What the Canyon Knows That the River Does Not
The Role of Patience in the Modern Age
If you haven’t ever been to the Grand Canyon, just know that words cannot do it justice. Carved into the rugged plateau is a chasm of weathered rock, stripped back to reveal layers of ancient sediment, stacked one on top of the other like a wedding cake. Flanked by massive cliff faces, the Colorado River meanders gracefully en route to Lake Mead. As an observer of this natural wonder, you can’t help but be stunned to silence, the way you might lower your voice in a cathedral out of respect for a holy place. Embedded in the cliff face is a record of the history of the Earth itself, a chronicle of battles fought over spans of time that are incomprehensible to us. Even the trees bow their heads in reverence. Here, even the harshest cynics can catch a glimpse of a feeling commensurate to wonder. It is all the more surprising, then, that such an incomprehensibly vast structure could be built by the humblest of architects, the very same Colorado River that has been meandering on its merry way for the past several million years.
I have been thinking a lot about patience recently — the abstract concept, the skill, the virtue. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but growing up I felt that although patience is a virtue (cue the eye-rolls and sighs of despair), it’s a boring one. To be a champion for patience is akin to being a bit of a party-pooper. To be fair, on the surface level patience provides very little to recommend itself; the idea of delaying gratification for some indefinite reward in the future is not exactly inspiring, if you get my drift. And yet, very few noteworthy achievements were ever accomplished without a great deal of patience. I would like to make the case that in the modern age, patience is one of the most underrated virtues we have, and a tool that we can use to center ourselves in an uncertain world.
I think it’s a little funny how as individuals we systematically overestimate what we can accomplish in a weekend but systematically underestimate what we can accomplish in five years. In some ways, it’s even perhaps a little surprising — one might expect that we would be able to have more control over short-term factors than we do over long time horizons. And yet it’s long-term thinking that often makes all the difference. Recent research has shown time and time again that the willingness, ability, and commitment to thinking long-term can reap great dividends. Take the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test (and its later variants) — in these studies, children were presented with the option to either take an immediate reward or delay for an even greater reward . Those who were able to delay their gratification were shown to have a wide range of better life outcomes, such as SAT scores and educational attainment. Or consider the now-famous 10,000 hours rule, inspired by the research of Herbert Simon, William Chase, K. Anders Ericsson, and others (and later popularized by Malcom Gladwell in Outliers) — the idea that it takes on average ten thousand hours to achieve mastery in many areas of expertise . While the research around expertise is much more nuanced than the simple rule-of-thumb, the notion that expertise takes time and concerted effort is well-established. Finally, consider grit, a psychological concept championed by Angela Duckworth , which shows how perseverance and passion over long time horizons is a powerful force in achieving one’s goals. On one hand, the implications are somewhat sobering: there’s no shortcut to mastery. To be good at something — to be an expert, you have to put in the (often grueling, tiring, boring, not-so-fun) work. A bit of a bummer, if you ask me. And yet, there’s something hopeful about the idea that given enough time, it’s possible to be — if not an expert, at least proficient — in a wide range of skills. Hollywood loves to portray greatness as something that is inherent to a person; when we watch a biopic of a great individual, we see their greatest and worst moments played out on the big screen, concentrated into a story that is narratively compelling but ultimately reductive. We look at those who have achieved great success the same way we look at the Grand Canyon — what force would be powerful enough to create something as monumental as this? To stare upon vastness is to obliterate one’s conception of the mundane. And yet these exemplars of greatness often not only have humble beginnings, but humble middles and ends too. Mark my words, I am no great individual, but I have seen this play out in a much smaller way in my own life. It often crosses my mind how little I knew about any field the moment I stepped on campus when I was eighteen years old. And yet, after four years, just like everyone else, I graduated with a degree — and enough confidence in my own knowledge to pursue graduate school. It begs the question — what could I do in my next four years? Where did that confidence come from? Was it more like the sudden eureka moment, or was it more like the flow of water over rock? As the river flows, it is blissfully unaware of the progress its made — each passing cohort of water molecules makes essentially no difference to the unyielding rock. But the canyon, with its memories collected over millions of years, knows what the river does not.
