PATIENCE IS NOT A VIRTUE

“All human wisdom is summed up in two words – wait and hope.”

This was said by Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), one of the most prolific and most popular authors of the 19th century, and while I am a fan of Dumas, having as a teenager read and enjoyed his books “The three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”, I just can’t agree with him.

Author: Charles-Alphonse-Paul Bellay (1826-1900); PD-Art tag; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Charles-Alphonse-Paul Bellay (1826-1900); PD-Art tag; via Wikimedia Commons


Firstly I have long believed that “hope is never a strategy” for anything in life, and secondly I have long believed that little comes to those who wait, other than sore backsides and boredom, the only exception being that “one should never run after a bus, a man or a woman, as there will always be another one along in a reasonable time”.

Hope (and prayer) may have been an acceptable way to go in Dumas’ time in the early 19th century when life expectancy was about 38 in the US and Europe, less than 1% of households had a bath, over 99% of births took place in the home, and the 3 major causes of death were Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, and Diarrhea, now all eminently treatable. In the 21st century we have replaced these 3 with Heart Disease, Strokes and Cancer, but at least we now understand that we should seek medical help rather than just lighting candles or sitting there hoping they will go away.

I just cannot accept that patience is a true virtue.

I am not talking about waiting, which we sometimes have to do, for example when we are in a queue to get through airport security or when sitting at a set of traffic lights, which are the sort of situations where we have little choice but to wait our turn. We also have little choice but to wait for broken bones to mend, or wait for annual vacations to come around. We generally just have to accept that these will come in their “own sweet time”, and that there is little that we can do about it but wait.

I am often amused by watching the agitation of people in queues particularly in France where, unlike Anglophone countries, standing in line is not a cultural imperative. After a relatively short time, queues will just disintegrate into a crowd press to the single entry point, where the aggressive rather than the impatient can gain the most territory. I was recently in a line to gain entry to a historic building which opens just one day a year, and had to continually defend my entrance slot. One woman, when trying to push past me for about the fourth time, and realising I was not actually French, yelled at me in frustration “You just don’t understand ! We French do not like to wait.”

Author: horax zeigt hier; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: horax zeigt hier; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


None of us like to wait, but I differentiate this acceptance of waiting as an aspect of life that is different from patience.

I am also not suggesting that we should just expect success to arrive overnight, or that we should not understand that it takes considerable effort and application to achieve worthwhile results in business, in relationships and also in life generally. I have never really accepted the “I want it now” attitude that I often see in western societies where many believe for example that weight loss is not the result of a healthy lifestyle, controlled diet and regular exercise, but is just a question of finding the right medication for the kilos to drop off, or that success in the business world just involves joining the right start-up and waiting for the IPO (see “I want it today” posted December 2, 2010).

But I do not see this “I want it now” attitude to be an indicator of impatience as much as being either a sign of a lack of discipline and control, or just another example of “hope as a strategy”.

I see patience as being more an acceptance of the status quo, and whilst I have long believed that in many companies people who protect the status quo are more likely to be seen as candidates for promotion than are game changers, I believe strongly that those who are patient will not achieve much.

Successful people are generally impatient because they want to drive change, whether this is in the world of technology, the business world, medicine, the arts, education or even in not-for-profit charity organisations. Steve Jobs (1955-2011), co-founder of Apple was an incredibly impatient man, and while this meant that he was not particularly liked as a manager, CEO or human being, (regularly getting him into trouble and even fired from Apple in 1985), no one can question his game-changer status.

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Important things in life can only be changed by unreasonable impatient people.

I have never known patient and reasonable people who have driven dramatic change. Even Mahatma Gandhi understood this when he said “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. You must be the change that you want to see in the world.”

Reasonable and patient people will adapt to the world around them, whereas unreasonable impatient people believe that they need to adapt the world around them to suit their own needs.

I believe that American journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) had it right when he said “Patience is a minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.”

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-Art tag

via Wikimedia Commons; PD-Art tag


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4 Responses to PATIENCE IS NOT A VIRTUE

  1. Tim Collins says:

    Agree wholeheartedly, ambition by its very nature dictates action.

    It is much harder to hit a moving target.

    Napoleon Bonaparte’s stunning successes in warfare were achieved because his armies got there first and fast as did General George S Patton in WWII. His famous speech in England to the US 3rd Army had (amongst some very pithy profanities) this gem;

    “When a man is lying in a shell hole, if he just stays there all day, a Boche will get him eventually. The hell with that. My men don’t dig foxholes. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving. We’ll win this war”.

  2. Thierry says:

    One of my favourites and right in line with what you are saying I think “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

  3. Heinz says:

    There is an aspect to waiting and patience that I do not quite find reflected here.
    Was Steve Jobs an impatient man? Undoubtedly, but it took more than 4 1/2 years between his return to Apple in late 1996 and the launch of the iPod. What was he doing?
    When Richard Rummelt asked him in 1998 “What are you trying to do? What’s the longer-term strategy?”, Jobs just smiled and said, “I am going to wait for the next big thing.”
    Of course he did not just wait passively, it was more like a predator ready to pounce at the right time.

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