Baby zucchini off to a strong start. (Kara Douglas photo)
A year ago, when my garden should have been thick with zucchini vines, my crop was a flop.
The plants were weak and spindly from the start. I fertilized, watered and sweet-talked, coaxing a single anemic blossom into being. Then, when I was out of tricks, I watched as it struggled and died. I was the only gardener in the great state of Maine who bought summer zucchini at the supermarket and, while I (mostly) recovered from my disappointment, my nemesis of the vegetable world was born.
Yet I’m determined to win it over.
Stubborn perseverance is culturally ingrained. The little engine that could, knowing in your heart that quitting is for losers and losers never win. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” Robert Frost told us that the best way out is through.
Walt Disney got fired for lacking creativity. Howard Shultz, founder of Starbucks, went to 242 people and places to raise funds for his first store. Now Mickey Mouse is multilingual and you can buy a strong, overpriced cup of coffee in more than 80 countries around the world. If Mr. Shultz had stopped after the 199th rejection, would we have any reason to know his name? Yet for every story of persistence paying off, there must be dozens of tales of persistence causing a spectacular cycle of failure.
Persistence can cause tunnel vision and blind us to facts. Maybe we don’t love the thing we’re doing, but we keep chugging along. Maybe we’re talented, just at something else, and we can’t see it. People always fail to quit the things they should quit. If you want to know why, just ask an economist.
The theory of competitive advantage says people should focus on areas where they have advantage over others. We should all figure out the field where we can shine the brightest and move to it. That might mean I should get out of fields altogether and repurpose my gardening gloves.
Being loss-adverse can have a negative effect on decision-making because losing something hurts our brains more than gaining something makes us happy. Does that mean I stick with gardening instead of turning my efforts to becoming a champion tap dancer because I know that change would guarantee I lose zucchini?
And then there are those damn sunk costs. I’ve poured money, emotion and time into my veggie crops. Choosing a different hobby would require that I make peace with the past and let go of the idea that I’ve been building to something better. Even an enormous zucchini harvest this year wouldn’t make up for last year, so I should be able to walk away.
Economists also tell us we hate ambiguity, so if change means the path isn’t clear, we don’t change. I don’t need a scientist to tell me uncertainty is stressful, but I’d love it if someone could tell me what to do when the unknown is nestled within the thing you know.
I’ve been gardening for years, so I’ve got the basics down. I fill the garden with things known to thrive in Maine. I rotate crops, fertilize soil, water when the rain isn’t doing its job, and weed the beds. So why was my garden a disaster last year and how do I know if my garden will grow this year? What’s the change economists would suggest? Do I need new gardening tactics, or a new way to spend my time?
Surely there are other hobbies worth pursuing as the cost of seeds keeps growing but the plants don’t. But I’m a product of my environment. I believe persistence pays off and I really like zucchini bread. So, we doubled down and put in raised beds that doubled our garden space. We spread manure in the garden last fall and added compost. And I gladly accepted the kindness of a friend who offered to lovingly nurture our plants into being under grow lights.
There are economic theories to explain persistence and why we struggle to take the less treaded path. But the key to change is to want it and to be able to accept the past is sunk, to breathe through uncertainty and to know your competitive advantage.
For now, I look at my failures as a learning process on the path to success. If I’m tucked into zucchini fritters in August, I’ll know my persistence paid off.
And while I’m being persistent, you might have noticed that Maine joined the list of states with a mass shooting in 2023. If you have any thoughts you want to share with your representatives, you can quickly find them at congress.gov.
Happy Father’s Day to all the persistent dads out there. I hope your gardens are full.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.