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Perseverance is the key to success

The experience of numerous people who pursue personal and professional goals clearly shows that goal attainment, to a large degree, depends on individual perseverance. Research clearly indicates that people who have achieved the greatest success in science, sports, business, art, music, engineering and technology were not only extremely talented, but also persistent in their actions. This means that talent alone does not guarantee success, says Doctor Włodzimierz Świątek, lecturer in management and leadership, at SWPS University.

Perseverance - what is it?

One of the definitions says that perseverance means consequence, stubbornness and decisiveness in behavior and pursuit of goals. Perseverance is also defined as strong-mindedness, persistence, tenacity, patience and endurance. In motivation psychology, perseverance is defined as a volitional characteristic and is often included with other attributes, such as courage, stubbornness, tenacity, discipline, valiance, ambition, engagement and the desire to succeed. Persistence is an acquired characteristic, which means that you can develop, strengthen and perfect it through an appropriately planned and well thought-through training. Perseverance is an element of your emotional capital, which is an ability to manage your emotions and to perceive and assess emotions and their impact on your thinking and behavior.

More persistent wins over better

Professor Angela Lee Duckworth from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in paradoxical psychology of perseverance, claims that perseverance is crucial in achieving success. Persistent people are characterized by the ability to invest a lot of effort and engagement in pursuit of a goal, for many years, against all odds, despite failures or inevitable lull times. Exceptional talent in a given area does not necessarily mean perseverance. Talent and perseverance are independent of each other.

On average, talented people (as a group) are less persistent than other people. Achievements of the best athletes, artists, scientists or innovators have been possible only thanks to the merger of two key factors: talent and perseverance. General observations indicate that in everyday life, there are not that many people who are both talented in some area and are persistent. Research shows that perseverance indeed correlates with conscientiousness. As noted by Polish psychologist, Jarosław Kulbat, perseverance (measured by surveys) manifests in tenacity in long-term goal attainment: “It is passion and tenacity in the face of adversity, resistance to tiredness, exhaustion, difficulties, obstacles, discouragement and disappointment. Perseverance understood this way, means sticking to a plan related to the future. Not for a day, not even for a few months. Perseverance means moving towards the goal every day, for a long time, sometimes even for many years. In this sense for persistent people, realizing their significant life goals resembles running a marathon rather than a series of short distance runs.”

How do you develop and strengthen perseverance?

A young female leader (35 years old), who manages an interdisciplinary team at an IT company, asked me a question: How long is the road that my team must take to achieve an important goal? How much effort do we still need to put in to achieve it? Is there a way to significantly shorten the time required to achieve the goal? She also told me that she sometimes was tempted to put her efforts in a project that is different from the business goal set by her company. She also added that people in her team (e.g. programmers, analysts, graphic designers, and software testers) often lost patience and were not able to stay focused during projects that took a few months. Therefore, frequent conflicts occurred among team members, because people were not persistent enough, they were impatient, capricious and fickle. They preferred multitasking, i.e. completing several different business tasks at the same time. However, sometimes it resulted in too many errors and undesirable outcomes that were hard to fix later. Often multitasking does not mean effectiveness.

To deal with this situation, the leader booked a mindfulness and task-oriented focus training for her team. During the training, a few humorous situations occurred, because the majority of participants (hailing from the Millennials generation) were not able to properly complete the training tasks and exercises. One of the participants described his experience as follows: “Mindfulness and concentration training was run very professionally, however due to my inborn impatience, I was not able to complete any tasks and I don’t know how to overcome this difficulty? I’ve noticed that as a representative of the Generation Y, I have a problem with patience, perseverance and concentration on the task at hand.” The leader was not happy with the results of the training session and she began to look for other ways that would help her and her subordinates to develop and strengthen perseverance.

Perseverance increases with age

Research results published by Professor Angela Lee Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion of Perseverance indicate that perseverance increases steadily during a human lifespan. The older you are, the more persistent you are. A chart presented by the researcher clearly shows that the highest level of perseverance occurs in people at the age of 50+ (at this point the curve line sharply rises). Professor Duckworth comments and interprets this result as follows: “The older generation that remembers the Great Depression may be more determined than Generation Y, because these people were exposed to different cultural forces than those we are dealing with nowadays. Moreover, tenacity and perseverance visibly increase as one’s life philosophy develops, as people acquire the ability to pick themselves up after failures and disappointments and as they develop the skill to differentiate between insignificant goals (those that they can easily abandon) and important goals (those that require a lot perseverance).”

Problems with perseverance - what to do about them?

How is it that perseverance may increase or stay at the same level for many years? I know many people who often complain about their insufficient persistence. Here are some examples of what my clients say during their coaching sessions: “I am not able to be persistent in any matter and this irks me, because I start a lot of different projects and I cannot finish anything” (man 32 years old). “I am not able to devote myself to anything for a sufficiently long time to really master it” (woman 28 years old). “I’m wasting my talent. I am desperate, I don’t have a long-time goal, which I would want to pursue with passion and tenacity. I feel that I am wasting my life” (man 34 years old). “I want to be more persistent in my actions, but I have no idea where to start” (woman 28 years old). “I think that I am too lazy and I will probably never learn how to be persistent” (man 27 years old). “How am I supposed to be persistent, if I am dead tired every day by 6:00 pm and my partner must resuscitate me” (woman 36 years old). “Since birth I’ve been a quitter. It is a chronic characteristic in my family. My older sister is the same” (man 35 years old). “I’ve stared a great new job, but every day I feel bored, because nothing interesting is happening here, no action, no challenges. I’ve already started looking for another job” (woman 31 years old).

