Notes on Endurance

by David_Gross4 min read26th Nov 20203 comments



This post examines the virtue of endurance. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is endurance?

Endurance is the virtue that enables you to put up with adversity, pain, discomfort, hardship, or suffering in a way that allows you to maintain your poise. To be endurance-as-a-virtue, you must be enduring because have the confidence that you can endure; in other words, you aren’t just hopelessly enduring because you have no choice but to endure.

There are several other virtues that are closely related to endurance or that are dependent on it:

  • A near-synonym for endurance is fortitude.
  • When you both endure and do not let whatever it is you are enduring distract you from your worthy projects, you exhibit persistence, perseverance, steadfastness, or tenacity. It’s also trendy these days to use the words grit or sisu to describe this.
  • Being resistant to the negative effects of adversity (to the extent where maybe you do not even feel you have to endure anything) is hardiness or toughness.
  • The ability to recover well from adversity is resilience.
  • When you both endure and don’t get bent about whatever it is you’re enduring, you’re also exhibiting forbearance or patience.
  • In the context of physical exertion, endurance is sometimes called stamina (sometimes this term is also used analogously in terms like “mental stamina”).

Aristotle pointed out parallels between endurance and self control: Self-control is resisting the temptation of things that seem immediately appealing (“I can do without that”); endurance is resisting the discouragement of things that seem immediately uncomfortable (“I can put up with that”). It can be difficult to distinguish them in some cases: is the regretful alcoholic reaching for the bottle because they cannot resist the temptation of a pleasing drink, or because they cannot endure the discomfort of withdrawal?

What good is it?

“The Romans ‘made Fortune sirname to Fortitude,’ for fortitude is that alchemy that turns all things to good fortune.” ―Thoreau

I’ve noticed that authors who praise the virtue of endurance often quickly pivot to describing the benefits of a related virtue like persistence or resilience. So it may be that what is best about endurance is that it is an essential ingredient of these other virtues. That doesn’t mean it is not worth considering on its own, as there may be useful ways of analyzing or of strengthening endurance in isolation.

I’ll try to stick with discussing endurance itself in this post, and save discussion of related virtues for later.

Endurance is often contrasted to things like “giving up,” “defeat,” “surrender.” This characterizes life’s various struggles as battles, adversity as the opponent, and makes endurance a crucial ingredient in victory. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “the characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning.” If you consider life in this way, endurance is one of the keys to winning the game.

Endurance and gender

In the culture I grew up in and am most familiar with, endurance seems to be often represented as a particularly masculine virtue, or at least a virtue whose absence is particularly unattractive in men. Men who lack endurance are caricatured as small and scrawny, with high-pitched whine, a hand-wringing lack of confidence, and a stooping lack of dignity: in short, as a sort of un-matured male, still dragging his blankie behind him into adulthood. Epithets like nebbish, pansy, or wimp usually imply both a lack of endurance and that the person so characterized is failing at being a man.

In women, endurance or the lack thereof does not seem to register so strongly as part of their gender identity, and there isn’t such a rich set of epithets to describe women without endurance. There are caricatures of women who, for example, faint away at the first sign of adversity, or who simply cannot go on because of some stereotypically feminine need (my nails! my hair! my heels!), but these usually do not imply a failed femininity but merely a delicate variety of femininity; and conversely a woman who does demonstrate great endurance is not violating gender norms by doing so but is usually portrayed as being admirable and not necessarily any less feminine (though sometimes men around her will have their masculinity called into question by comparison).

How to improve endurance

In the case of physical stamina, the path to endurance is pretty clear: repeated exercise in which you approach the limits of your endurance causes gradual physical changes that have the effect of expanding the limits of your endurance.

For other forms of endurance, something similar seems to happen, though the mechanism is probably different. If you are not confident you can endure something, you may give up early. If you persist (or if you don’t have the choice not to) and so you do endure something you were not confident you could endure, you learn that your limits were greater than you expected, and so in the future when you encounter similar situations you may have more confidence, and therefore more endurance when tempted to give up.

So one way to build endurance may be to “fake it ’til you make it” — behave as though you have endurance even if you don’t, in order to prove that you can endure and build the confidence that endurance requires.

