Recent Posts

Read a Random Post



« | Main | »

Path of Least Persistence

By Daniel Hubbard | January 15, 2012

The next time you meet someone who is fairly new to research, try to notice what mode they are in. You just might be able to help them out a bit. By “mode,” I’m thinking of the classic optimist/pessimist difference that is contained in the old question about the glass—is it half-empty of half-full? Almost everyone manages to pour something into their glass as they start their genealogy. They talk to an older relative and get some information or they find a cousin who has done a bit and can help get them going. The question is, how is that first step perceived?

We’re all in some mode as researchers but one of the tough parts about starting out is to not go too far to one extreme or the other. Persistence is one of the most important things in research, though it doesn’t get an official mention as part of the scientific method.  Being persistent is one of the hardest things to accomplish at the beginning. Optimism runs so high that there seems to be no need to be persistent or pessimism is so rampant that there is no point to being persistent. It seemingly will never come of anything anyway.

Neither way of thinking bodes well.


When some people get going, they are overjoyed that the glass is half-full. They are amazed at what they have learned and that they have learned it so quickly. Family history is easy! No need to work at it! They are giddy, ecstatic, weak in the knees… Think six-year-old boy with his first toy light saber, totally absorbed and totally thrilled.

Eventually, they will need to learn that research is difficult. They’ll get stuck. They’ll discover they don’t know as much as they thought. They’ll be misled. Getting information isn’t always the same as getting the right information.

Sometime or another, one’s information will turn out to be inconsistent and there will be a need to really ponder what is happening. It’s sort of like the glass being part full of water and part full of oil—you can do all the shaking you want, eventually they will separate and look the same as before. One of the two will need to be eliminated. If there is great joy that the glass is half-full, it can be hard to come to grips with the fact that some of the data just will not mix with the rest. There is a danger of flipping over into the other type of genealogist-


Other beginners will be discouraged that the glass is half-empty. Welcome to the dark side, young researcher. They will lament that this answer or that fact hasn’t come easily. They have a long list of problems or difficulties and disregard the importance of whatever it is that they have learned.

That is where the metaphor of the glass usually ends. In one of my all-time favorite Far Side cartoons, Gary Larson extended it to two more types that can be identified with the half glass of water test. Here are the other two.

Half empty, no wait, half full, no… what was the question?

They have missed the all-important need to be organized. A lot of what goes into research is organization—keeping track of facts, keeping track of sources, keeping track of hypotheses and conclusions, reasoning through it all and relating all these things to each other.

Confusion and indecision take over.

Where’s my cheeseburger!!??

Perhaps this should be renamed “Where’s my Mayflower passenger!!??” You may have met someone who is upset that “the records are all wrong,” when all that is wrong is the expectation. Some have a specific ancestry in mind and are upset that it isn’t easy to prove, let alone that it might not be true at all. Family history always gives us fascinating things to learn, unless of course we spend our time being upset about missing cheeseburgers.

When you meet a beginner in one of these modes, perhaps your good deed for the day could be a little gentle advice, be persistent.

The fact of the matter is, in a sense, we’re all beginners. There is always more to learn—more records, localities, languages and techniques to learn and more ancestors, relatives and stories to find. In research the glass is never really full. We might be able to add water to the glass but the glass itself enlarges to remain big enough to hold ever more water. The more we learn the more we discover that we don’t yet know. Sometimes we see the glass as half-full, sometimes half-empty and sometimes we wonder what happened to our cheeseburger. If you’re persistent, you survive the ups, downs, confusions and annoyances.

One of the most important bits of advice you can give someone if they are just starting out is to avoid the “path of least persistence.” It is littered with half glasses and missing cheeseburgers.

What Mode Are You In?

I was just hunting for a young immigrant woman in Chicago. I was told her name, her husband’s name and the names of their three sons. I knew her birth date and the decade during which her sons were born. I was told that a ship’s list entry existed for her showing her going to visit her brother but with that information crossed out and her husband’s name written above. There was also a naturalization record that gave her married and maiden names as well as her address.

An effort to find people with the appropriate names in the 1930 census (the only one that was relevant) gave nothing. The address on the naturalization record did not have residents of interest in 1930. A check of the ship’s list told me that she was not going to visit her husband. The surname matched but the word “uncle” was there as well. So was an address. That address led to a census entry for a family of the correct surname but the given name of the possible uncle was wrong. The given name does match his wife pretty well so it seems that an aunt was transformed into an uncle on the passenger list.

