Sticktoitiveness. I first heard this phrase on a radio program. The host was interviewing the author of a long-term study which showed that this was the only attribute that could be positively correlated with a student’s success or failure in school. Not socioeconomic status. Not the involvement of the parents. Not race. Not gender. Sticktoitiveness: An intangible quality that is something like determination, commitment, and brute will combined.
I have historically lacked sticktoitiveness. Breadth has always appealed to me more than depth and I move on to the next thing when the first thing loses its shine. I get bored or overwhelmed and poof! New thing.
My method of grazing through life has worked out just fine. I’m under no particular evolutionary pressure to change. And yet I have found myself, more and more, wanting to. I’ve always thought that sticktoitiveness was something you were born with, like a peanut allergy or freckles. I didn’t think it was a skill one could learn.
I’ve never been good at math. No innate affinity for logic, no pleasure in solving a puzzle. A certain amount of numeric dyslexia. And yet as study after study has now shown, math is not like freckles. You can learn to be good at it. I simply never did. Lurking behind that admission, though, is an escape route: I would have learned if I had had sticktoitiveness! If I had the gift of application even or especially in the face of obstacles. Believing that the art of commitment cannot be learned is a safety net for my ego.
I am trying to disentangle myself from that safety net. There are two things I am doing with my life right now that are making me look at that net with longing, though. One is a methodical, top-down re-write of 200,000 sprawling words of a novel. The other is learning to horseback ride.
Learning to ride is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. While I worked with horses a great deal in my teens, I never really rode, and even that was close to twenty years ago. It has taken me months of consistent work to get back half the easy confidence I used to have around these intelligent, amusing, lively, and very very large animals.
At the age of 35 I am old to be starting out. In the grand scheme of things I am still young, of course, but my body does not have the bouncy resilience it did at 12 or 20. I fell off a horse ten days ago and my bruises still look like an impressionist painting of the night sky. It was my first fall from a horse and I fell in the course of learning to jump for the first time. (Well, okay, I jumped twice and then pushed my luck.) Despite some pain which could only be described with a series of four-letter words, I did literally get back on the horse at the time. I’m still waiting to heal enough to go back in earnest and in this space of waiting, I have been doing a lot of thinking.
Do I have what it takes to learn to ride?
Do I have the dedication to build the athleticism necessary for even casual riding?
Can I overcome my fear of injury, of worse?
Can I stick with this when it’s not fun, when it’s not exhilarating, when it’s exhausting and sweaty and frustrating?
These questions lead to one major question: Why am I doing it at all?
With writing, I’ve never questioned my love or need for it. Even when I have only written in scraps of journalling every few months, writing has always felt as much a part of me as my limbs, as my senses. I can choose to pursue publication or to commit myself to finishing a difficult project, but I cannot choose whether or not to write.
I have that choice with riding. Contemplating the choice has made me look at my past with new eyes. Perhaps my historic lack of sticktoitiveness has stemmed from a failure to articulate the goal. Perhaps my little-used muscle of persistence only flexes when I truly desire something, and I have been afraid to or unable to figure out what I desire.
Right now, where I am, looking ahead: I want what riding can give me. Confidence in my body, a deep connection with the horses I have always loved, a bone-deep awareness of the hard work it takes to be a good partner.
Right now I am willing to make the commitment and to accept the risks inherent to both my goals. (Finishing my twenty-year novel might not break any bones, but it comes with its own dizzying risk of failure.)
Can I learn sticktoitiveness?