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Allison Althoff
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Natalie Lederhouse
Natalie Lederhouse

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September 14, 2010

An Object Lesson in Perseverance

Not everything in life goes to the swift and strong

For me, fall means more than spicy baked goods, craft fairs, or a wardrobe change. After a summer off, autumn means returning to part-time study in my graduate program. And this quarter, that comes with an extra challenge: Most of the people I started my program with have graduated.

When my classmates and I started together two years ago, I anticipated a couple years of intense full-time study. But I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace I originally envisioned. The stress of taking two or three classes and working full-time would compromise my health. I was also concerned that I’d start focusing totally on the short-term goals of maintaining good grades and earning a new credential at the expense of less measurable long-term goals—gaining deeper insight into my academic interests, and thinking about the most satisfying ways of pursuing them.

For me, the best choice has been to take one course at a time. As a result, I’m not quite halfway through the program, while many of my classmates have moved on.

For someone with my personality—a highly motivated, mostly Type-A, recovering perfectionist whose gifts shine in academic settings—that’s been kind of difficult. It’s also been a bit strange being one of the older people in my classes, having worked for a few years before returning to school. This year, for the first time, I had a professor my younger brother’s age. Add to these things a first-born’s sense of entitlement to do things, well, first, and you can see why I’ve been feeling a bit angsty.

Part of me understands that, angst notwithstanding, I’m the object in an object lesson about perseverance. If someone were writing a neatly resolved thematic study about this portion of my life, they’d probably reference the snippet from the oft-quoted first portion of Ecclesiastes 9:11: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong.” (Referencing the full verse—a challenging reflection on time and chance—would undermine a writer’s attempts to resolve the study neatly!)

The truth is, I’d rather be swift and strong. In fact, I often depend on these qualities. I think I’ve done some of my best work in short, intense bursts. I like holing myself away in my home with my laptop and a pile of books and emerging a day or two later with a paper. I can rise to the challenge of a sudden crisis—a flat tire along a busy highway, or a sensitive situation at work—fairly calmly. When I need to do a big project with only a week or two, I’m often energized enough to get past the feeling of being overwhelmed. I prefer swift and strong over slow and steady most days.

But as I’ve continued to grow spiritually, personally, and chronologically, I’ve started to value the slow and steady more highly. The chronological element is a big part of that—I’m no longer the college kid who could go days without a full night’s rest. I’ve experienced enough periods of burnout to know better than to live from crisis to crisis.

As I think more about what I’d like to contribute as a fledgling academic, the kind of work I want to produce demands deep thought and ongoing attention that can’t be rushed the night before. And when I read Scripture, I can see how being swift and strong isn’t enough to save people from judgment or calamity.

I’ve slowly begun to see how God is using processes—often processes that take longer than I’d like and move more slowly than I’d prefer—to develop patience and build my character. In some ways, I feel like God is re-orienting my sense of what it means to do something fully and well. As he does this, I’m receiving more than recalibration from a recovering perfectionist into a woman who can prepare and persevere. I’m also being given an opportunity to see the world differently from the way much of our culture does.

While I’ve read the occasional news story of mid-career reinvention, or of a Grandma Moses who is discovered at an advanced age, I notice that many of the stories I read about achievement focus on being swift and strong: On who did something first, or youngest, or fastest. The whiz kid or wunderkind, the top 30 under 30, or 40 under 40. And while that’s often a legitimate part of what makes an achievement valuable, I also think it can lead us to devalue the process of moving toward a goal through steady, persistent work over time—or cause us to feel pressure to rush an accomplishment before it’s due. It can also lead to the sense that one’s youthful accomplishments matter more than the things we do further along in life. (I once joked with a friend that one of the big disappointments of my early 20s was realizing that I was too old to be a child prodigy. When she laughed and said she’d had the same thought, I realized I’d made a lifelong friend.)

I’m grateful for the opportunity I’m being given to slow down and synchronize my sense of what’s important with what I can discern about God’s timing for my life and the wisest use of the energy he’s given me for all of my goals and responsibilities. And I’m curious: Are there any other highly motivated, mostly Type-A, recovering perfectionists out there? What experiences has God allowed into your life to recalibrate the way you think about strength and swiftness? What Scriptures or scriptural insights have helped you?

Comments

Thank you for this post! Our culture indeed rewards the swift and strong. But the rewards of steady perseverance are far greater than what the public bestows. God values what is often hidden and secret--the things He sees but the public cannot. He sees your labor and toil.

I would say that description fits me perfectly. But God got my attention last month when I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis after a 15 year long battle of not knowing what was wrong. I was working with small children every day and felt like I was either working or recovering from working. I think God is using my health issues to get me to slow down and listen to Him. Some times we are involved in a lot of good things, but not always are they the best things. They may be the things that you are praised for by the world, or even other Christians, but are they what God ultimately wants from you? It is amazing what can happen when you clear your calendar and let God take over.

I love this - Thank you so much for sharing! I am 42 and just decided about 2 weeks ago to go to college this Spring to pursue a degree in fashion design (a dream I put on hold for 24 years)I have been debating how fast to do it because of time (past, present & future), age, and like you a recovering perfectionist. There are several points that you made in this post that are so powerful, specifically the short-term/long-term goals point and the last sentence about how grateful you are for your opportunity to slow down... These seem straight from God to me through you! Thanks again!

I very much identify with being a Type A recovering perfectionist. The way the Lord is dealing with my tendency to overdo things is to allow Chronic fatigue/ Fibromyalgia and a host of other complaints to keep me slow. I spent many years demanding healing or saying Why Me? before I realised that this was the Lord's blessing in my life to allow me to actually fulfil a different type of calling. Thank you for your insightful article.

The biggest thing that I have learned from God is to enter into His rest. For years I overworked myself. I have seen many changes in my life in these 48 years, but by far the best one was to follow Christ and live my life for Him. I could relate relate to your article, because I worked a ton of overtime when I was in the workforce. Yes I to was a perfectionist lol

Thank you for your post. As a PhD student, I consider myself a perfectionist, but I have long considered that to be a fault, because it causes me to lose sight of the journey as I focus on all that I have done or might do "wrong." The idea of becoming a "recovering perfectionist" speaks to me, because I want to turn my perfectionism (which focuses on me) into detail-oriented quality (which I can use for God's glory). Thank you for your reminder about the importance to take time and have strength to persevere.

I agree with Julie, in my late thirties after telling everyone around me that degrees obtained beyond 23 were not worth much since I was on my way to get that done and become a serious millionare. God taught me the true meaning on Proverbs 3:5-8 and slowed me down to enjoy life and praise Him, as the studies draw to a close now with a PhD, the degrees are not just pieces of paper showing accomplishment but the represent knowledge that I continuosly engage with in consulting and more importantly they refelct deep friends God has introduced along my life path that show His grace and mercy LaTonya I hope you will have an exciting experience too all my sisters in the journey

Thank you for this piece. I was recently married and moved to a new state. Previously i worked full time and ran a non profit program 3 days a week. I was very active in my church and with youth ministry. Now I a married and everything has changed in my life. Searching for a new job and adjusting to being a new wife, learning how to navigate a new city and make new friends is what consumed my thoughts and prayers. I was at a womans event a few years ago, Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker and she said something profound. She said as women we have been told that we can have it all and we want to have great careers and families while reaching all our goals. She said you can have it all but not all at the same time, you have to reposition and reevaluate in life. She went on to say that although I had a successful law career my most important job now is mother and wife. I took heed to those wards then but now as my life has changed I have put my marriage first and God is showing me that my life scripture Prov. 3:5-6 is a series of new experiences that require me to truly trust him to direct my path.

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