Success Requires Persistence: A Mini-Guide to Persistence

How to Persist

Donna K. Fitch
Feb 14 · 7 min read
South Carolina’s famous Angel Oak —
© Gerry

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” — President Calvin Coolidge

I will confess to being a slow writer, but this article has taken me about three weeks to research and write. The idea came to me because everything I read about business or writing tells me to be persistent. It’s like telling me to “be purple.” I have no idea how to develop a trait I don’t possess.

So this article is me being persistent and looking into the subject to figure out how to develop persistence.

Defining Persistence

J. Ungvarsky, in the Salem Press Encyclopedia, says persistence is a behavior trait possessed by one who “is self-motivated to continue to pursue a goal or complete an accomplishment despite challenges or obstacles,” specifying that the challenges are what qualify the behavior as persistence rather than the completion of the task.

Persistence doesn’t just apply to writing or business endeavors (which are the areas in which I want to learn to persist). Educators research the topic extensively in terms of students’ persistence in a particular major, or in higher education, as you’ll see below.

The article on persistence in the Salem Press Encyclopedia explains why the trait is so important: persistence is correlated with success. Being persistent, the author continues, “can be more important than how hard a person works and how well a person plans,” more important than education and background. Although I believe these are vital aspects of achieving success.

Many articles conflate persistence with resilience. A 2011 cover story in Scientific American, “The Neuroscience of True Grit,” makes an analogy about metal bending back into shape after being stressed and calls it “resilience.” But as the author points out, “scientists have found that our biology is more complicated than the analogy from metallurgy.” I think, however, that resilience, grit, and persistence are not the same. Resilience is more of a response to periodic stressors in our lives, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.

Grit, on the other hand, is more than just persistence. A trendy word in business circles these days, the term was popularized by Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor, in her 2016 bestseller, “Grit.” The word encompasses “courage, perseverance, resilience, creativity, a knack for problem-solving and an openness to learning,” according to an article in Fortune, “Grit is the New MBA.”

The Scientific Perspective

Researchers are always interested in measuring particular characteristics that make us human, and persistence is no different. The following are a few studies and what they reveal about the subject.

Howard and Crayne, in an article appearing in the journal Personality and Individual Differences last year discussing how to measure persistence using three dimensions: Persistence Despite Difficulty, Persistence Despite Fear, and Inappropriate Persistence. They define persistence as “the personal tendency to struggle through hardship to accomplish goals.” The authors point out that current research mainly focuses on “the tendency to persist despite difficulties, ignoring the tendency to persist through fear or to inappropriately persist.”

Another study in 2019, this time in the journal Cognition, found that parental praise of their infants’ persistence has an effect on them, even as early as 18 months old.

A group of researchers, S. D. Herrmann, et al., in 2016 studied the persistence of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, which influenced them to drop out of the programs or remain. Dropout rates of students majoring in STEM fields are higher than the rates of other majors. Women are more likely than men to drop out, and the main reason cited is “an unwelcoming environment” related to their lower representation. The researchers discovered that receiving a letter from a woman role model, such as a female graduate student, discussing her challenges improved the female students’ persistence. (My description doesn’t do the study justice. See the reference below if you want to read the whole thing.)

Advice on Becoming Persistent

Congratulations on reading this far. You’re being persistent.

“…After 12 years of pursuing this account, we were finally successful. It is currently one of our largest accounts. If you are certain that a prospect is the ideal account, then it should be on your target list forever until they either become an account or cease to be the ideal account from some new revelation. That is the persistence mindset.” — Steven L. Marks, Founder & CEO, Main Street Gourmet

Now that you understand what persistence means and the scientific background surrounding the topic, let’s get down to the question that started me on this path. How do you become persistent?

The Salem Press Encyclopedia referenced earlier offers the general advice that “healthy ways to develop persistence include setting realistic goals, and using time management and organization techniques.” The article does not explain any of the unhealthy ways, which I assume would include pacts with otherworldly entities, or perhaps with virus-contagious individuals.

In a 2017 article in Canadian Manager, success coach Dave Martin explains the two requirements to distinguish yourself in the workforce, to stand out among your peers: “integrity plus hard-working tenacity.” Persistence involves “continuing in a course of action even against opposition” (although see the concept of inappropriate persistence in the previous section). Martin counsels pushing through with what you’ve committed to accomplishing, completing it, and not looking for “the easy way out.”

“Don’t stop when you’re tired; stop when you’re done.” — Marilyn Monroe

Here’s a list of people who have compiled lists of either quality of persistent people or how to become persistent. Their names are linked to their complete articles.

