This post examines the virtues of perseverance, persistence, resilience, grit, fortitude, tenacity, sisu, and others in that bailiwick. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, 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 and to become better at it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.
People who exhibit these virtues rebound from setbacks and are not easily discouraged. They are more apt to overcome challenges than to be overcome by them.
Some of these virtue-words emphasize coping-with-adversity (resilience, fortitude), others emphasize continued effort (tenacity, perseverance, persistence), and others are a combination of those and other things (grit, sisu).
“Grit” in particular has been investigated under the positive psychology banner in recent years, and so deserves some extra attention here. As the researchers define it, grit is a combination of perseverance and passion. Perseverance in turn is defined as consistency of effort, while passion, less intuitively, is defined as consistency of interests. (Passion, in other words, has less to do with the level of present enthusiasm than with sustained interest over the long term. Researchers measure passion in people by asking them how little they identify with statements like “new ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” or “my interests change from year to year.”) Grit is correlated with (and, some critics say, difficult to distinguish from) “conscientiousness” in the “big five” model of personality.
“Sisu” seems to be a sort of in extremis perseverance: persistence to the bitter end in spite of terrible odds, when you feel you have already given your all.
Sometimes these virtues are accompanied by a mental attitude of determination, resolve, steadfastness, firmness, or duty.
A related virtue that is more passive but has a similar sense of putting up gracefully with adversity is endurance. Another along the same lines is patience/forbearance.
Fortitude and resilience can be assisted by toughness, hardiness, and strength.
The virtues of resourcefulness, inventiveness, and creativity can help you to persevere by coming up with new ways to overcome challenges when old ways fail.
One way of looking at the virtue of courage is to consider it as a sort of specialized perseverance that operates when the main challenge to overcome is fear.
The virtue of self-control or discipline resembles perseverance. Some researchers contrast perseverance and self-control in this way: self-control is more about staying on task in the short term in the face of temptations, while perseverance is more about staying on task in the long term in the face of obstacles. Eliezer Yudkowsky, in his essay “On Doing the Impossible” suggests that we might meaningfully analyze varieties of perseverance on even more fine-grained timescales: Just persevering past evaluating a problem as “impossible” to evaluate it more accurately to be merely “very very difficult” may be an important and useful skill.
If you lack these virtues, you may be a quitter: you fold too quickly, you give up too early, you’re easily burned-out or overwhelmed.
You can also fail, however, by over-doing it. You might be called bullheaded, obstinate, pertinacious, or stubborn if you don’t know when to quit. If you stick with a lost cause because you are indulging the sunk-cost fallacy or status quo bias… or if the only reason you refuse to stop the car and turn around is because you want to put off the moment when you have to admit you went the wrong way… then maybe it’s time to dial back or fine tune your perseverance. At the extreme, perseverance can be an obsessive monomania: flogging the bones of a long-dead horse, confusing beating your head against the wall with making productive effort.
So perseverance is another virtue that maps well to Aristotle’s golden mean theory.
Perseverance comes highly recommended. But there is another vision of the good life that doesn’t put much stock in perseverance. Perhaps, its advocates argue, it is better to be flexible: to flow around obstacles rather than trying to wear them down. When fate interrupts your plans, pivot gracefully and choose new plans rather than trying to stubbornly fit today’s realities to yesterday’s agenda. Fail fast and move on. Life is a dance, not a skirmish, and you are better off trying to match the tempo and mood of the music you hear than trying to stomp your feet against the rhythm in the hopes that you’ll defeat the drummer.
Maybe both perspectives are right in their own way. If you lack the virtue of perseverance, you will not be able to persist when persistence is called for. But whether or not persistence is called for in any particular situation is something that requires wisdom and discernment to know. Perseverance is a capability that can be helpful, not an ideological stance for all occasions. But if so, is it still a virtue? A virtue is a characteristic habit. If you are characteristically persistent, maybe that’s a bit overmuch. The virtue concerning perseverance might then be better described as the capability to persist combined with the wisdom to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
Some opportunities in life are only available to those who can persevere. If you want to become a top-notch pianist who delights others with your excellent playing, for example, you have to endure thousands of hours of being a mediocre pianist, practicing alone. If you have the virtue of perseverance, you can expand the range of opportunities available to you to include things like these. If you cannot persevere, you limit yourself to living off the low-hanging fruit of life.
