Octavia Butler: Cultivate Habits That Enable Persistence and Learning

Octavia Butler rejects inspiration, talent, and imagination as essential to creative pursuits and suggests that habits that enable persistence and learning are the essential element.

Cultivate Habits That Enable Persistence and Learning

Furor Scribendi by Olivia Butler

habits that enable persistenceFirst forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.

Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent. Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, changing its direction when necessary. Persistence is essential to any writer–the persistence to finish your work, to keep writing in spite of rejection, to keep reading, studying, submitting work for sale. But stubbornness, the refusal to change unproductive behavior or revise unsalable work can be lethal to your writing hopes.

Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journal writing, and learning you will be doing will stimulate it. Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. […]


Forget inspiration, talent, and imagination. Cultivate habits that enable you to persist in finishing your work and improving it. Learn as you go and have fun.

Octavia Butler Furor Scribendi (in Bloodchild and Other Stories)

SKMurphy Take

Butler rejects three commonly proposed drivers for creative endeavors: inspiration, talent, and imagination. I think this is good advice for entrepreneurs as well. It’s not that inspiration, talent, and imagination won’t help you succeed; it’s that they are not sufficient. What is critical is persistence and learning from past mistakes: critical to persistence and learning are cultivating habits that reinforce them.

Habits that enable persistence:

  • Assume that it’s going to take repeated trial and error to develop a product or service that customers value and that you can deliver reliably at a cost they are willing to pay.
  • Take small steps forward that involve a loss or setback you can afford if it does not work. Don’t go “all in” on a next step whose failure would mean you have to give up. Find a way to apply the Kelly criterion to the amount you are investing in the next leg of the journey. Always remember that reputation–unlike money or expertise–can be lost quickly and is only regained slowly. What’s worse is that people don’t always tell you when they have stopped trusting you, so the loss of social capital can take a while to discover.
  • Keep a log of your trials: adopting a scientific approach of formulating hypotheses, explicitly framing experiments, documenting key assumptions, and writing down the results.
  • Celebrate small wins and progress since you started. It’s too easy to focus on the distance you still need to travel and lose sight of recent accomplishments and how far you’ve come since you have started. Take time to celebrate what you have achieved and make sure to thank those who have helped you along the way.

Habits that enable learning:

  • Assume that many things you believe or even “know” are wrong. Allowing for the possibility that you will have to “unlearn” some techniques and approaches that worked well in other contexts but are not applicable to your startup–and may even be counterproductive.
  • Develop a higher pain threshold. Unlearning is painful. Making mistakes, even small ones, is painful. Your progress can stall if you cannot tolerate the pain of letting go of techniques that you have mastered but are no longer effective, or the pain of making mistakes repeatedly until you have mastered a new skill.
  • Adopt a “growth mindset.” Believe that you will need to learn from the experience bringing a product to market and that you are capable of learning new skills and approaches. Easy to say and hard to do. But launching a startup is not just about executing in areas that you know well: there will be at least a few difficulties that will require a new approach or abandoning an approach that has served you well in the past.
  • Conduct a premortem, a planned review of potential problems with your planned next step before you commit to it.
  • Ask for feedback from customers, reviewers, advisors. Conduct retrospectives or milestone reviews to learn from recent accomplishments as well as setbacks.

Inspiration, talent, and imagination can all contribute to your success as an entrepreneur and as a member of a founding team in a startup. They can definitely help you to differentiate your offering and stand out in a crowded market, or give prospects a reason to try something completely different. But they are normally not enough because success takes time. You have to organize your efforts around that reality as well as the need to learn along the way.

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Image Credit: Plant Growing Through Cracks by Przemyslaw Koch. Licensed from 123RF. I thought the the plant’s steady persistence from starting underground to finding the crack to growing into the sun was a good metaphor for habits that enable persistence.

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