Two phrases I’ve come across this week have combined to teach me something important.
The first phrase is “It’s dogged as does it.” I read it in Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset, where a brickmaker, a poor man, says to the downcast Josiah Crawley, a cleric who is accused of theft and has thought of killing himself: “There ain’t nowt a man can’t bear if he’ll only be dogged. You go whome, Master Crawley, and think o’ that, and maybe it’ll do ye a good yet. It’s dogged as does it. It ain’t thinking about it.”
The phrase recurs in the novel, and clearly Trollope agrees and approves. It was doggedness that got his 40 or so novels written: getting up at 5 every morning and writing 1500 words before he went to work in the Post Office. That routine caused him to be scorned by Romantics, who think that creation can only come with inspiration, which doesn’t come routinely at 5 every morning. That scorn lingers to this day.
A doctor friend used the second phrase “Who is doing the work?” His point was, I think, that the world is full of people developing policies, plans, and strategies but most people can’t be bothered with the hard work, the doggedness, that turns policies, plans, and strategies into realities with benefits.
Two stories that I’ve recently encountered, one of them this morning in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, illustrate how these two phrases fit together to tell us something important.
At the start of the 20th century the Hill Country of Texas was extremely sparsely populated and there were no roads only tracks. The few ranchers who lived there had trouble getting their products to market and getting any goods into the Hill Country. People recognised the need for some sort of freight service between Brady and Junction, which were 70 miles apart—but nobody had an appetite for spending five nights a week camping in the darkness, loneliness, and emptiness of the country between the two towns and crossing the seven dangerous, often impassable, streams that had to be forded. But in 1904 one impoverished teenager, Coke Robert Stevenson, who had to start working at age 10, saw opportunity and started a freight business with one wagon and six horses. He went backwards and forwards through the wilderness, once getting stuck in mud for 11 days, and on the dark, lonely nights he taught himself book-keeping to better himself. Stevenson rose to be the longest-serving governor of Texas, but lost an election to the US Senate to Lyndon Johnson, whom we now know stole the election.
Doggedness and being willing to do the work made Coke Robert Stevenson.
My other story has a less happy end. A gastroenterologist with a particular interest in inflammatory bowel disease working in the NHS observed that reviewing patients with inflammatory bowel disease every six months in outpatients made little sense as many of them were well. It’s the nature of the disease, as with most chronic diseases, that they come and go, flaring up every so often. Without support from his colleagues the gastroenterologist introduced a system of communicating with patients via the internet with the intention that they wouldn’t need to come to outpatients if well but could be seen more quickly if unwell. The gastroenterologist was willing to do the work to get the system running and had the doggedness to persist when opposed. Hundreds of patients took up the offer with the result that they were seen much more quickly when sick. Visits to outpatients and the emergency room and admissions to hospital all fell. This was progress, but unfortunately it meant a fall in the hospital’s income, which was not popular with the management; and the different way of working was not popular with other members of the clinical team. The gastroenterologist was forced out.
The brickmaker (and Trollope) and my friend are right: doggedness to persist and do the work are needed for progress and development, but often both are lacking.