I searched a city directory for anyone with about the right name in about the same place as the address on the naturalization record and a few years before that record was made, there was a man with the right surname and almost the “right” given name living across the street. Looking for him in 1930, I found a man whose wife has what could be an anglicized version of my immigrants 3rd given name and three sons born in the correct decade. One name matched, one was very close and the other was similar—same number of syllables, similar consonant sound at the beginning and actually more believable given the ethnicity involved.

I tend to think my glass is half-full on this one, not half empty. It certainly isn’t a sure thing. This is definitely a half glass not a full one. More work is needed but it feels promising. That makes me wonder how other people are feeling as genealogists at the moment.

So, what mode are you in?

Half empty, no wait, half full, no… what was the question?
Where’s my cheeseburger!!??

I’ll post the “results” in a few weeks.

Twitter It!

Topics: Research Mindset | 14 Comments »

Twitter It!

14 Responses to “Path of Least Persistence”

  1. Randall Dickerson Says:
    January 15th, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Great post! Simple, to the point, and thought-provoking.

    To put a humorous twist on things;

    the optimist sees the glass as half full,
    the pessimist sees the glass as half empty,
    the engineer says “you’re using the wrong size container!”

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 15th, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Hmm… as a former physicist I’d add, “The physicist sees that the glass is of the right order of magnitude and moves on to the next calculation.”

  3. Greta Koehl Says:
    January 15th, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I always get more excited about the “hard-to-find” ancestors and was disappointed to find that my father’s maternal line had already been the subject of extensive research. So even when I’m looking for my Smith brick wall in Tennessee, that’s like a half-full glass to me. (I originally typed this last line with a Freudian typo: half-fun.)

  4. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 15th, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about the “hard-to-find” ones. They are where the fun is. I do like the freudian-typo but I think they are more than just “half-fun” aren’t they?

  5. Matha Gates Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I think I’ve been through all those modes….in my 50+ years of genealogy research…just stopped gathering and have written several family history books…as soon as the last book is written, I’ll probably go back to searching again…can’t give it up, there’s always more to learn.

  6. Billie Walsh Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 8:24 am

    Some friends and I have come to the conclusion that, “No ancestor will be found before their time.” Our ancestors play a kind of game of Hide-n-Seek with us. The harder we “seek” the more they love to “hide” from us. Often if we step back a bit and they will poke their heads up to see what we are doing and we can find them.

    I see the glass as half full. No matter how hard I try it will probably never be completely full. For every answer you get two more questions. It’s the largest possible Jig-Saw Puzzle.

  7. Ed Wells Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 9:50 am

    I have been lost for so long that I no longer can see the light at the end of the line.

    Half Full, Half Empty, Cheeseburger?


  8. Peter Methley Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 10:57 am

    If the object of the exercise is to transfer the liquid (Beer?) from the glass to my stomach then my glass is half empty. However every new sip, takes more and more effort with fewer and fewer results. My Glass will never be empty but I can keep on trying.
    As for the Cheseburger, keep looking “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

  9. Thomas Birch Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Even after DNA testing,either no one in the world matches me, or they won’t admit it. I am leaning towards Ancient Aliens myself.

  10. Dann Norton Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    I have been completely discouraged with DNA genealogy, mostly because I’ve found out I’m not who I thought I was. Since my y-DNA doesn’t match my distant cousins, one of my grandpas down the line wasn’t really my grandpa–but where? I match no one in the database. So, I’m back at beginner, with a glass half empty, BUT…I’ve had the experience of searching for a name, and finding it, almost by accident, 22 years later. Your article reminds to stay persistent. Thanks.
    Dann Norton

  11. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Hi Dann, glad I could help with the persistence reminder. The twenty-two-year wait to find a name sounds like a pretty good reminder about persistence as well.

  12. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Thomas, I swear that about ten years ago I read an article about “mixed marriages” that had a complete genealogy of the Martian branch of the author’s family. I wish I had saved it. The fake names were priceless all on their own.

  13. Lee Simons Says:
    January 25th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Research is my addiction, and I never grow tired of it. I just keep moving from one line to another when the going gets bogged down.

    As for DNA, I’ve only had two experiences, both of which proved fruitful (so I’m a believer). I encourage everyone I know (genealogists or not) to submit/have submitted DNA for their surname. The more that happens, the better chance of matches.

  14. evomamurioutt Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Hello! Just want to say thank you for this interesting article! =) Peace, Joy.