If at first you don’t succeed…

Does effort solve all problems?

The third post in my ongoing series on conventional wisdom.

We’ve all heard the classic saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Don’t give up! Determination will win the day! Increased effort is the solution to all problems.

The saying was popularized by William Hickson, a British education writer in the mid-1800s. The full phase is:

'Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, try again.

The rhyme was obviously intended for to encourage school children to keep up their studies until they mastered a concept. But this simple message has grown into so much more than that.

The message that “effort solves everything” is ingrained in the American psyche. I’ve seen this phrase used by parents, managers, teachers, pastors and coaches. I’ve even used this phrase with my kids and my students. It’s intended to be inspirational, right? Just try harder and you, too, can succeed.

Often, it’s shortened to just be “Well, if at first you don’t succeed…” and endless and continuous effort is simply implied as an obvious next step.

Is this good advice for kindergarteners learning to ride a bike? Sure. Is this good advice for business? Not really.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” implies that no matter what, you need to stay the course. If you try harder, you’ll eventually get it. And if you fail, it’s your fault for not trying harder. 

You’ll pass the test.

You’ll make the sale.

You’ll solve the problem.

But all this focus on effort ignores one significant fact: Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you fail. 

Repeating the same approach over and over might not get you closer to a solution. It only wastes time and resources. Effort is only part of the solution.

So how about an adjustment to the classic saying:

If at first you don’t succeed, ask why.

Once you understand why you failed, it’s easier to figure out a path forward. If you are headed the wrong way, continuing ahead blindly only gets you further from your goal.

Effort alone can’t always solve the problem. If you don’t know how to study for a test, studying more won’t help. Working harder won’t help your sales staff sell a flawed product. When you evaluate what went wrong, you’ll often find an better solution.

Every so often, you’ll find the goals that you’ve set are unachievable. I’m not advocating quitting, but there are times and situations where no amount of effort is going to help you reach an impossible goal. That’s okay. Reevaluate your priorities and figure out the next step. 

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he is annoying his kindergarten-teacher wife with this post. Follow Bob on Twitter and Instagram.