Notes on Perseverance
This post examines the virtues of perseverance, persistence, resilience, grit, fortitude, tenacity, sisu, and others in that bailiwick. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more and to become better at it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.
What are these virtues?
People who exhibit these virtues rebound from setbacks and are not easily discouraged. They are more apt to overcome challenges than to be overcome by them.
Some of these virtue-words emphasize coping-with-adversity (resilience, fortitude), others emphasize continued effort (tenacity, perseverance, persistence), and others are a combination of those and other things (grit, sisu).
“Grit” in particular has been investigated under the positive psychology banner in recent years, and so deserves some extra attention here. As the researchers define it, grit is a combination of perseverance and passion. Perseverance in turn is defined as consistency of effort, while passion, less intuitively, is defined as consistency of interests. (Passion, in other words, has less to do with the level of present enthusiasm than with sustained interest over the long term. Researchers measure passion in people by asking them how little they identify with statements like “new ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” or “my interests change from year to year.”✴) Grit is correlated with (and, some critics say, difficult to distinguish from) “conscientiousness” in the “big five” model of personality.
“Sisu” seems to be a sort of in extremis perseverance: persistence to the bitter end in spite of terrible odds, when you feel you have already given your all.
Sometimes these virtues are accompanied by a mental attitude of determination, resolve, steadfastness, firmness, or duty.
Fortitude and resilience can be assisted by toughness, hardiness, and strength.
The virtues of resourcefulness, inventiveness, and creativity can help you to persevere by coming up with new ways to overcome challenges when old ways fail.
One way of looking at the virtue of courage is to consider it as a sort of specialized perseverance that operates when the main challenge to overcome is fear.
The virtue of self-control or discipline resembles perseverance. Some researchers contrast perseverance and self-control in this way: self-control is more about staying on task in the short term in the face of temptations, while perseverance is more about staying on task in the long term in the face of obstacles. Eliezer Yudkowsky, in his essay “On Doing the Impossible” suggests that we might meaningfully analyze varieties of perseverance on even more fine-grained timescales: Just persevering past evaluating a problem as “impossible” to evaluate it more accurately to be merely “very very difficult” may be an important and useful skill.
If you lack these virtues, you may be a quitter: you fold too quickly, you give up too early, you’re easily burned-out or overwhelmed.
You can also fail, however, by over-doing it. You might be called bullheaded, obstinate, pertinacious, or stubborn if you don’t know when to quit. If you stick with a lost cause because you are indulging the sunk-cost fallacy or status quo bias… or if the only reason you refuse to stop the car and turn around is because you want to put off the moment when you have to admit you went the wrong way… then maybe it’s time to dial back or fine tune your perseverance. At the extreme, perseverance can be an obsessive monomania: flogging the bones of a long-dead horse, confusing beating your head against the wall with making productive effort.
So perseverance is another virtue that maps well to Aristotle’s golden mean theory.
Perseverance comes highly recommended. But there is another vision of the good life that doesn’t put much stock in perseverance. Perhaps, its advocates argue, it is better to be flexible: to flow around obstacles rather than trying to wear them down. When fate interrupts your plans, pivot gracefully and choose new plans rather than trying to stubbornly fit today’s realities to yesterday’s agenda. Fail fast and move on. Life is a dance, not a skirmish, and you are better off trying to match the tempo and mood of the music you hear than trying to stomp your feet against the rhythm in the hopes that you’ll defeat the drummer.
Maybe both perspectives are right in their own way. If you lack the virtue of perseverance, you will not be able to persist when persistence is called for. But whether or not persistence is called for in any particular situation is something that requires wisdom and discernment to know. Perseverance is a capability that can be helpful, not an ideological stance for all occasions. But if so, is it still a virtue? A virtue is a characteristic habit. If you are characteristically persistent, maybe that’s a bit overmuch. The virtue concerning perseverance might then be better described as the capability to persist combined with the wisdom to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
What good is it?
