When the going gets tough — eh, give up

I have been told for years that successful scientists must pursue truth with persistence and stamina, laboring late into the night, alone in their garret laboratory, with only a dim light and their passion, sometimes for numberless years.

As one who studies intestinal parasites and blood suckers, I have always defined myself as one who searched for truth in unusual places, and I almost always have to work alone.

I have spent years doing research, writing papers, reading books, attending workshops and retreats, programming robots, meditating, dissecting, counting and mounting specimens, giving lectures, doing aerobic exercise, and performing experiments. I have even ordered Diet Coke with my large fries, all to no avail.

In spite of my efforts, I don’t believe I am any fitter, happier, younger, smarter or better smelling. I certainly haven’t made any scientific breakthroughs. I haven’t received any scientific prizes — although I am sure that is just because I am so far ahead of my time. My children and grandchildren no longer even believe I own Colorado Mesa University.

I have to remind myself of what Winston Churchill once said: “Success is moving from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.” I especially like this quote because I am, at least, enthusiastic about each of my failures. However, after these long years of searching, here is my revolutionary discovery: Giving up is much easier than trying to persevere.

That may seem self-evident, but there is an entire industry out there of self-help books, New Age authors, medical doctors turned commentators, business advisers and empowerment gurus telling you that you can be better if you just keep at it. It’s enough to make you feel like you ought to do something.

Beware! I have discovered that none of this published advice is based on scientific principles. Avoid these! It is an obvious fact that there are millions of hard-working, intelligent people who did everything the self-help books say to do and are unknown for anything. Obscure, dead people don’t write books.

According to these book-sellers, you are not worth anything unless you have been all that you can be. They never stop to consider what it might be like to discover that all you can be isn’t that much. That’s enough to discourage a person from even trying, I know!

Here’s the clincher. I have discovered that it is much more freeing to be incompetent. I know you are asking yourself, “Why would I want to be incompetent?” But that’s the beauty of it. Incompetents are not expected to even ask such questions, let alone answer them. Another reason to embrace incompetence is that, in my case, I really didn’t have much choice. My theory is soundly grounded in the science of genetics.

Besides, being competent takes a tremendous amount of effort. It may require hours of sweat, labor and concentration. At times it may even require basic math skills. Most people I know just aren’t that interested in hard work, perseverance or math. It is also true that highly effective people don’t have much fun. It just looks like they’re happy on the outside. This was definitively shown by research published in the Journal of Cynical Results, Volume 1(1): 1-97.

Those who do work hard and persevere, the ones the self-help books want you to think you are, are generally stressed out, pressed for time, and frequently have heartburn and headaches. They’re the same ones who will holler at you when the trash hasn’t been taken out after only three weeks.

Recognize anyone?

I am thinking I might try to gather some evidence in support of this radical new theory. However, it feels like there is a kind of disconnect in putting forth effort to prove that giving up is easier than persevering. It would seem that discovering a new theory on giving up should be, well, effortless. I think I’ll take a little nap before I do anything rash. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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