The dictionary definition of perseverance lets us know that it is continued effort; to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition; the action or condition or an instance of persevering; steadfastness.
Perseverance. It’s not something you are really taught, and sometimes you are not even sure if you have it — until you are called upon to dig deep and find it.
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For me, one of those times I needed to dig deep was during my medical training. Before starting medical school, I knew it would be tough, but little did I know just how tough. Between medical school, internship, and residency, I endured things that I would have previously said I could not.
Medical training required sacrificing time with family, being on duty for long days and late nights — and even nights with no sleep at all. It required learning and regurgitating massive amounts of information with a sleep-deprived brain, working while having pneumonia so as not to burden others with my responsibilities, being humiliated and yelled at by residents and attendants, and being threatened by patients “who knew people.”
Training in inner-city Philadelphia meant that murders, stabbings, robberies, and drug overdoses were the norm. There was even a bombing at the 7-Eleven down the street. Security was frequently called on to deal with belligerent patients, or walk us to our cars when our shifts were over.
Most days during my internship, I was too busy to even take a two-minute bathroom break, let alone stop for food or water. With the motto of “see one, do one, teach one,” I had to learn, on the spot, how to inject, poke and prod patients by day, while by night, I had to learn, with only one other equally scared intern, how to manage a floor full of ill patients. My program was known to be hardcore, and this was part of being “thrown into the fire,” as they called it.
While going through it all, there were times when I questioned if I could make it. But I didn’t let my mind think too much about it. I just did what I had to do.
Looking back, I’m not even sure how I did it. The important thing is, somehow I did it. I don’t attribute it to being intelligent or book-smart, to being savvy or having common sense, or to any special gift. I attribute it to perseverance.
What perseverance is not
Psychologist Angela Duckworth, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, likens perseverance to grit. Grit, she says, is “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.”
Let’s first consider what perseverance, or grit, is not. Duckworth says: “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something.”
It’s not impulsivity, or laziness, or complacency, and it’s not being afraid of failure or rejection. It’s not being stopped by uncertainty or what you don’t know, and it’s not being hampered by hardship.
What is perseverance
It’s said that perseverance is one of the greatest attributes a person can possess.
In fact, religions tout their virtue. The Bible says: “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4), while the Buddha declared: “Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it’s to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”
Perseverance, or grit, implies a certain ruggedness, a mental toughness, and an ability to suffer and endure the most difficult of hardships. It’s the ability to get up, brush yourself off, and find a path forward, despite what the naysayers may say, and even what our own minds may say.
“Perseverance is trusting in the face of uncertainty and seemingly insurmountable odds.”
Perseverance is trusting in the face of uncertainty and seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s a belief that sometimes defies logic and reason — a lesson Jedi Master Yoda teaches young Luke Skywalker in the iconic Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back.
To demonstrate the error in Luke’s thinking, Yoda telekinetically lifts Luke’s starship from a murky swamp. Luke, who believed his ship was hopelessly lost, exclaims: “I don’t believe it!”
“That is why you fail,” replies Yoda.
It’s good for your health
Not only does perseverance help you achieve your goals, it also improves your health. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, which followed thousands of Americans over an 18-year period, found that those who had higher levels of perseverance and optimism had less depression and anxiety than their counterparts.
Nur Hani Zainal, the lead author of the study, told Science Daily: “Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.
“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience, and optimism.”
Perseverance can also help you stick to healthy routines, such as eating a good diet or exercising. And while even those who are determined may fall off the track, they can pick themselves up and get back to business.
People who are determined are also more likely to push through pain or other challenging health problems and still achieve their goals.
Drawing inspiration from others
We learn the skill of perseverance through practicing it and through watching others demonstrate determined behavior.
In fact, the best way to instill persistence in our children may be to model it ourselves. A study in Science looking at 15-month-old infants discovered that “seeing just two examples of an adult working hard to achieve her goals can lead infants to work harder at a novel task relative to infants who see an adult succeed effortlessly.”
Not only can you draw inspiration to persevere from direct observation, but you can also draw it from the stories of others.
For example, Henry Ford experienced multiple failed business attempts, resulting in five bankruptcies, before finally finding success with the Ford Motor Company, while Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 times before finally inventing the light bulb.
Of course, in Edison’s view, he had not failed 10,000 times, but rather proven 10,000 ways his invention wouldn’t work, before finally discovering the one that would. He viewed his numerous attempts as stepping stones, famously saying: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
President Abraham Lincoln showed undaunted perseverance during his lifetime, losing elections eight times before becoming president of the United States. The Biblical figure Job went from prosperity to suffering unimaginable hardships, which he endured thanks only to his unwavering faith and perseverance. And I recently wrote an article on family friend Larry Cluff, who has shown tremendous determination in the face of living with brain cancer.
Our first president, George Washington, was known for uncommon valor and his dogged determination to see the American experiment succeed. The Revolutionary War was marked by setbacks on and off the field, but his tireless efforts to train and lead the Continental Army led to success over what was commonly held to be the superior forces of Great Britain.
Even nature offers lessons in perseverance, whether it be the slow drip of mineral-rich water over centuries to form stalagmites and stalactites, the emergence of a sprout of pale green grass after a forest fire, or the slow formation of a diamond from a piece of coal due to nothing more than pressure and time.
In the words of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence… Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”
Perseverance in action
They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. When you persevere, you develop the capacity to face and endure life’s challenges. Like all things, the more you do it, the better you get.
So what are some ways we can strengthen our perseverance?
First, you need to know your core values. By having a strong moral compass, composed of honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior, you will be filled with the conviction needed to help persevere in the face of hardship. When your starting point is upright, you can better develop an uncompromising resolve and ability to look at the big picture, always reminding yourself of what matters most.
Next, take action, even if it’s just a small step. You can then use small victories as well as past successes to strengthen your resolve.
It’s also important not to overthink things. I know I’ve sometimes suffered from “analysis paralysis,” something that can lead to your mind defeating you. Remember, you don’t have to believe everything you think. If your thoughts aren’t aligning with who you want to be, you should work to eliminate and replace them.
Being consistent and keeping a schedule also helps, rather than doing things only when you feel motivated. This requires self-control and resisting temptation despite what you may think you want at the moment.
You must also face your fears and push through them. While your first instinct may be to run away, how will you ever learn to overcome fear if you strive to avoid it? Staying optimistic in the face of fear and hardship, while learning from the negative and working to improve yourself, is also important. This is where self-reflection is critical.
One thing you should never do is become trapped in discouragement. You must manage your frustrations and worries, and control your thoughts and actions. It’s also important that you take responsibility for your actions; otherwise, you will feel detached rather than truly invested, making perseverance impossible.
Reflecting back and looking ahead
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my hardships taught me not only how to persevere, but that I can persevere. As difficult as things may get, I’m grateful for the lessons. My hardships have tempered me, strengthened me, and helped mold me into a better person.
I draw inspiration from the founders of our great nation, who endured incredible hardship and exhibited tremendous perseverance. They held an unshakable belief in their cause — because theirs was a cause based on not only strong moral convictions, but a deeply held faith in our country and, more importantly, our Creator.
May you show the same courage and unwavering determination to do what’s right and hold on even when we think you cannot. May you never lose hope — even in the face of overwhelming difficulties.
As you enter a new year and reflect upon where you would like to improve, making perseverance a regular part of your life would serve us well, and make for a great New Year’s resolution.
Let us end with some inspiration from a snippet of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, which is full of wisdom.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’