on his business. He did not look for a new business to enter after he liquidated the present one.
He stuck to with slight change in method, and brought results.
When the veil of discouragement descends or when results seem to taper off, that is the time to look for slight changes, to alter the grip, not to quit. That is the time to make a fresh start, but in a slightly different way. Keep the goal; merely change the approach slightly.
Despond yields only dross. Keeping at it yields gold.
3. Say “No” to Yourself
There are two D’s which undermine persistence.
One is Discouragement.
The other is Distraction.
This rule, to say “no” to yourself, is especially useful for those who are diverted into desultory devices by distractions.
These folk are the butterflies. They waver from one attractive flower to another. Butterflies go in a zigzag course, haphazardly. Bees stick to one flower until the nectar is extracted.
Human butterflies zigzag through life. They get a good start on one thing, then are distracted to another, and off they go. They leave a trail of unfinished work, of goals that have been forgotten in the glamour of newer distractions. They are as confused as a four-year-old who tries to see everything going on in a three-ring circus.
It was a brilliant Bulgarian chemist, Dr. Stephen Popoff, who first called the merits of a one-track mind to my attention. Fascinated by chemistry, I was working overtime in the laboratory, starting one experiment before another was finished. I got hopelessly tangled up in them.
Dr. Popoff told me to carry a 2-cent pad, and, instead of trying out every notion that popped into my head, to make a brief note of it on the pad, meantime staying on the main track. That was in 1915. I have carried a pad ever since. Every evening I sort over the day’s random notions that have occurred to me and been jotted down and file them away. The interesting thing is that, by nightfall, some of the bright ideas jotted down in the morning are filed most appropriately in the wastebasket.
That is an easy way of saying “no” to yourself.
Saying “no” to yourself is not always that easy. There are parties, public meetings, social calls, movies.
I made it less necessary to say “no” to these distractions by moving to a tiny rural hamlet that turns time backward a century. The big city had too many enticing distractions for my good. About the only distractions I have now are suppers in country churches and long-distance telephone calls. In six months in a distraction-free environment I turn out more work than in a year in the city. Sure, I like city life and activity; that was the trouble, I liked it too well and my “no-power” was getting strained.
Say “no” — and mean it! — to the sidetracks.
Say “no” to the relishes and hors d’oeuvres so you will have more room for the roast. Don’t be like the small boy who cried because he was so full of bread and jam that he couldn’t eat the apple pie.
4. Use the Obstacles for Steppingstones
It’s not difficult to stick to it when the going is easy. When the track is blocked, there is a strong temptation to take a permanent sidetrack. Leaders have found, however, that the obstacle can bring out more determination than ever and help them rise higher.
Kites fly highest against a stiff wind.
Many have found that bad luck is not what it usually seems on the surface. Instead of quitting, they change their grip, say “no,” and convert the bad luck or obstacles into steppingstones.
Skilled engineers sometimes find themselves out of jobs, through no fault of theirs. Sam Locke had studied at three famous engineering schools, but that didn’t hold a job for him in the depression of 1930. He had to watch his expenditures, naturally, and bought some cheap coal, which was of such a low grade that it would not burn in his stove. But he could not afford to waste it.
Using his back yard as a laboratory, Sam Locke got an old oil barrel. He lined it with firebrick and old scraps of iron. He lit the fire, and the iron lining burned out, so he made some special firebricks and forgot the iron. At last he made a stove that would burn almost anything and that was remarkably efficient on fuel.
He still had no regular job, so he began making the stoves in his back yard. He sold them to neighbors for whatever price he could get. In 1937 he tried peddling the stoves and sold a total of thirty-five at prices ranging from $10 to $25. The next year he sold 200. In 1941 he sold 50,000 Locke stoves during the first eight months. The next year some 400,000 of the now famous Warm Morning heaters were sold.
When Sam Locke lost his regular job of $200 a month that was an obstacle for anyone, but in almost a decade he turned that obstacle into an income of more than $10,000 a month in royalties.
