I’ve been thinking about the power of persistence and how cultivating your skills and talents will always lead to greater impact. Meryl Streep and Madonna were both recently celebrated for a lifetime of incredible work. To stay at the forefront of acting and music and influence our culture along the way, they’ve persistently cultivated new skills. They both talk about the power of continuing to show up, day after day, year after year, even through the most difficult challenges.
With Meryl and Madonna fresh in my mind, I stumbled across a historical novel set in the early 19th century that features two strong women. These women, through persistence, talent, and teamwork, made scientific discoveries that impact us even today and helped their families to lead better lives. That book is Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Remarkable Creatures.
I came across a paperback copy of it for 50 cents at our library’s used book sale. The cover image of two 19th century women searching for something on a beach pulled me in. If the name Tracy Chevalier sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read the novel and/or seen the film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I thought it would be worth the investment.
The title, Remarkable Creatures, has a double meaning. First, it refers to Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning, the two independent, strong-willed, and therefore, socially shunned women depicted on the book’s cover. Through their persistence, talent, and teamwork, they made their mark in what was very much a man’s world of science in the early 1800’s. Second, it describes the amazing fossils that Elizabeth and Mary discovered on the beach and in the cliffs near Lyme Regis, England.
The novel is historical fiction, defined as fiction set fifty or more years in the past, and where the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. Some experts in the genre say its plot should reflect its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history.
Remarkable Creatures is based on actual women who made important scientific discoveries. We know that Mary Anning was born in 1800, collected fossils from the time she could walk on the beach and sold them to sustain her financially struggling family. At first she collected small fossils called Curries, but as her knowledge of the tides, the weather, and fossils grew, she discovered larger and more complex creatures hidden in the cliffs and on the shore.
As Chevalier tells it, Mary enjoyed solitude, had the patience to spend hours in pursuit of treasures and learned how to spot the irregularities and telltale signs of fossils. Mary Anning discovered the first complete pterosaur fossil, also known as the pterodactyl, and the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur, as well. These finds brought Mary what we would refer to today as personal and professional satisfaction, as well as a sense of fulfillment, and propelled scientific and religious discussions about the Earth’s origin and God’s power to create and then cause the extinction of ancient creatures. Of greater importance to the story, the smaller fossils of her youth brought the pennies that helped her family to survive. But her larger finds financed a new home, a larger store in a better location, and an upholstery business for her brother.
For a time, her work was discredited. Mary’s discoveries were not universally acknowledged until sometime after hear death from breast cancer at age 47. According to the novel and biographies of Mary Anning, her discoveries were frequently claimed as their own by Anglican male scientists who dominated paleontology in the 1800s. But over the years, she came to be respected by these men. Her contribution was first acknowledged in a scientific paper by Georges Cuvier in 1825.
As for the novel’s other main character, Elizabeth Philpot was a great friend to Mary who encouraged and guided her and made fossil breakthroughs of her own. Because she had a higher social standing than Mary, she was able to advocate for Mary within the scientific community. As the story is written, without Elizabeth’s help, Mary’s family may have remained destitute and her work unrecognized in scientific papers.
This may be a story from the 1800s, but its theme “Persistence paves the way for greater impact” is timeless. That theme has been apparent is so many of my Ever Better Podcast discussions, most notably with guests Tasia Valenza and Debbie Norris. Tasia Valenza, featured in Ever Better Podcast Episode 14, is a highly sought after voice-over artist who refers to herself as a recovering actress, while Dr. Deborah Norris, from Ever Better Podcast Episode 43, is a scientist who applies her study of neurotoxicology to mindfulness.
Tasia’s acting career began when she was a teenager. She was on TV sitcoms, in movies, and acted in soap operas including All My Children. Over time, Tasia realized the physical and mental toll that the more superficial aspects of being an actress can take. After auditioning and winning her first voice over role, she saw that she could use her acting skills in a different way, and create a much more satisfying life for herself behind the cameras.
With over 30 years of experience in entertainment, Tasia’s persistence in crafting just the right tone for each cause she embraces has positioned her to use her voice to help non-profits raise much needed funds. They include Vocal ID, SOS Children’s Villages, and homeless shelters in LA. Her program, Giving Great Voice, helps young adults to express themselves in a more impactful way. Tasia’s persistence has paid off for her career and she’s now applying those talents to help others. As I said, persistence leads to greater impact.
Dr. Deborah Norris is a psychologist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for fifteen years. During that time, she practiced mindfulness and worked as a part-time fitness instructor. She built her knowledge base and developed her skills in mindfulness and fitness, and then she decided to take a leap to create The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, MD, with her two daughters.
Because she took that important step, her ability to reach more individuals who are drawn to learn about and practice mindfulness has grown tremendously over the years. With a dedicated facility, she offers classes and counseling, trains other instructors and practitioners, and now offers online classes. Debbie recently published her first book, In the Flow, Passion, Purpose, and the Power of Mindfulness.
A little over a year ago, I launched the Ever Better Podcast to share positive stories with the world. We need those stories now more than ever. Having in-depth conversations with dozens of guests and doing lots of writing related to my shows, I’ve come to embrace and further develop two skills that I’ve persistently developed throughout my life. One is coaching and the second is writing.
Through my coaching program, Discover What’s Next, I use all of my personal and professional experiences to help people find more fulfillment and purpose in their lives. As a college English major who has worked in Communications all her life, I’ve often tolerated the writing I’ve had to do and only sometimes enjoyed it. Today, I write voluntarily and enjoy it! For updates on new blog posts and podcasts, subscribe to Ever Better emails. You’ll find the form on the top of this page on the right. And remember – persistence paves the way to greater impact.
~ Lisa Conners Vogt