Persistence, the key to success?
When I started writing this blog about persistence, I thought that it would be relatively straightforward. I thought that I knew exactly what persistence is, and that it was obvious that success results from persistence. As I delved more into researching the topic, however, it has become clear that persistence is both difficult to define and even harder to measure. Moreover, it is clear that there is not a straight line that runs from persistence to success, especially as quantifying success is a task in of itself.
Rather than seek out a definition of persistence from a dictionary, I decided to delve further into the psychological literature. Since the late 20th century, psychologists have used a 5 factor model to describe people by their psychological traits. These traits are known by the acronym, OCEAN. I have provided the loose definition of each of these traits below:
Openess to Experience – The tendency to explore a wide range of interests. People, who are open to experience exhibit the ability to think philosophically, hate routine, are imaginative and challenge rules and authority.
Conscientiousness – The tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement. Conscientious people tend to plan out actions rather than engage in spontaneous activities.
Extraversion – The tendency to seek out more social interaction and gain energy from other people.
Agreeableness – The tendency to being more trusting, affectionate, and altruistic. Agreeable people, work well in groups and tend to be more friendly.
Neuroticism – The tendency to have negative feelings like anxiety, depression, fear, etc.
Persistent Personality traits
Persistence, for psychologists, is an aspect of personality that is highly-corellated with a person’s level of conscientiousness. It is split into four sub-traits:
- Eagerness of effort
- Work hardened
These aspects can be individually measured and then an overall score of persistence can be determined. Each of these aspects, however, are individually quite interesting. For instance, ‘ambitious’ is not the first thing I would immediately associate with persistence, however, the first aspect, ‘eagerness of effort’, immediately sticks out as synomonous with persistence. This shows how the psychological definition can sometimes presuppose and make assumptions that a common person would not.
Benefits of being persistent
If you were to look at the top performing athletes, business people, working professionals, students, etc, persistent personality traits would be in abundance.
In order to achieve success, a person first has to have a goal (to achieve success in), practise the skill at length, and rise to psychological and physiological challenges that are placed in front of him or her.
Persistent personalities set goals, work hard to achieve them, and seek perfection in what they do. It is easy to see why there is such a high-correllation between persistence and high-achievement. There are many inspiring quotations about the importance of this quality.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” ―
“Energy and persistence conquer all things.” ―
“You’re not obligated to win. You’re obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day.” ― Marian Wright Edelman
It may be true that most people do not have the same innate ability as Winston Churchill, the skill to write like Dickens, or the visionary talent of Richard Feynman, but it probably is also the case that these people were able to conquer self-doubt, and were therefore able to emerge from challenges and difficulties stronger to become the top-performers in their respective fields.
Persistence in School
In school, the most persistent students may end up with the best grades. However, it is often the case that certain students struggle academically, and yet achieve great success in life. This is because a persistent personality is necessary, but not sufficient for excellence.
Many ‘successful’ people reflect upon their time at school and know that they either, did not try hard enough, or found school generally boring. This discrepancy may occur, not because the individual was not persistent, but because academic achievement did not align with his or her goals. Another explanation could be that delivery of the information, did not align with the student. It could also be the case that a student has a lower aptitude for the subject, and thus enjoys it less.
It has been shown to be the case that those who believe that practise matters more than skill, tend to persist longer at tasks. As Dickinson (1995: 171) states:
“Success in learning, then, appears to lead to greater motivation only for those students who accept responsibility for their own learning success, that is, who recognize that success arises from personal effort, rather than simply from ability or chance.”
Therefore, it is important to instill the belief in yourself, students, and others generally, a mindset that rewards effort. If a student believes that no amount of effort would help him or her reach success, then what would be the point of trying in the first place?
The following passage from Dickinson expresses the significance of this mindset particularly accurately:
“Children who believe that intelligence level is fixed tend to be concerned with getting favourable judgements of performance–performance goals, while children who believe that intelligence can be changed and increased tend to be concerned with learning and learning goals. The particular goals that children have tend to affect their learning behaviour. When offered the choice between easy or challenging tasks children with learning goals tend to opt for personally challenging tasks since they are willing to display ignorance in order to acquire new knowledge and skills. Conversely, children with performance goals, that is those who are concerned with getting favourable judgements of their performance, will only choose challenging tasks if they are confident that their ability is high. Otherwise they will choose very easy tasks in which they can be sure of succeeding, or very difficult ones which they can then blame for their failure.” (Dickinson 1995: 172)
These findings have implications for parents, tutors and teachers. Rather than focusing on test scores, grades and winning, the focus should be on reaching a higher level of understanding in a topic. Having worked as a tutor for many years, I have found it a lot more fruitful to focus with students on what they can improve, rather than aiming for a set score, grade or level; isolating weaknesses in their understanding, and spending time going through these topics or question types.
How to Develop Persistence
What proactive steps can you take to develop your level of persistence?
Improve your self-esteem
There is a strong correlation between high-levels of self-esteem and the amount of time someone is able to persist at a task. It is quite possible to write a whole blog just on this topic, so I will try to only give a few small tips and save the rest for another day.
In terms of little things you can enact in your life, you can build your self-esteem by accomplishing small tasks. For instance, making your bed in the morning, going for a walk, getting enough sleep at night, and eat healthily by cutting out snacks or excess food from your diet.
You can also improve your self-esteem by working on your mindset. Tasks that can help in this pursuit of a healthier mindset include: meditating daily, talking regularly with close friends and meeting up, and get in touch with your emotions by starting a journal.
Someone who has displayed an extraordinary level of self-esteem and confidence throughout his life is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He set himself specific goals and achieved them.
Take time developing plans of action
In order to develop persistence, tasks need to exist in the first place. Taking time to develop a structured-approach to life and work can help anyone gain small wins throughout the day. These small wins lead to big results, as they represent a payoff for persistence.
An easy way to get these small wins is to break down your tasks for the day into a list. This practice is not just effective as a way for someone to boost confidence; it also helps him or her understand how to break larger tasks down into manageable chunks.
This skill is important as one reason for a lack of persistence in completing a task is that a goal is that the goal is too big, and thus unattainable. Setting unattainable goals that cannot be completed in the short-term essentially is akin to prescribing yourself and others failure.
In the psychological literature, there seem to be two main types of reward. Intristic rewards and extrinstic rewards.
Extrinstic rewards are rewards that are external to the task. For instance, some parents promise their children a toy or money for working. On the other hand, the satisfaction that accrues from finishing a task successfully is an intrinsic reward. It has been shown that students who work for extrinstic rewards are less likely to persist with learning, especially if that extrinstic reward is removed or in short-supply. Those who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to persist at a task (Deci and Ryan, 1985).
In order to maximise these intrinsic rewards, it is important for a student to have a sense of autonomy in their learning. Moreover, the feedback received for completed tasks ought not to be ‘controlling’. Examples of controlling feedback include feedback such as grades. Even ‘positive feedback’ can be controlling.
I remember years ago, I had a student who did not appreciate feedback that was negative or positive. Rather, she only valued feedback that was clearly actionable. I learnt from this experience how important it was to limit value judgement and instead mainly focus on ways to help students reach a greater level of understanding.
You might like to take a look at our Podcast – The Art of Persistence
How to be persistent at school
Here are ten tips that can help you become a more persistent person at school.
- Break subjects and topics into manageable chunks
- Isolate your weaker skills and work on them
- Approach problems and topics from multiple angles
- Utilise material from the internet
- Review a little every day rather than cram last-minute
- Engage in active learning
- Don’t blame others for your failures; be accountable to yourself
- Think about your learning style and how you can approach a topic in a way that appeals to you
- Seek someone who can help you understand a topic better
- Finish work before deadlines
How to be persistent in business
Here are ten tips that can help you become a more persistent person in business.
- Utilise management tools such as Trello, Slack, Asana etc.
- Keep meetings brief and organised
- Focus on the trouble-spots in the business
- Read a lot about subjects before seeking advice from consultants
- Ensure that clients book in meetings rather than turn up at improptu moments
- Keep laser-focused on proven aspects of the business that profit the business
- Provide yourself with a financial incentive by giving yourself a bonus or dividend out of the profits
- Anticipate if you will have any big bills or lumpy cashflow issues ahead of time
- Have rules when it comes to contact hours/put contingencies in place
- Choose your customers carefully
Persisting and Celebrating Success
Celebrating success is important, but it is important to not let the success distract you from the many tasks there are left to be taken on. Start thinking about the next goal, and think about how you can streamline your processes to make the path to reach it as efficient as possible.
Did you get to the end of the blog? Find out how persistent you are by taking the quiz below:
How persistent are you?
Take the following quiz to find out how persistent you are.
Here is a guide to help you complete the quiz:
1 = Doesn’t describe you at all
2= Doesn’t really describe you
3= Describes you partially
4= Describes you quite accurately
5= Describes you accurately
Child, D. (1994). Psychology and the Teacher (5th edn) London: Casell.
Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M. (1985) Intrinsic motivation and Self Determinaation in Human Behaviour. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Dickinson, L. (1995). Autonomy and motivation a literature review, System, Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 165-174, (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0346251X95000055)
Dweck, C. S. and Elliot, E. S. (1983). Achievement motivation. In Mussen, P. H. (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 4 Socialization, Personality and Social Development. New York, NY: Wiley and Sons.
Eisenberger, R. & Selbst, M. (1994). Does reward increase or decrease creativity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 116-1127.
Frankel, A. & Snyder, M. L. (1978). Poor performance following unsolvable problems: Learned helplessness or egotism? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1415-1423.
Starnes, D. M. & Zinser, O. (1983). The effect of problem difficulty, locus of control, and sex on task persistence. Journal of General Psychology, 108, 249-255.
Wang, M. C. and Peverly, S. T. (1986). The Self-instructive process in classroom learning contexts. Comtemporaru Education Psychology 11, 370-404.