It is possible that what you think of as your lack of endurance is really masking a failure in another virtue, and so you can improve your endurance by working on that virtue instead. For example, if your difficulty enduring typically shows itself in the face of frightening circumstances, maybe it’s really courage and not endurance that you’re lacking. If you cannot endure waiting, maybe it’s really patience you need. If you cannot endure loneliness, more self-reliance might come in handy. Some introspection at the point where your endurance seems to be giving out may be key here (“what exactly is the terrible consequence I expect will happen if I persist beyond this point?”).

It is easier to endure adversity if you have more resources in general. So for instance, if you have a strong social network, good money management understanding, confident interview skills, and so forth, it can be easier to endure a bout of unemployment simply because it is less daunting than it would be for someone without those resources. Maybe endurance is best thought of, then, not as a single, isolatable virtue, but more as a wisely-developed constellation of resources that can be drawn on in times of need, along with the skill to deploy them well.

It may also be helpful to familiarize yourself with the stories of other people who have gone through hardships and come out the other side thanks to the endurance they expressed along the way. There are many evocative and influential fictional stories along these lines (e.g. The Old Man and the Sea, the Odyssey), but also plenty of based-on-real-life stories. As you become more aware of just how much people have endured, you may have more confidence about what you personally can endure.


3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:37 AM
New Comment

I think endurance can sometimes be to your detriment, if people with power and authority try to manipulate you into enduring something that benefits them, when they don't have to endure much at all. I've often wished to have a little less endurance, more anger, and a stronger sense of self.

Studies on ego depletion suggest that endurance is not a "virtue", but rather a matter of having the right expectations.

If you expect something to be difficult, you are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty, than if you expect it to be easy.

More precisely, if you expect it should be difficult: i.e., if your Prospect Theory baseline is calibrated to a level that is at -- or above -- the actual level of difficulty.

The reason "no pain, no gain" is a slogan among bodybuilders is because it's an exhortation to expect a high level of pain, as how things "should" be. That is, to treat it as a Prospect Theory baseline.

One book I've read ("The Tools" by Stutz and Michels) includes an exercise of saying things like "I love pain" or "Pain sets me free", as an attempt to engage this mindset. It is different from merely thinking or "knowing" that a thing is going to be difficult, because one can still be feeling (in effect) that it shouldn't be, or that being a smart or talented person means it should be easier for you.

Instead, the correct mindset is treating the pain as a signal that one is getting closer to the desired result... like the old joke about the optimistic child who, upon being placed in a room full of literal horse shit, immediately began digging to look for the pony.

I guess what I'm saying is, most of this article reads to me like random speculation without a gears-level model of endurance. My take on the gears-level model of endurance is just Prospect Theory: if the cost of something is greater than the level we take for granted it should, we count it double and rapidly lose motivation to continue. Conversely, if the cost is less than what we take for granted, then we experience neutral or positive affect, and carry on.

Paradoxically, this leads to people making lots of exhortations to treat pain, grit, endurance, willpower, and other things as positive attributes, in an attempt to get others to update their baselines!

But these exhortations to virtue never worked for me, personally, compared to just understanding this principle and deliberately adjusting my expectations so that "horse shit" means "I'm getting closer to the pony!"

That's because, at least for me, most exhortations towards enduring pain sound like delusional virtue-signaling rather than inspiring advice. Understanding these exhortations as a crude attempt at teaching a mindset that reliably reduces the subjective experience of pain, frustration, and discouragement makes a big difference.

To put it another way, on the surface, "embrace pain" is a stupid statement, as pain is not the unit of effort. But with the added meta-level of "Embrace the mindset of embracing pain in order to experience less ego depletion, less subjective discomfort, and increased motivation", it makes a heck of a lot more sense, and matches an actual gears-level model.

if your difficulty enduring typically shows itself in the face of _________ circumstances, maybe it’s really _________ not endurance that you’re lacking

Iterating this for every conceivable adjective {f(adjective) = virtue} seems like a good way to figure out exactly what endurance is versus some other virtue.  If a given adjective doesn't spit out another virtue, maybe endurance wins by default.

Related, maybe endurance is an absolute value relative to the other virtues you do have.  We don't expect children to endure during a ten-mile hike if they've never hiked more than two miles, maybe because we model them as not having many virtues required for such a hike.  Maybe endurance could be modeled as

endurance = {units of effort required to complete a given task} - {"free" units of effort provided to you by other relevant virtues you already possess, such as patience (this is a long hike but will be worth it) and, idk, filial piety (my parents really want to finish this hike)}