The internet is ablaze with life hacks, productivity tools and successful habits. For the most part, those patterns—and the people they’re modelled after—are helpful. And yet, we all seem to have imperfections that just won’t budge.
Although successful habits are all the rage, that list of to-do’s and to-don’ts is overwhelming. Worse, focusing too heavily on which behaviours to build and which to ditch can distract you from your mission, hampering future success.
Luckily, there is a quality far more influential than any productivity hack. What is it? Persistence.
To prove that persistence is more powerful than perfection, here are 14 of history’s greatest visionaries and their strange, inconsistent, sometimes adulterous, and often eccentric shortcomings—proving that perfection doesn’t determine success, but persistence very well might.
1. Benjamin Franklin
The world’s most influential advocate for self-improvement, Benjamin Franklin, was a womanizer. The Chicago Tribune reports 11 women that Franklin “had,” concluding with, “And, of course, Deborah Read, his wife of 38 years.”
He even fathered a son, William, out of wedlock, right after marrying Deborah, once saying, “After three days, men grow weary of a wench.”
But his lust didn’t destroy Franklin’s impact. Why? Partly because he recognized his problem, admitting, “The hard-to-be-governed passion of my youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues… that fell in my way.”
For Franklin, trying to be perfect was more important than actually being perfect.
2. Florence Nightingale
Known for compassion, Florence Nightingale killed people with her ambition. In 1854 Nightingale was asked to lead the management of a hospital in Scutari—a village in Asia. Unfortunately, Nightingale’s lack of knowledge about sanitary conditions made for a Scutari hospital ridden with typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery — causing the death rate at her hospital to skyrocket, with 10 times more soldiers dying from diseases than actual combat wounds.
At first, Nightingale stubbornly attributed the high death count to inadequate nutrition and supplies. Years later, she accepted the painful truth that, due to her ignorance, many soldiers had died in Scutari.
Obviously, that painful truth didn’t stop her from doing what she felt called to do: care for the wounded with passion and perseverance. Today that’s all she’s known for.
3. Thomas Edison
Despite his ingenuity, Thomas Edison was uncompromising to a fault. After getting word that teenagers were speeding up the cylinder phonograph—an on-demand music player he’d created — Edison responded: “This change of speed is far worse than any loss due to having dance records too slow…. I don’t want it and won’t have it.”
He then ordered his machinists to “make a governor for the motor” to ensure his eccentricities were obeyed.
Today’s startup culture celebrates pivots and adaptation. Evidently, Edison lacked these characteristics. What mitigated its absence, though, was his grit. Instead of submitting to the crowd’s wishes, Edison knew what he wanted and didn’t sway from his vision, making him a force to be reckoned with in the world of achievement.
4. Henry Ford
Henry Ford was a micro-manager. “No one ever told him what to do,” reported one source, “at least not without expecting a fight on his hands.”
As a result, “Workers disliked the monotonous, mind-numbing repetition of their tasks, made worse by the fact that Ford believed that total discipline was necessary to prevent chaos. Employees received a 15-minute lunch as their only break, and they were not allowed to talk, sing, whistle, sit down or lean on machinery. Even smiling was discouraged.”
Obviously, such management qualifies as a leadership disaster, if not abuse. Surprisingly Ford’s bad habit didn’t rob him of success. His determination and tenacity at the front of a new industry ultimately outweighed the emotional atmosphere his heavy hand created.
5. Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein struggled with family relationships. Ten years into his first marriage to Mileva Maric, he had an affair with his cousin, Elsa. At first, Maric resisted divorce, which is when Einstein responded with a list of to-dos, hoping to force her hand:
“You will make sure, that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order; that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room; that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.”
Eventually, he divorced Maric and married Elsa. But the affairs didn’t cease. Once to a young man, he wrote, “What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.”
Einstein’s scientific discipline didn’t leak into his relationships. His lack of relational discipline also didn’t dampen his ultimate love affair with the theory of relativity.
6. Helen Keller
Helen Keller threw tyrannical fits in her early years. Common with deaf and blind children, the frustration to communicate plagued her.
One source reports: “She smashed dishes and lamps, plunged her hands into people’s plates. On one occasion she dashed into the parlour in her red flannel underwear and pinched her Grandma Adams, chasing her from the room.”
Keller’s seemingly uncontrollable behaviour weighed heavily upon the family. Most family members felt she should be institutionalized. But that same frustration, by the age of 24, created a deaf and blind woman capable of touch-lip reading, braille, speech, typing and finger-spelling.
In the end, Keller’s temper transformed into determination, making her, as we know, one of the most influential, generous and empathetic women the world has ever known.
7. Walt Disney
Synonymous with wholesome family entertainment, Walt Disney smoked like a chimney. One year, in hopes of offsetting the habit, Disney’s daughters bought him filtered cigarettes as a Christmas gift. Disney promised to use them and then proceeded to break off the filters when the girls weren’t around. His defence? “I didn’t tell her how I would use them,” he said.
Sadly, lung cancer took Disney’s life at age 65. But his ambitious spirit allowed him to accomplish more in 65 years than most do in a lifetime. Today Disney’s brand, founded on Walt’s determination, is still the pinnacle of family entertainment, despite his dirty lungs.
8. Elon Musk
Known for his optimistic outlook, Elon Musk is a pessimist. In a 2015 interview, he said: “I have OCD on product-related issues. I always see what’s wrong…. I never see what’s right. It’s not a recipe for happiness.”
Fortunately for the world, Musk’s negative attitude hasn’t undermined his advances. In fact, his critical spirit is exactly what makes his inventions outstanding. It turns out that Musk’s obsession for the perfect product fuels, rather than squelches, his commitment to the future.
What’s better than your worst?
What each of these visionaries lacked in character they made up for in persistence. As Steve Jobs famously said, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
Although we all have shortcomings, how we persist despite our fumbles is far more powerful than the damage they actually do. In other words, it’s not if we have imperfections that determine our fruition, but whether we’re able to move forward despite them.
To illustrate that persistence is far more powerful than perfection, Venngage created this awesome infographic with 14 of the world’s greatest visionaries and their biggest imperfections.
Infographic by VENNGAGE