Life provides us with many opportunities to fail and fall down. What makes one person persistent while another gives up? Can persistence be strengthened like any other muscle? Science says yes. Persistence, often referred to as “perseverance” is what makes science out of hunches and finished artwork out of imperfect attempts. People who persist are much more likely to achieve their goals, which increases self-esteem and personal pride, making it easier to overcome more difficult future obstacles and set new goals.
Hugo Alberts, a lead psychologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, conducted several experiments to determine if persistence could be taught. He discovered a method known as “implementation intention” – in which, people make an “if-then” plan. This revealed that simply making a plan for how one intends to strive for the goal makes a person more likely to achieve it.
In many cases, this is as simple as writing your goals down and putting them somewhere that you’ll see them every day. The research also suggests that if you take your big goal – to write a book, to lose weight, or to get a college degree – and break it down into smaller bites or steps, such as: “write once a day, run one mile every other day, and look for local colleges” your chances of achieving the goal increase.
However, implementation intentions alone may not help the average person persist. Famed doctor Patch Adams, played by Robin Williams in the movie of the same name, writes: “Passion and persistence are not attributes of special people, blessed to possess them, but rather extremely important tools for change.”
It may very well be the passion side of that equation that, when linked to a willingness to keep trying after failure, leads to success. Humans are known to seek pleasure and connection. If your goal doesn’t promise to fulfill you, your chances of achieving it are slimmer.
This is especially true of that category of humans known as “perfectionists,” whom New York University psychologists in a 2006 study defined as “people who are known to try to conform to standards and expectations of others.” Perfectionists struggle with persistence more than others, since it requires shaking off failures and worrying less about the opinions of others. Creativity, for one, is rarely an orderly process. Even something more mundane, like a fitness goal, has to take into account the limits of the human body – pounds don’t disappear overnight, and books aren’t written in one sitting.
I know a thing or two about persistence, and I add an element from my own personal experience: always build a support network of champions and hand-holders both. Choose people who will remind you that your goals are worthwhile, and talk you down off your emotional ledge when they don’t go your way. I attended a state college, where I majored in a liberal arts program with only one real goal: to be a writer. I never quite knew how that would play out, nor, at age 18, did I even know what was involved. I followed my passion – the love of writing – with small practical goals. Need to meet more writers but don’t have a flexible schedule? I joined an online writing group. Want to improve writing craft but can’t afford classes? I exchange writing with other writers. Each step of the way I took one step at a time, all the way up to querying and then getting a literary agent, a journey of years.
When my novel didn’t sell despite wonderful feedback from publishers, I entered a brief funk that lasted only as long as it took me to feel the negative effects of not writing on my life. The Internet allowed me to reach out beyond my small town, and find a likeminded friend. Together we collaborated on an independent writer’s collective and published our novels with a network of others, creating our own success.
To put yourself on the road to persistence, pick goals that tickle your passions, break them down into their most manageable pieces, and be flexible in your pursuit of them. Success may be just one more attempt away.