To persevere sometimes means to reach the end of what you think your capabilities are and what you think can be done, and then to keep going anyway. To the extent that this succeeds, you not only come closer to meeting whatever immediate goal you had, but you also improve your knowledge of your own capabilities and of what is possible. You become more confident and capable.
“The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’ Ordinarily we stop when we meet the first effective layer, so to call it, of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ and desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction, on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth ‘wind’ may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.” ―William James
A variety of perseverance has been studied under the name “grit” — I mentioned it and its idiosyncratic definition earlier. It is said (by researchers like A.L. Duckworth, who has made it her particular focus of study) to predict success in a variety of fields — from spelling bees to West Point graduation — better than other metrics.
Duckworth believes that grit, which does not correlate with intelligence, can explain why higher IQ does not reliably result in greater success, achievement, and happiness.
People with more grit are happier, more optimistic, have better self-control, and report more life satisfaction. They are more likely to engage in activities that require (or benefit from) sustained practice.
People with more grit “tend to make fewer career changes,” and “progress farther in their formal education.” They are in general less able to imagine better paths than whatever path they are currently on. This could be interpreted in at least a couple of very different ways (e.g. they are good at finding and taking optimum paths and can usually be found on them, or, they are poor at finding and taking optimum paths because they are less able to envision alternatives they might choose from). One paper suggests this interpretation: “that grittier individuals generate lower estimates of the opportunity cost of their current pursuits.”
It’s important to keep in mind, when reading the enthusiastic literature about the power of grit, how grit is measured. Typically in these studies a person’s grit is measured with a number that is a function of how much the person says they identify with a small set of self-assessment statements. These statements include things like “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” and “I finish whatever I begin.” So when you hear the researchers say that someone has more grit, what they’re really saying is that someone is more likely to think statements like that apply to them. And when the researchers then say that someone with more grit is more likely to be able to get through “beast barracks” at West Point or make it to the final round of a spelling bee, this may mean that someone who reports that they are the sort of person who has risen to the occasion and met challenges has, true to form, yet again risen to the occasion and met challenges. There’s a limit to what that can tell us about what factor causes people to be able to repeatedly rise to the occasion and meet challenges, and calling that hypothetical X-factor “grit” may make it seem more explanatory than it is, given how grit is defined.
Here are a couple of papers that make for a good introduction to the grit lit:
If there is a well-tested silver bullet for improving perseverance in general, it has not yet come to my attention. Instead in this section I will briefly describe some ideas that seem promising, or some insights that might apply in limited circumstances.
A.L. Duckworth, “Can Perseverance be Taught?”:
“12-Item Grit Scale” from A.L. Duckworth, C. Peterson, M.D. Matthews, & D.R. Kelly, “Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007)
William James, “The Energies of Men” Proceedings of the Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (1906)
L. Eskreis-Winkler, J.J. Gross, & A.L. Duckworth, “Grit: Sustained self-regulation in the service of superordinate goals.” In K.D. Vohs & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory and applications (2016).
Selda Koydemir “How to be resilient” Psyche 25 November 2020
Kathryn Britton, “Resilience in the Face of Adversity” Positive Psychology News (7 December 2008)
Emily J. Ozer, Suzanne R. Best, Tami L. Lipsey, and Daniel S. Weiss “Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: a meta-analysis” Psychological Bulletin (2003)
Rob Cross, Karen Dillon, and Danna Greenberg, “The Secret to Building Resilience” Harvard Business Review (29 January 2021)
R.G. Geen, “Effects of being observed on persistence at an insoluble task” British Journal of Social Psychology (1981)
Laura Moreno-López “Resilient people have brains that are distinct in their struture and function, providing clues for how to build resilience” Psyche 13 January 2021