Imagine you are digging a hole. You’ve your shovel or your pick, your drill or your laser or your pet conqueror-worm. The earth disappears beneath you. Your progress is unfathomable and in another day’s time that progress will remain unfathomable. To have come so far, so fast.

Then the familiar crunch and rasp of soil fades. There is only the wet sucking sound of clay. This day is difficult, each heave dredging up less and costing more, and three days pass before you accomplish the depth you had on the first. But still you are proud, still you have dug. On to the next day.

And on the next day, the clay gives way. For all of a moment, your heart flutters. No more with that slog. It is the soil again. But amid the soil, soon there are cracks and tinks and thunks. Stone. You have reached the depth of stone. The blade of your shovel is next to useless. Your pick begins to blunt, your drill to foul. The laser is running out of juice and your worm needs fed something other than hard rocks.

What do you do? What can you do? Except keep digging. It has worked so far. You have come so far. Certainly it was going to get difficult at some point. And persistence is the modus, yes? It is the virtue. Yes, keep digging, that is the answer. Surely. Certainly.

The rocks wash away on the tides of your labor, as even the cliff face erodes under the eternal duress of the waves. This is the rule, the lesson. You are more confident in this than you are in the strength of your arms or the effectiveness of your tools. Days and days and days pass like the wind over the edges of the abyss you have tunneled into the earth. Finally, at last, the stone gives way…

Only to something more impenetrable: the bedrock. You cannot get through. The eternal question resounds: What is to be done?

In life and as Americans especially, we’re often battered with the phrase: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” And yet as often as we are redressed with the words, we make the mistake. We make the mistake over and over again. Why? Simple: We do not believe a mistake is being made. Why should we? We’re following the rules. We’re digging. Why wouldn’t we get any farther? It’s worked up to this point. But no matter how hard you work, you won’t circumvent the bedrock that lies in your way.

Exchange the analogy for whatever you like: running, swimming or sailing. The quandary repeats. Whether you reach squall or mountain, the temptation is to determination. To the seductive first principle of persisting, especially when all seems lost. Sail through the storm rather than lengthen the trip, travail the mountain to its peak rather than take the long way around. Dig until you reach the bedrock and keep pecking away rather than dig further to the left or the right.

You might reach your intended juncture, but invite illimitable catastrophes easily avoided along another route. Better by far to simply adjust course or to stop and consider the approach or the tools at hand. The key is to recognize when one has come up against the bedrock, the mountain or the storm, the obstacle which may cost everything to traverse. As therein lies the deception of the maxim.

Of course, it’s insanity to perform the same action and expect a different result. When put simply, anything is obvious. When what worked before or is working now ceases to work, do not merely assume it is failure of persistence or talent or effort. Take that as a sign to fall back and reassess, both your progress and your means. When your legs have been pumping beneath you, launching you across the proverbial landscape, and you suddenly find yourself on uneven ground, it is critically important to not first redress and damn yourself.

In short, first consider that you are digging a hole.