I think I could do with more patience in my interpersonal life as well. I cringe when I count the number of times I wish I had been just a bit less rushed, just a bit more calm, just a bit more forgiving to those around me. Certainly, the version of myself I aspire to be would have all of those qualities, and more. In my own life, I have seen how in the fullness of time, my relationships with my family and friends have begun to deepen in meaningful ways. Coming from an immigrant background, I have had firsthand experience of how my family heritage, and in particular my parents, have shaped my brother and me. But it wasn’t until recently when I stopped to consider just how much my parents have changed because of us as well. Over the course of several years, our dinner table has been a place of healthy discussion and debate. The walls of our house have heard their fair share of disagreements, many of which resolved quickly, others not so much. But the one thing that has always been a commonality within our family was the trust that we would always be there for each other — in other words, the patience that we would come back to a point of understanding and mutual care. There was a point in time when I wouldn’t have thought it possible for us to say “I love you” on a regular basis. Now, my parents say it every time we say goodbye on the phone. We grow, we adapt, we hold onto each other. In spite of all our imperfections, with the patience and persistence to continue deepening our relationship as a family, we have grown closer than ever. The same is true for friendships and other interpersonal relationships; it’s often the case that those who we love the most are also those who we have been hurt by the most. To be clear, this is not meant to justify the pain of being hurt by those you love — indeed, there are many cases where a relationship becomes so toxic that the best course of action is to remove oneself entirely. Instead, what I’m trying to underscore is the idea that in relationships built on trust and patience, there’s an understanding that things might get rocky sometimes. Even in the face of pain, loss, or hurt, there is room for reconciliation and growth. Some of my strongest relationships stem from a place where I trust that regardless of the disagreements we have had in the past, or those we may have in the future, we will always find a way back to one another. In a world that offers sparse guarantees, this trust has been the closest thing I have found to faith. Love may take many forms, but one of the most important, for me at least, has been just showing up — for all its diversity and complexity, there is a kernel of simplicity in saying: don’t worry, I’m here. I love you.
Patience also has implications on larger societal scales. In her iconic work All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks explores the connection between interpersonal love and the kind of love ethic advocated by those who enact social change. I think the same is true for patience. When we adopt a myopic worldview, the status quo is all that is and all that ever will be. Like a flat-earther roaming the world on the ground, the “flatness” of the world seems self-evident, even self-consistent. It’s only when you zoom out that you can see that the earth is indeed round, and that change is in fact possible. It’s so often the case that the impossible always that way until it is realized. It may be hard to remember that early in the Obama Presidency, gay marriage was such a highly contentious issue that it was largely avoided as an issue on the campaign trail. Less than a decade later, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal. On the surface, the support for the legalization of gay marriage seems like a groundswell that swept the nation over the course of a few years, but in reality it was the result of the repeated and unyielding effort of activists, organizers, and normal individuals who chipped away at existing systems of power for decades. Today, legalization of gay marriage is broadly supported by the public — a recent Pew Research poll finds that 61% of Americans expressed a positive view of legalizing same-sex marriage . What was once thought to be an impossibility is now seen as the norm. Who knows what concepts we find distasteful but immovable as part of the status quo today will give way to new innovative solutions in the not-so-far (and not-so-imagined) future? Who is to say that social change might not happen across the globe at a pace we did not account for; change in large part due to the unrecognized but constant efforts of those who are working tirelessly behind the scenes? Too often social movements sputter out because we are not engaged enough to see them through to fruition. If we were slightly more patient with our expectations for the pace of progress, might it be possible that we would free ourselves to consider futures we formerly thought were impossible? In the modern age we are faced with endless examples of shifting social norms, attitudes, and practices. A stunning example is the shifting landscape in how we interface with technology. In 2000, the iPhone didn’t even exist; now, almost everyone has a mobile device in their pockets that they use on a daily basis. If you wanted to watch a YouTube video, you would have to wait another five years before the company was founded. 2000 was also the year that Google outpaced Yahoo as the dominant search engine. These staples of modern life, things we now see as inevitable, were in their infancy a mere two decades ago. And yet, despite the evidence that technology and social change are moving just as fast as ever, we seem even more determined to believe with a resigned helplessness that the trends that we observe today are those that will persist.
