One virtue stands above all the rest, because every other virtue fails to produce the fruit that is promised without it
Mastery of any kind is impossible without perseverance. Whether the goal is to refine a skill, to excel at our relationships, or to master ourselves, perseverance is fundamental to our success.
Perseverance is antithetical to motivation. It is what carries us to our goals when our motivation has waned, when our desire for change is overshadowed by our yearning for the comfort and safety of mediocrity. Perseverance makes us resourceful and adaptable--it views challenges as opportunities to maximize our potential.
Perseverance is the result of embracing the process and of forging habits that lead to progress, rather than depending on motivation and the constant evidence of progress, or milestones, to keep us interested in the work.
The Fixed and Growth Mindsets
Fixed and growth mindsets are the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a social psychology researcher based at Stanford University. In her groundbreaking book, Mindset, Dr. Dweck outlines the characteristics of the fixed mindset individual: they believe their characteristics and talents are innate and they believe that effort cannot change their abilities much. A growth mindset individual believes the opposite: that characteristics and talents can be developed and nurtured, and that through effort, they can improve their abilities.
Fixed and growth mindsets have another set of opposing characteristics: one is focused on the goal, on the end result, and the other is focused on the process.
When we become fixated on achieving goals, we lose sight of the value of daily practices, of the character-building habits that transform us from being average to being extraordinary. Instead of setting goals, we are better served by building habits of character that will lead us to be successful in anything we choose.
It is wise to have a clear direction in our relationships and livelihoods. A clear direction and thoughtful action dictated by our values are necessary to a life well lived. Yet let us recognize that reaching our goals does not guarantee happiness. What gives us the ability to experience content and satisfaction is knowing that we pursued change despite the obstacles before us. Persevering through hardship is transformative in and of itself, whether the goal is achieved or not, and transformation is the gift of perseverance.
We have developed a dependence on motivation, much like dependence on caffeine or alcohol. We are constantly in need of “firing up.” We need to feel as though we can “kick ass” every single day. We need to feel motivated to do the things we say we want to do, and we need regular doses of motivation (Motivation Mondays, comparing ourselves to others, motivational quotes, posters, journals, etc) to keep our desire for change high.
When we require motivation to do what we say we want to do, then we are experiencing the dependence on feeling “high” to do what needs to be done. Losing and gaining weight back, beginning a training program only to jump to a different one, starting a project and then becoming distracted by another one--these are all the hallmarks of a dependence on motivation to make progress.
The feeling of excitement and promise and the resulting flurry of work that results from feeling motivated is a fraud. Like over-celebrating our accomplishments or expecting to feel joyful and happy all the time, these states are on a pendulum--it inevitably falls back to center. The more dependent we are on the “high” of feeling motivated, the harder we swing to apathy and self-sabotage. Maintaining moderation, or an equanimous state, corrects this.
It is difficult to persevere without having equanimity. Equanimity helps us ride the waves of success and setback and perseverance gets us to pick up the oars and move forward again.
The word motivate comes from the Latin movere, to move. When we must be moved in order to perform the tasks that are required to make changes we want to see, we are at the mercy of external factors to reaching our goals. The word progress comes from the Latin pro-, forward, and gradi, to step or walk. When we focus on progress, on small improvements day to day, we takes the steps forward that are necessary to reaching our goals.
Our Milestone Obsession
We are infatuated with moments that signify a new beginning, a new chapter in our lives. Graduating, getting an apartment, engagements, weddings, buying a home, having children, and the promotions and anniversaries that represent to the outside world that our hard work has paid off. We have grown reliant on milestones to tell us that our lives are changing for the better, yet milestones are nothing more than symbols of hard work--they are not the work itself, but a token of it.
When our relationship to (or dependence on) milestones interferes with our focus on process, on the act of striving towards mastery and transformation despite hardship, we are at risk of losing our perseverance.
Milestones keep us focused on goals, on ending hard work in order to achieve something very specific. Winning gold at the Olympics is not the point of the life of an athlete. If it were, life would be over the day the goal was met. A wedding is not the point of a marriage. A good marriage takes work over many years after the wedding day. The benefit to the person who strives for gold at the Olympics is the same benefit to the married couple who works at their relationship: maximizing their potential, whether as an athlete or as a couple, improves the richness of the life they live.
A growth mindset favors improvement. A fixed mindset desires the milestone.
Most of our lives are lived before and after milestones, before and after reaching goals. Goals and milestones have little to do with our potential--they are self-imposed end results, a cap on our potential.
What if, instead, we focused on who we are becoming, what we want the story of our entire life to tell others?
Building perseverance transforms us. As with all change, this process can be painful as much as it is enlightening. Despite the discomfort, persevere.
Self-knowledge is the first step on the path to maximizing our potential.
*Take the Grit Test. Determine if becoming more gritty is something that would benefit your life.
*Know your direction and take actions every day that serve it.
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing to, no wind is favorable.”
Jumping from project to project is the hallmark of someone who does not have a clear direction--when every idea seems like a good idea, we pursue one thing after the other without finishing anything. Energy and the ability to direct it are good qualities; even better is the perseverance to finish what we say we will finish.
Picture your life 3-5 years from now. What changes would you make? What would you like to have accomplished in that time? How have you changed as a person from now until then?
A journal can be a valuable tool when used correctly. Effective journaling can tell us more about who we are now and who we want to become. Write down every day what you pictured 3-5 years from now. Once we know our direction, we then write each day what we’ll do to take us one step closer to being that person.
Did you find this helpful?
Subscribe for more Actionable Philosophy and to receive updates when new content is posted.
Share this page to spread the word.