As some sage remarked, success is largely a matter of having nerve to stick to the ship when everybody else is jumping overboard.
It is easy to take advantage of the good breaks. No leadership is required for that. The real leader can stick to it and make a profit from what might seem, at first, to be losses.
It is inevitable to have some bad breaks, sometime. A few errors of judgment are to be expected, also. But the leader recovers from these fumbles by sticking it out, not by running to the wailing wall.
When some general obstacle strikes all, such as a financial depression, a few firms have the leadership that converts the obstacle into a steppingstone. In the depression following the First World War, for instance, many firms came out stronger than before, because they had real leadership. Howard Heinz’s father started in business peddling homemade horseradish. That was old H. J. Heinz, founder of the famous 57 Varieties.
Son Howard Heinz led the firm through the depression years of 1932 to 1935 by turning obstacles into steppingstones. Other firms were cutting down, waiting for fair weather before going ahead. That made it easier for Heinz. Howard Heinz increased his advertising expenditures, introduced new products, brought out low-priced lines for the depression trade.
When the depression had blown over there was a great realignment of firms in the food field. Heinz had forged ahead while many of his competitors had permanently lost customers to him.
Fair-weather leaders are leaders in name only.
When others are jumping overboard, the real leader sticks to the ship.
Many of the obstacles that throw men for a loss are imaginary. Often the obstacles are nothing more serious than an ingrown alibi that the person comes to believe.
Ask yourself often, as I do: “Is it really an obstacle, or am I myself the obstacle?”
Usually the obstacle can be made a steppingstone.
The true leader thrives on obstacles. When everything runs smoothly he becomes homesick for some obstacle to overcome.
Success is most enjoyable when it has been won against odds.
5. Pretend It is Easy
A psychologist in California gave some young folk a series of problems in arithmetic. Half the young people were told, “You will find these problems very difficult, but do the best you can, even though you may fail to solve many of them.”
The other young people were told, “These are all easy, but we still want you to work them, just for practice. You will probably get them all right, but let’s work them anyway.”
The children who approached the problems in expectation of failure did fail. They made more mistakes and took longer to work the problems than the other group.
It was not the problems that stumped the children; it was the spirit in which they went to work on the figures.
The attitude in which we approach a job makes all the difference in the world in our stick-to-itiveness and in our ultimate success.
An amazing number of our inventions have been made by men with no technical training in the field. They were outsiders, rank amateurs. But that was an advantage. They did not know that the thing they were tackling was considered impossible by the tradition-bound specialists.
A barber, for instance, invented the spinning frame.
A schoolteacher invented the cotton gin.
A janitor made the first microscope.
A coal miner invented the locomotive.
The telegraph was invented by a portrait painter.
A retail clerk invented automatic couplers for railroad cars.
A street contractor invented the sleeping car.
A textile man invented block signals to give railroads safety.
A schoolteacher gave us the electric locomotive.
And so it goes. They were just ignorant enough to think it would be easy, and easy did it. They didn’t know enough to be discouraged.
That is what Charles F. Kettering had in mind when he said:
“A man must have a certain amount of intelligent ignorance to get anywhere with progressive things.”
The Wizard of Menlo Park used intelligent ignorance. Thomas A. Edison paid no attention to theoretical difficulties. He would try something regardless of advice against it in books. He did not think about difficulties but hoped for results. “We will find it just around the corner” beckoned him on.
This is one reason why the real leaders and achievers have good streaks of optimism in their personalities. The optimism helps them see the easy side of things. They emphasize the easiness, not the difficulties.
When you give instructions to someone, tell him it will be easy.
When you tackle something yourself, pretend it will be easy.
Don’t lick yourself before you start.
Easy does it.
“Lord, we do not ask thee for the desirable things of life, but merely to tell us where they are and we will go and get them.” –An old Scotch prayer.