Harvey Deutschendorf

  1. An all-consuming vision
  2. A burning desire
  3. Inner confidence
  4. Highly developed habits
  5. Ability to adjust and adapt
  6. Commitment to lifelong learning
  7. Role models that act as guides and mentors

Donald Latumahina

  1. Learn the life of successful people
  2. Expect a hard way, not an easy one
  3. Don’t underestimate the amount of time required
  4. Have a big why
  5. Know how to handle failure
  6. Find partners
  7. Minimize your stress

Sean Kim

  1. Have a vision bigger than yourself
  2. Build a support team
  3. Have a growth mindset
  4. Schedule it
  5. Teach others
  6. Have stakes

Carthage Buckley

  1. Positive thinking
  2. Know what you want
  3. Know your why
  4. Set a plan
  5. Take small actions
  6. Measure your progress
  7. Take breaks

Thomas Oppong

“To stay persistent, break that big goal down into smaller pieces!”

  1. Divide by time
  2. Use the same approach to complete any new habit
  3. Three times per week is better than nothing
  4. Learn what motivates you and ride on that
  5. Keep score
  6. Reward yourself for persisting

Michael Hyatt

  1. Set goals
  2. Keep the end in mind
  3. Improve your pace and renew your enthusiasm
  4. Run AND walk
  5. Kill the distractions
  6. Change your self image

Persistent People

Thomas Edison is always listed as a persistent person because he failed about four billion times before succeeding, but I’m tired of him getting all the press. Here are some other people who are inspiring because of their persistence. Google them or read more about them and their journeys in “Grit is the New MBA.”

Erica Joy Baker, senior engineering manager at Patreon

Ursula Burns, chairwoman, Veon; former CEO, Xerox

Sean Combs, CEO, Sean John

Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft

Howard Schultz, executive chairman, Starbucks

Marcus Stevenson, program coordinator, Salesforce

Geisha Williams, CEO, PG&E

Oprah Winfrey, CEO, Harpo Entertainment

Nelly Zorrilla, assurance senior, EY

The Bottom Line

Now you understand the definition of persistence and how it differs from resilience and grit, learned what researchers say about the subject, received advice on developing persistence, and name-checked some highly persistent people in business. You even have reading material listed below.

What stands out to me is that persistence IS something that can be learned. It’s not an innate characteristic we’re born with. And although research indicates the trait can be encouraged in infants as young as 18 months old, you don’t have to have encouraging parents to be persistent.

Nearly all of the advice listed above includes goal setting. Persistence is difficult to achieve if you don’t know where you’re going.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?” — Steve Maraboli, with a nod to Yogi Berra and Lewis Carroll

Setting a plan and taking small steps toward that goal are essential, as well as ignoring or getting rid of distractions. Enthusiasm is important, or maybe you call it an obsession.

Personally, I feel emboldened and refreshed by this journey through persistence. I persisted through the weeks I’ve worked on this article! Whew!

Stay strong, keep your eyes on the prize, reach for the stars, but just do it without clichés and slogans. Do it your way. Persist. You’ve got it in you.

Sources & Additional Reading

Buckley, C. How you can develop the persistence which breeds success.

Critcher, C. R., & Ferguson, M. J. (2016). “Whether I like it or not, it’s important”: Implicit importance of means predicts self-regulatory persistence and success. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 110(6), 818–839.

Deutschendorf, H. 7 habits of highly persistent people.

Herrmann, S. D., Adelman, R. M., Bodford, J. E., Graudejus, O., Okun, M. A., & Kwan, V. S. Y. (2016). The effects of a female role model on academic performance and persistence of women in STEM courses. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 38(5), 258–268.

Howard, M. C., & Crayne, M. P. (2019). Persistence: Defining the multidimensional construct and creating a measure. Personality and Individual Differences, 139, 77–89.

Hyatt, M. How to develop the one trait essential for success.

Kim, Sean. 6 powerful ways to become more persistent (and never quit again).

Latumahina, D. 7 sure-fire ways to develop persistence.

Lickerman, A. (2019). How resilience can be learned. BenefitsPRO, 17(3), 28–29.

Lucca, K., Horton, R., & Sommerville, J. A. (2019). Keep trying!: Parental language predicts infants’ persistence. Cognition, 193.

Marks, S. L. (2016). Persistence… Smart Business Cleveland, 28(1), 18.

Martin, D. (2017). How to stand out in your professional life: The boundless value of persistence and perseverance. Canadian Manager, 42(2), 20–21.

Mcgirt, E. (2018). Grit is the new MBA. Fortune, 177(2), 54–62.

Meeks, F., & Sullivan, R. L. (1992). If at first you don’t succeed…. (cover story). Forbes, 150(11), 172–180.

Oppong, T. Persist. It matters.

Schimschal, S. E., & Lomas, T. (2019). Gritty leaders: The impact of grit on positive leadership capacity. Psychological Reports, 122(4), 1449–1470.

Stix, G. (2011). The neuroscience of true grit. (cover story). Scientific American, 304(3), 28–33.

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Donna K. Fitch

Written by

MLS, MSE (instructional design), MCert (web), BA (Art). 20+ years in web design. Writer for The Startup, Age of Awareness, Thirty over Fifty.

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