Some opportunities in life are only available to those who can persevere. If you want to become a top-notch pianist who delights others with your excellent playing, for example, you have to endure thousands of hours of being a mediocre pianist, practicing alone. If you have the virtue of perseverance, you can expand the range of opportunities available to you to include things like these. If you cannot persevere, you limit yourself to living off the low-hanging fruit of life.
To persevere sometimes means to reach the end of what you think your capabilities are and what you think can be done, and then to keep going anyway. To the extent that this succeeds, you not only come closer to meeting whatever immediate goal you had, but you also improve your knowledge of your own capabilities and of what is possible. You become more confident and capable.
“The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’ Ordinarily we stop when we meet the first effective layer, so to call it, of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ and desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction, on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth ‘wind’ may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.” ―William James, The Energies of Men
Grit in particular
A variety of perseverance has been studied under the name “grit” — I mentioned it and its idiosyncratic definition earlier. It is said (by researchers like A.L. Duckworth, who has made it her particular focus of study) to predict success in a variety of fields — from spelling bees to West Point graduation — better than other metrics.
Duckworth believes that grit, which does not correlate with intelligence, can explain why higher IQ does not reliably result in greater success, achievement, and happiness.
People with more grit are happier, more optimistic, have better self-control, and report more life satisfaction. They are more likely to engage in activities that require (or benefit from) sustained practice.
People with more grit “tend to make fewer career changes,” and “progress farther in their formal education.” They are in general less able to imagine better paths than whatever path they are currently on. This could be interpreted in at least a couple of very different ways (e.g. they are good at finding and taking optimum paths and can usually be found on them, or, they are poor at finding and taking optimum paths because they are less able to envision alternatives they might choose from). The Eskreis-Winkler et al. paper cited below suggests this interpretation: “that grittier individuals generate lower estimates of the opportunity cost of their current pursuits.”
It’s important to keep in mind, when reading the enthusiastic literature about the power of grit, how grit is measured. Typically in these studies a person’s grit is measured with a number that is a function of how much the person says they identify with a small set of self-assessment statements. These statements include things like “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” and “I finish whatever I begin.”✴ So when you hear the researchers say that someone has more grit, what they’re really saying is that someone is more likely to think statements like that apply to them. And when the researchers then say that someone with more grit is more likely to be able to get through “beast barracks” at West Point or make it to the final round of a spelling bee, this may mean that someone who reports that they are the sort of person who has risen to the occasion and met challenges has, true to form, yet again risen to the occasion and met challenges. There’s a limit to what that can tell us about what factor causes people to be able to repeatedly rise to the occasion and meet challenges, and calling that hypothetical X-factor “grit” may make it seem more explanatory than it is, given how grit is defined.
Here are a couple of papers that make for a good introduction to the grit lit:
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). “Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Gross, J.J., & Duckworth, A.L. (2016). “Grit: Sustained self-regulation in the service of superordinate goals.” In K.D. Vohs & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory and applications (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford
How to improve in perseverance
If there is a well-tested silver bullet for improving perseverance in general, it has not yet come to my attention. Instead in this section I will briefly describe some ideas that seem promising, or some insights that might apply in limited circumstances.
In some domains, you can learn to persevere for a long period or through great difficulty by incrementally persevering through modestly longer periods and modestly greater difficulties. This may be helpful for the sorts of challenges that lend themselves to repetition and where you have control over the duration and difficulty level. For example, I now have a 30-minute-per-day meditation habit, and while I find meditating well a challenge, I’m no longer challenged by just sitting still and making the attempt for half an hour. But when I was trying to establish the habit, just staying on the cushion without fidgeting for ten minutes seemed at times like more than I could stand. Steady, incremental practice has transformed the intolerable into the easy.
Optimistic people tend to describe adversities as temporary, out-of-the-ordinary, and changeable; pessimistic people tend to describe them as typical, run-of-the-mill, and indelibly woven into the fabric of life. This may partially explain the correlation between grit and optimism: if you are optimistic you are more likely to see the obstacles that confront you as surmountable. So one possible sideways avenue for improving your perseverance might be to work on your optimism.
