We’ve Stopped Persevering. Here’s How to Fix it.
You know how it goes. It’s a topic of discussion during inspirational keynotes. CEOs describe it as the core trait they look for when hiring employees. Athletes credit their careers to it — adamant that success often comes to those who persevere rather than the talented.
I don’t need to convince you that the trait of perseverance is important, or that it is considered the single biggest predictor of success. You already know that.
I’m here to discuss why we know all this, and yet we give up on the things that matter to us anyways.
Perseverance, is a survival trait
My grandmother grew up in a village in southern China, near a region called Taishan. When she was 20 years old, she married my grandfather, a farmer from a nearby village. Together, they had five children — four daughters, and then miraculously, one son (to carry on the family name #perseverance). When my uncle was three years old, my grandfather passed away from complications due to kidney stones. My grandmother became a widow with five children and living in her in-laws’ house — a home she couldn’t call her own.
Her goals became painfully simple — raise her children, and somewhere along the way, save enough money to build (yes, build) a house they could live in and own. She painstakingly saved every Yuan she made over a decade — from buying piglets, raising them, and then turning them in for a small profit — and finally saved enough to buy the bricks needed (20,000, to be exact), to build a house in a neighbouring village.
My mother and all her siblings grew up and went on to find jobs in a nearby town. Today, I work in the AI space in the best city in the world.
Stories like my grandmothers are common — you will find similar experiences from immigrants and families who grew up with next to nothing. However, there is a common theme — perseverance was never really a choice, it was a matter of survival. In times when people had no choice and cannot afford to give up, perseverance becomes the only way.
Scientifically, this phenomenon stems from the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It regulates emotion and allows us to recognize rewards and help us progress toward them.
Psychology Today describes this reward system as “…a collection of brain structures that regulate your behavior by making you feel good when you achieve a goal. Everything necessary for the survival of our species — eating, mating, sleeping, and physical perseverance — is rewarded by a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel good. This is a very generous biological design and at the same time necessary for our survival. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, nature created an internal reward system that reinforced lifestyle habits necessary to survive.”
In today’s modern age, our achievements are not viewed biologically as a matter of life or death.
In other words, we may not persevere, simply because we no longer need to. Our survival is simply not dependent on it. If a student in a developed nation doesn’t study for an exam, they do not starve the next day. If you did not work hard enough to earn a promotion, it does not ruin your ability to make a living. The stakes are simply no longer that high.
So if the need for perseverance is diminishing, how can we develop that character trait, even if we don’t have to?
Perseverance, is a mindset
Growing up, my grandmother always told me that I wasn’t that smart — that I achieved good grades in school because I worked hard.
Now it may seem like that was a harsh thing to say to a child, rude even. But unknowingly, my grandmother taught me a very valuable lesson. She framed my success as a result of my input, and not my natural abilities. I did not have to be the smartest person in the room or the most talented, I could still succeed if I put in the work. This is what psychologists refer to as the growth mindset.
Having a growth mindset means that you view intelligence and talent as something that can be developed, rather than something that is fixed and stagnant. If we can adopt the same theory into our own lives, we can start to view our achievements differently.
If we rethink success as being correlated to hard work instead of innate talent, it becomes easier to follow through when things get uncomfortable or hard. Success may not be guaranteed, but failure is definitely not final.
Perseverance, is a practice
If we believe that perseverance is a mindset, then we also have to believe it is something we can get better at — something we can practice and cultivate.
When it comes down to it, it’s the practice of sticking through situations that are difficult or make you uncomfortable, to reach a goal that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Here are some practical ways to practice perseverance on a daily basis. Don’t take it from me, take it from science.
Simply exercise it:
One of the biggest links to developing perseverance, is exercise. Studies have shown that developing the habit of regular physical activity is the most effective way to hardwire the habit of perseverance.
When you decide to engage in a physical activity, you are actively making a choice to push through discomfort and pain, to achieve a goal and to feel good. This habit and practice of relating hard work to achievements will also bleed into other aspects of your life.
The “Pleasure Principle” is a Freudian term that says humans will instinctively choose to seek pleasure and avoid pain in order to satisfy our biological needs. By that logic, it is incredibly difficult for human beings to choose to feel pain and discomfort, something that’s often associated with the idea of perseverance. However, if we can flip the perspective of what perseverance means, we can attempt to trick ourselves into doing the things that make us uncomfortable.
Using the example of exercise, if we think of the discomfort associated with the activity as something we have to go through in order to feel the endorphins after, it becomes much easier to power through.
If we rethink struggle, discomfort, and pain as the doorway to pleasure, we can change our perspective about perseverance.
Do something small, every day:
Just like exercise or any hobby, your ability to do it diminishes once you stop practicing it on a regular basis.
With dopamine, it acts the same way. We are designed to be biologically rewarded with it whenever we accomplish something, but the levels of dopamine can actually diminish if we stop accomplishing things. When the levels of dopamine decrease, we can become more apathetic, which can quickly fall into a snowballing effect of demotivation. Simply put, if we stop accomplishing things, we stop wanting to accomplish things.
In order to produce more dopamine, we can get into the habit of creating tasks that we can accomplish on a regular basis. Taking a large project and breaking that into smaller deadlines will help you feel like you are making progress and accomplishing tasks every day. The deadlines can be self-imposing, but the practice of it is the same.
Perseverance, is a journey.
I have to confess — it took me weeks to complete this article. Not because the research took long, or that I was incredibly busy. It was because I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish it — I couldn’t persevere.
It is important to recognize — as with anything that requires practice — that there will be achievements and there will be setbacks. It’s not about being able to get through everything that makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s about trying every time, and getting better every day.
My grandmother always told me that I could afford to fail. If a test or a project didn’t go my way, she would calmly tell me that in the grand scheme of things, the practice of trying again will always the triumph over the quick win.
After all, perseverance was never about the end goal, it was always about the journey.