The series of these examples may both scare you and make you wonder: Is there no help for people who are not able to persevere in anything? How can you explain the root of such serious problems with persistence? Psychologists claim that a hypothesis suggesting that the increase in the level of perseverance reflects developmental changes cannot be excluded. According to this approach, as Jarosław Kulbat from SWPS University noted, “younger people prefer taking on challenges or searching for various experiences, which is not conducive to perseverance, especially if you encounter temptations. Older people begin to appreciate specialization in one area over the pursuit of new challenges. In this case, the differences in the persistence level would be a reflection of natural and legitimate developmental changes, when young exploration of the environment, learning about one’s limitations or discovering passions begin to give way to the longing for stabilization or sustainable development. At this point in life, long-term goals, which are crucial from the perspective your whole life, not just important for a month or a year, become more important.”

Talented and tenacious win

As I have already mentioned, a combination of talent and perseverance may provide the key to individual success. Research clearly indicates that people who have achieved the greatest success in science, sports, business, art, music, engineering and technology were not only extremely talented, but also persistent in their actions. This means that talent alone does not guarantee success. Furthermore as Geoff Colvin, a bestselling author and thinker claims, talent is often overrated. If this is so, what distinguishes the champions from the rest of the population? Two factors are crucial: deliberate practice and perseverance, understood as determination and tenacity in pursuit of a goal.

In the light of the latest research we can no longer defend a common thesis that “practice makes perfect”. It means that hard work for many years, often at a price of a huge effort, does not necessarily leads to success. On the contrary, it may become a source of frustration, disappointment and aversion to the given discipline. There are known cases of exceptionally talented people, who have never achieved a significant success. It is due to at least two reasons. Firstly, they did not have the right people around them, such as teachers, coaches and mentors, who would have helped them to plan their training and select adequate methods and techniques of practice. Secondly, they lacked sufficient perseverance, gave up too soon and they were not able to diligently and systematically practice, following the plan. According to Colvin, deliberate practice is very draining intellectually and emotionally. First of all, it requires adequate focus and concentration and most of all perseverance. This is what makes it “deliberate” and differentiates it from mindless octave playing or hitting a tennis ball.

The best example of the effectiveness of deliberate practice is the story of prominent chess players, the three Polgár sisters. When Susan was 19, Sofia 14 and Judit 12, they competed as a team in chess championships for women and as the first Hungarian team, they beat the Soviet Union team and become Hungarian national heroes. At 21, Susan became the first Grandmaster in the history of chess championships. Soon after Judit, barly 15 years old, won the same title. The story of the Polgár sisters illustrates very well the effectiveness of the deliberate practice method. The personal teacher, mentor and coach of the sisters was their father, László Polgár, psychologist specializing in education, who in the 1960s had already claimed that “geniuses are made, not born”. His research has unequivocally shown that the key to achieving exceptional success is a combination of the following factors: talent, supported by deliberate practice, and hard work, combined with perseverance and determination in pursuit of the goal.

Another excellent example confirming the thesis that the key to the exceptional successes is a combination of talent, deliberate practice, hard work and perseverance, is Maria Skłodowska-Curie, a Polish physicist and chemist, who won the Nobel Prize twice and took the first place in the ranking of “100 Women Who Changed the World” organized by the BBC History Magazine in 2018. Patricia Fara, President of the British Society for the History of Science, explained the verdict as follows: “She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person – note the use of person there, not woman – to win a second Nobel Prize” (in physics and chemistry, red.).” Maria Skłodowska-Curie had to face many challenges in her lifetime. “The odds were always stacked against her. In Poland her patriotic family suffered under a Russian regime (the so-called Russian Partition or Russian Poland, red.). In France she was regarded with suspicion as a foreigner – and of course, wherever she went, she was discriminated against as a woman.” It is worth mentioning that several members of Maria’s closest family were exceptionally successful in science, which was recognized by the Noble Prize Committee. Maria was awarded the first Noble Prize jointly with her husband, Pierre Curie (1903). She received the second Nobel Prize in chemistry individually, for the discovery of polonium and radium (1911). Subsequently, her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, jointly with her husband, for the discovery of artificial radioactivity (1935). It is a clear proof that a positive role model that combines talent, hard work and perseverance may be “hereditary” and be passed on from one generation to the next. Hence, having these excellent examples and results of afore-mentioned research, it might worth pondering how to effectively support young and talented researchers, innovators, athletes and artists.


włodzimierz Świątek

About the Author

Włodzimierz Świątek, Ph.D. – trainer, coach, consultant, business psychologist, expert and lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University. He specializes in the development and mastering of managerial and leadership skills, building and development of teams, change management and development of creativity and innovation of individuals and teams. He runs workshops and provides coaching sessions in facilitation for leaders and their innovative teams. He is Secretary of the Scientific Council of the International Center for Research on Leadership, at SWPS University. He is research supervisor and the initiator of an interdisciplinary education and research project “Young Noble Prize Winners Are Changing the World”.

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