In (Abashed) Praise of Diligence

Here are a few Proverbs, taken from a half-dozen similar ones:

12:27 The lazy do not roast their game, but the diligent obtain precious wealth.

13:4 The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing, while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

21:5 The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.

(I like the first one especially: “the lazy [can't even be bothered to] roast their game.” Now that’s lazy.)

I write a lot of reference letters for students hoping to get jobs, get scholarships, get into graduate schools. One of the skills one learns in this craft of reference-letter-writing is signaling to your colleagues when someone isn’t first-rate without actually condemning them outright—for in the glowing, gaseous cosmos of reference letters, anything dimmer than a brilliant letter gets noticed as an implicit “fail.”

Sadly, one of the conventions of such discourse is to use words that sound very good, and are very good, as euphemisms for a deficit, usually a deficit of creativity, insight, and all-round intelligence. And what group of words do we tend to use? “Effort” words, as in the kiss of death phrase, “He deserves an ‘A’ for effort.”

“She is an industrious person.”

“He works very hard.”

And today’s key word: “There’s no question of her diligence.”

You get the message, don’t you? “She’s a dullard.” “He’s a drone.” “We’ll be glad to send along this grinding nuisance to you.” “In fact, you may never be rid of this person, because he doesn’t know when to quit.”

Yet the Proverbs remind us of a vital truth that eviscerates a myth much beloved in our culture. The myth is of the Romantic genius who lolls about on a fainting couch all day and late into the night, sipping stimulating or disinhibiting beverages and snacking on delicacies, deigning to receive the effusions of visiting admirers, and basically just waiting for the lightning bolt of insight to strike. When it does strike, the genius is galvanized into action, and furiously produces an astonishing invention, profound poem, or wondrous painting, after which he deservedly collapses back into repose, to await his muse’s next desultory appearance.

Yeah. Well. The history of everything shows that daily diligence, not rare flashes of creativity, is the way most things get done. Diligence is the real world. Diligence is the Adult Fact that some children learn already through hobbies, music lessons, or sports, while many grown-ups never learn it at all.

Little by little, bit by bit, “line upon line,” day by day. Lao-zi tells us that the longest journey begins with but a single step. The implication is that the longest journey is nothing other than a series of single steps. Most of what matters in the world, from child-rearing to international diplomacy, from learning an art form to establishing a thriving business, is accomplished through diligence.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s endlessly fascinating book Creativity also proves that the thunderstrikes of illumination tend (and tend very, very strongly) to “happen” to people who have already put in the countless hours of learning and practice necessary to receive and recognize the innovative idea. There is no doing without diligence.

I repent, therefore, of my smug little jokes about “industriousness” and “perseverance.” I know better. Most of what I’ve been able to do in my life, such as it is, has come from just putting in the work. There is no substitute for “time on task.” The Romantic myth of the leisurely genius is, indeed, an enticement to sloth, to the easy way rather than the good way.

And now I have to get back to work. Duty calls . . . and that’s fine by me.

 

5 Responses to “In (Abashed) Praise of Diligence”

  1. Linda Wightman

    Amen. A word much needed.

    And I say, the more brilliant the child, the more necessary the lesson. I’ve seen too many very bright students derailed in their early years because they’ve never had to learn the connection between hard work and learning. They sail through school on minimal effort until the day comes — and it will come — when they run into difficulty with some class, some subject, some job, or some relationship, and they will not have the skills to master it.

    Then they will be called lazy; then they will think themselves incompetent, because their school experience never taught them that the difference between success and failure is not brilliance, but diligence.

    • Julie in Alaska

      Wow, Linda, thank you for this insight! You have summed up, in a mere comment on a blog, a large portion of my life. And so well said. I have written this down, citing it properly of course. Thank you for taking the time to share this encouraging little note.

  2. Daniel Ginn

    I defintely recognize myself as the Romantic Genius here described. So convicting. May God grant me another chance to get it right and to not fail to complete those projects on my bucket list. I’d better starting writing again.

  3. Shepherd Links – 2/23 | Pastoralized

    [...] In (Abashed) Praise of Diligence From John Stackhouse: “Yeah. Well. The history of everything shows that daily diligence, not rare flashes of creativity, is the way most things get done. Diligence is the real world. Diligence is the Adult Fact that some children learn already through hobbies, music lessons, or sports, while many grown-ups never learn it at all.” [...]

  4. Carmen

    Does is count as diligence if you’re sitting on a couch, maybe ingesting beverages and food, but reading or writing with very high focus? Does it count as diligence if you’re not waiting for your creative muse, but doing all you can to force it to speak?

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