These technological shifts, instead of giving us encouragement that change is possible, have somehow exacerbated our preferences for short-term solutions over long-term gains. The speed of communication has given rise to increased demands to provide responsiveness and low-latency at the cost of more careful contemplation. At the risk of sounding old-man-yells-at-cloud about it, we have entered a race to the bottom where there is a considerable push towards speed, efficiency, and convenience. While there are certainly merits to the benefits that this technologically-forward future will give us, it’s worth considering the costs. I fear that in the midst of our high expectations, we run the very real risk of undermining our patience in other aspects of our lives that don’t follow the exponential growth of Moore’s Law. We are watching before our eyes the erosion of public trust in institutions , the politicization of expertise, and the refusal to accept the structural scaffolding of our democracy. In many of my own circles, interpersonal relationships have felt transactional — if not by choice, by circumstance, as people around me move from city to city in response to the rapidly changing demands of the modern economy. We spend less time with those we disagree with and we retreat to our echo chambers. Instead of being seen as an area for growth, healthy disagreement, and problem solving, conflict is now seen as a terminal diagnosis — why bother spending time with people who you disagree with when you can spend your time more comfortably with people you do? Better yet, why not spend your time alone? In a world that promised increased access, we have chosen to close ourselves in. When you build a house with glass walls, the first thing to do is buy some damn curtains.
I’m not arguing that patience alone will solve all of these problems. Quite the opposite — patience alone has very little to offer; but combined with persistence and a focused approach to change, developing patience creates a scaffolding for dealing with modern challenges. Nor am I arguing that patience is always a good thing — at its extreme, it can manifest in stubbornness, a dogmatic unwillingness to change, waiting for the sake of waiting. That kind of rigidity is infeasible in a world that continues to demand us to think on our feet. But patience and flexibility are not incompatible ideals. The willingness to stay one’s course and remain adaptable is possible, and the kind of foresight that allows us to envision a different future is the fuel which allows us to orient our efforts in the right direction. Instead, I worry about a society where we are so scatter-brained, so unwilling to deal with the uncanniness of delaying reward, that we accept the status quo as the default. That, too, is a form of rigidity, and it is one borne from learned helplessness. This kind of helplessness has a kind of twisted self-consistency; one that absolves its observer of confronting dissonance. If you live in a world that is fractured, why bother spending the time to plan ahead? Why bother cultivating practices of patience in a world — with organizations and systems so much bigger than you — that seems to be hell-bent on pushing you in the opposite direction? Learned helplessness, for all its faults, is resource-rational. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the absurd futility of this effort in the last line of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Why bother?
The truth is, I’m not really sure. I can’t argue with the self-consistency that learned helplessness provides in the short term. It’s a compelling narrative, but I hold onto the conviction that it is false. My belief, founded on the sparse observations in my own life and the seeds of research beginning to sprout in the field, is that a different kind of consistency may emerge on higher levels of abstraction. Just like it makes no sense how a river could create a canyon until you look a few million years forward. Just like the world looks flat at first until you take a few million steps back. The transition from one equilibrium to the other is not easy. Indeed, it requires a suspension of disbelief and an embrace of idiosyncratic behaviors that run counter to the myopic way of seeing the world. The idea that patience is a form of active resistance might be new to some; certainly it is a new concept to me. But it is one that I intend to cultivate more deeply over the coming years.
Personally, I plan on incorporating patience into my routine in the following ways. First, to exercise my capacity for persevering in the face of likely failure, I plan on embracing amateurism by starting new hobbies and deepening the ones I have already. In my own work, I have found that on the other side of almost giving up is a payoff that is rewarding in and of itself — even if it’s not the one I had initially anticipated. Second, my goal is to embrace uncertainty — the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds, something that my therapist reminds me of regularly but I often fail to do. My research is a good place to start with this — in research, outcomes are never certain, and grappling with new projects will help build my confidence in the face of an inherently stochastic future. Finally, I plan to deepen my interpersonal relationships. I would like to organize group events and build communities, even if that means the risk of getting hurt and seeing groups evolve, change, or even fall apart. Even if not every group is a success, I can remain open-minded to the possibility that over time, many of them will deepen into stronger relationships that may exceed my own expectations.
I have no guarantee that any of these things will work. I don’t even have a guarantee that erring on the side of patience is a good idea, despite the conviction that I feel when I think about the many ways it has served its purpose in my own life. Like a river finding its way, I’m sure I will face my fair share of setbacks, hurdles, and failures along the way. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the most patient thing to do is acknowledge that I don’t need to know the answer right now, today, or ten years from now. Perhaps only time will tell.
 Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Vol. 234. New York, NY: Scribner, 2016.