The Eskreis-Winkler paper I cited above discusses two angles for improving perseverance, which they call logic-of-consequence and logic-of-appropriateness. When you use the logic-of-consequence angle you try to become more aware of the expected positive outcomes of persevering: you do a more explicit cost-benefit analysis, and hope that if you learn thereby that you would rationally benefit from persevering, your willpower will go along with it. The logic-of-appropriateness angle has more to do with your self-image. What sort of person do you want to be? Are you a milquetoast who wilts at the first sign of adversity, or a hero of the sort that laughs in the face of the storm? What would Brian Boitano do? There is some indication that just by spending a little time daydreaming — envisioning yourself as the sort of determined, hard-working person who meets difficult challenges — you can give your perseverance a temporary boost. The motivating power of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry Ⅴ, for example, comes in part from how it asks the listeners to imagine themselves in the future, having overcome the challenge before them.
One of the benefits of persevering is whatever reward is on the other side of the obstacle before you. But there is also the potential reward of being the sort of person who overcomes obstacles, who has the virtue of perseverance. If you value perseverance itself, beyond its value in overcoming any particular obstacle, and think of perseverance as something that would burnish your character, that may help motivate you to practice it. You may come to see challenges not just as obstacles to getting what you want or need but also as opportunities to demonstrate and practice a valued character trait.
Giving up is one effective coping strategy for dealing with stress. You turn your back on what is causing you stress, and your stress goes away. It may be that you over-rely on that coping strategy because your alternative strategies are underdeveloped. You might be able to become more persevering if, when you encounter a stressful situation, you have other strategies you can try that don’t rely on escape from the stressor. Learning and practicing such strategies, and having a plan to deploy them when they will be helpful, may help you persevere.
Obstacles sometimes take the form of negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, or embarrassment. If you see such emotions as awful things to be avoided at all costs, you may be more reluctant to persevere. If you are more forgiving to yourself and see these emotions as part of the game, you will be better able to shrug them off and continue.
Perseverance is not just a matter of character, it is also a matter of resources.✴ If you are living on the edge, you may have to cut your losses quickly in some endeavor to avoid losing even more elsewhere; whereas if you have a surplus in your life, you may be able to use it to subsidize going further out on a limb. Maintaining a surplus buffer of time and resources in your life can be a way of improving perseverance.
Among these resources are social resources and social skills like being able to ask for help or advice.✴ For example, if you have a spouse or trusted friend, you may be able to say “this project is taking a lot longer than I thought it would; could you pick up the kids from school so I can keep at it?” If you help your friends when you have excess resources and slack, you can better expect help from your friends when you are tapped and stressed. This can make you more resilient by smoothing-out acute challenges. Other people can also help you discover and explore new avenues to meet your challenges, can give encouragement, and can suggest ways to bolster your resolve.
Similarly, you can reduce how much you have to rely on extraordinary reserves of fortitude by planning carefully and by anticipating and preparing for possible difficulties. If you plan for difficulties, then when difficulties arise your first impulse will be to put your plans into effect rather than to contemplate surrender.
Sometimes people overgeneralize from examples of personal failure. They fail at some task, and then generalize to say that they are a failure at tasks like that. I flubbed that speech… because I’m terrible at public speaking. That interview went horribly… because I don’t really interview well. This can make perseverance seem hopeless. If you catch yourself generalizing in this way, consider applying some extra skepticism to your reasoning.
Some people report being able to strengthen their perseverance by making a pledge, taking a vow, or something of that sort. There’s usually magic of some sort involved: making the declaration publicly, or in writing, or using formal language, or invoking something sacred — something that sets the vow apart as unusually potent and compelling.
Sometimes we persevere because perseverance is forced on us. These are typically situations that we would not choose, but, finding ourselves in them, we can learn something about ourselves from them. There is no shortage of thrilling stories of people who endured horrible experiences through tenacity and unexpected reserves of fortitude, and they often include moments of surprised and admiring self-reflection, and also an attitude of looking with amused contempt at the once-daunting smaller day-to-day challenges of life. There’s reason to beware of survivorship bias here, but maybe there’s something to be said for trying to wring some extra wisdom out of our most difficult moments.
A.L. Duckworth, “Can Perseverance be Taught?”: