Perseverance in Psychology
Updated: May 31, 2021
Perseverance refers to our ability to pursue a goal or passion over time, and stick with it if we encounter obstacles or setbacks.
In the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths, perseverance is defined as “finishing what one starts; persevering in a course of action despite obstacles; ‘getting it out the door’; taking pleasure in completing tasks.”
It is closely related to a range of other concepts including resilience, motivation, drive, determination, grit, passion, and conscientiousness.
Various studies have shown that perseverance is an essential quality for success in life (Duckworth, 2016). It often tops aptitude and raw talent and is a more accurate predictor of achievement.
Our ability to stick with our tasks, goals, and passions is vital. Persevering entails effort and practice. It also involves our ability to learn from failure and try again when thrown off our horses until we get thrown off no more (Dweck, 2017).
What Is Perseverance in Psychology?
We can understand perseverance as a continuous drive to reach our goals and improve our skills and performance through persistent effort. It is a form of purposefulness and goal-orientation, which requires long-term commitment and discipline. It is fueled by passion.
While perseverance is distinct from motivation and determination, it includes elements of both. As Angela Duckworth’s research has shown, success at something requires persistence through some form of discomfort, an ability to push through when confronted with complications (Duckworth, Kirby, Tsykayama, Berstein, & Ericsson, 2010).
In that sense, perseverance is related to our ability to delay gratification, self-regulate, and practice self-control. All of these are required to honor our commitment to a longer term goal. Perseverance means that we prioritize sustainable future rewards over short-term pleasures in the present.
Crucially, all forms of learning and mastery require perseverance (Duckworth et al., 2010; Ericsson, 2006). If we did not persist with our efforts to speak; walk; master a bike, new language, or instrument; or overcome anxieties or beliefs that hold us back, we would all remain stuck.
It would halt our cognitive, physical, and psycho-social development. There would be no progress. Persistence – another facet of perseverance – can also be understood as a personality or temperamental trait (Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck, 1993). As such, it is related to effort, ambition, and perfectionism.
In the Big Five or Five-Factor Model, core aspects of perseverance map onto features of conscientiousness. Researchers such as Markus Credé argue that the notion of grit is not so different from conscientiousness, which includes goal-setting, self-discipline, orderliness, and care (Credé, Tynan, & Harms, 2017).
Perseverance as a Character Strength
Angela Duckworth argues that perseverance plus passion equals grit.
Passion here is understood as a strong consistency of interest that provides the underlying motivation for reaching long-term goals.
In her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016), Duckworth has shown that grit is an essential quality for success in life. Although our natural talent matters, perseverance is much more critical than pure ability as a predictor of our achievement. However, most of us falsely believe that inborn talent is the core driver of success.
“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another,” Duckworth writes (2016, p. 17). While aptitude, skills, and a basic degree of talent are important as determiners of success, they are not as significant as hard work and trying, again and again, to improve what we do.
Duckworth has conducted numerous studies that show that people with grit are much more likely to succeed than individuals who lack it (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). These results are most evident in academic contexts, where grittier students achieve better grades, higher educational attainment levels, and greater success in competition (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009).
We can consider the combination of passion and perseverance that Duckworth describes as grit as a dispositional tendency. We might even wish to consider it a character strength. But crucially, Duckworth believes that grit can be learned. In other words, we can all practice becoming grittier and work on our ability to persevere.
5 Real-Life Examples of Perseverance
1. J. K. Rowling
J. K. Rowling, author of the hugely successful Harry Potter series, wrote her first manuscript under great hardship. A single mother, she lived in dire poverty and depended on welfare. She used every spare minute she had for writing.
When completed, her novel was rejected by numerous agents. But she did not give up. Eventually, she found one who took her on. Soon after, her agent found a publisher, and her books became global bestsellers that have been adapted into various blockbuster movies. She is now one of the richest women in the world.
2. Thomas Edison
Another true paragon of perseverance is Thomas Edison. The inventor of the electric lightbulb, he revolutionized modern life. Edison tried relentlessly to realize his vision of the lightbulb. He failed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before he had his breakthrough moment.
He was reported to have said while still experimenting:
I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways to make a lightbulb that won’t work.
Crucially, then, he considered the negative results just as valuable as any positive results. Understanding what does not work, and why, was simply part of the process of eventually finding out what does. He also believed that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
3. Walt Disney
Walt Disney’s success, too, did not come easily. As a young man, he was fired from the local newspaper, where he worked as a cartoonist. His boss believed he lacked creativity.
An early animation company of his failed, leaving him in dire financial difficulties. At one moment in his life, when he was unable to pay his bills, he was even reported to have eaten dog food to survive.
Despondent and with nothing to lose, Walt Disney traveled to Hollywood. There, too, things were not easy. He faced a barrage of rejection, was told he would never make it, and that Mickey Mouse – his passion project – was destined to fail. Well, it did not.
4. Henry Ford
Another great icon, Henry Ford, is known as the inventor of the assembly line, and it is he who revolutionized industrial production. Henry Ford had gone bankrupt numerous times before he turned the Ford Motor Company into a success.
5. Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson, who has dyslexia, struggled in school. He failed many of his exams and was considered a problem student. However, rather than dwelling on his academic challenges, he focused on his strengths.
Through grit and creativity, combined with a hefty dose of passion and excellent entrepreneurial skills, Branson is now one of the most successful businessmen in the United Kingdom.
In addition to these well-known examples, there are numerous other stories of people who have conquered great adversity, held on to their dreams, battled against the odds, and eventually achieved great successes.
The Link Between Perseverance and Resilience
The relationship between grit and resilience is decisive.
Resilience denotes our ability to recover from difficulties, to pick ourselves up after we have encountered adversity.
The more resilient we are, the faster we can manage to return to a formerly resourceful state. It means that we do not let ourselves dwell in self-pity for too long, or else attack ourselves with self-blaming or self-sabotaging thoughts. The Japanese saying “Fall seven, rise eight” beautifully captures the role of resilience in grit.
Perseverance and resilience are also closely related to our ability to learn from our failures. Perseverant and resilient people deal more productively with failure.
Rather than being embarrassed or put off by it, they see it as a learning opportunity. While they will be disappointed by setbacks, they will always try to find out what went wrong. Genuinely curious about feedback, they incorporate it and adapt their behavior accordingly to avoid failing again in the future.
These people tend to have what the psychologist Carol S. Dweck calls a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” Dweck argues that a growth mindset is defined by a “passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well” (2017, p. 7).
People with a growth mindset strongly believe in learning and continually developing their abilities. People with a fixed mindset, by contrast, believe in a predetermined set of capabilities. They think we are born with specific qualities and that these are more or less written in stone.
Naturally, people with a fixed mindset also tend to be much less optimistic about the effects of their efforts on their performance.
Ways to Improve Perseverance
Angela Duckworth argues that growing grit from the inside requires four essential ingredients:
We must, first of all, follow our passion. That entails discovering what our core passions are. This process involves curiosity, trying new things, experimenting, and actively seeking to develop and stay with our interests.
Then, we have to practice. But we must practice deliberately, by honing in on our weaknesses and Achilles heels, setting challenging stretch goals, and incorporating feedback.
Purpose refers to our desire to contribute to making the world a better place and to helping others. It can be a core driving force for passion.
Hope, the fourth and final ingredient, is related to the belief that our efforts matter and that they can improve our future (Duckworth, 2016).
We can also try to foster perseverance from the outside. As parents, for example, we may wish to signal that we have high expectations and give all the support we can so that our children can reach them. This includes instilling in them a fundamental belief that they can live up to our expectations.
We should also encourage our children to do difficult things that interest them and stay (at least for a while) with the extracurricular activities they have chosen. In organizations, we can try to establish a gritty work culture that is based on similar principles: high expectations, coupled with increased support (Duckworth, 2016).
4 Helpful Activities
The Best Possible Resilient Self is an intervention that invites us to reflect on our best possible future selves.
In as much and as vivid detail as possible, we are asked to imagine that we have achieved everything we wanted after having worked hard for it.
Crucially, this strength-based intervention entails imagining that we have successfully overcome obstacles and bounced back from adversity. It instills a sense of optimism and competency, which helps us push through specific challenges.
We know that the pursuit of internally rewarding goals results in increased performance and persistence over time (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004),
If we wish to pursue big, significant life goals, it is therefore highly beneficial to connect with our values and, in particular, our intrinsic values. If we are in touch with our values, they can be highly motivating forces and help us to persist with a challenging life goal.
The Using Intrinsic Values to Promote Goal Commitment exercise invites us to create a values vision board for a life goal that we are currently hoping to achieve.
This goal can be learning a language, gaining a degree, exercising regularly, buying a house, gaining a promotion, or quitting smoking. The exercise asks us to explore potential obstacles, list good reasons for wishing to pursue our aims, and then extract our values from these reasons.
Values and resilience combined
Using Values to Build Resilience is based on a similar premise. The exercise seeks to encourage us to manage a challenging life event by connecting with what is most important to us – that is, by connecting with our core values.
Here, too, we are asked to develop specific value-based reasons why we may wish to get through a particular challenge and remind ourselves of what matters most to us.
Valued Living During Challenging Times, finally, asks us to investigate whether we may have lost touch with personal values in the context of current challenging life events. It encourages us to realign ourselves with these values by taking valued action.
Living in tune with our values – specifically during times of personal stress – is a way of cultivating resilience that makes us better able to cope with stress.
4 Books on the Topic
1. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – Angela Duckworth (2016)
The best book on the topic is no doubt Angela Duckworth’s New York Times bestseller Grit. Based on findings from years of passion and resilience research, it is an easy and yet gripping read.
The book combines scientific explanations with practical tips about why these findings should matter to us and how we can apply them in our own lives.
It has firmly established the concept of “grit” into the popular imagination.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential – Carol S. Dweck (revised edition 2017)
Carol Dweck’s Mindset is another classic.
Dweck explains in easy-to-follow prose the core difference between growth mindsets and fixed mindsets. The consequences of these mindsets are staggering.
She, too, bases her arguments on solid research while showing us how we can work on changing our mindset.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance – Matthew Syed (2015)
Matthew Syed’s book goes well with Dweck’s. By drawing on numerous anecdotes and case studies, he demonstrates the crucial importance of learning from failure.
It is a prerequisite for all progress and learning processes. It is a widely accepted principle in the aviation industry, while other sectors (such as medicine) still need to develop effective principles for incorporating lessons from failure.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits One Small Step at a Time – Sarah Harvey (2019)
This is a lovely book that explains the Japanese way of gradual and incremental improvement.
It explores the cultural origins of the philosophy and then demonstrates how we could integrate kaizen into our own lives.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com Helpful Resources
Explore the Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass©. This inspiring coaching Masterclass helps you find meaning and provides you with the tools to live a genuinely value-based life. Connecting with our values is a core prerequisite for developing our ability to persevere and follow long-term goals.
Finally, have a look at Kori D. Miller’s Applying Self-Efficacy Theory text – another very relevant read.
A Take-Home Message
The ancient virtue of fortitude explicitly combines perseverance with courage.
Interestingly, courage is underemphasized in modern definitions of perseverance, yet it is crucial to overcome adversity and persist when faced with obstacles.
My favorite way of integrating perseverance into my own life is via the Japanese concept of kaizen. Kaizen translates as “good improvement” and refers to the idea of gradual and incremental long-term improvement (Harvey, 2019).
A slow and steady approach to sustainable habit change, kaizen is a philosophy of continual improvement. It focuses on small details. In fact, no aspect of our performance is considered too small to be worthy of improvement.
The emphasis is on persistent reform rather than flamboyant revolution. In other words, kaizen encourages us simply to persevere with the task of improving ourselves, no matter how tiny the improvements may be.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn even more, check out our Maximizing Strengths Masterclass©. This Masterclass is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients identify their unique potential, feel more energized and authentic, and perform at an optimal level.