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Why Persistence Pays Off

January 14, 2015

The Psychology of Persistence
In the psychological literature there is a compelling body of research that has explored the factors that underlie successful performance. On the most simplistic level this research can be explained via a straightforward equation: Ability × Persistence = Performance. Talent and ability alone are not sufficient. Persistence alone also is not enough. According to the equation, if either ability or persistence is absent then so is performance. Coupling your ability with persistence will provide you with an ongoing differentiator in life.

This simple but important research finding can readily be brought to life if you think back to high school. We all know of someone who was at or near the top of our graduating class in terms of grades; school came easily to that person. Yet it was surprising to learn years later—perhaps at a class reunion—that this same person had not been immensely successful after high school. It may have been even more surprising to learn that an average or somewhat below-average student had done very well in the years following graduation. In actuality, the different trajectories of these individuals should not have been surprising at all. The reason for the difference is typically quite clear. The former high performer based his career path on ability alone and was missing one of the key ingredients: persistence. The average student, however, had both of these ingredients.

The elements underlying the significance of persistence are closely connected to motivation theory in psychology. Motivation, though, can be short-lived if the reasoning behind it is faulty. However, if you are motivated for the right reasons, it will become much easier to remain persistent, even when confronted with adversity.

Get Out of Your Own Way
According to the results from an annual survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), the number one barrier to success that people report is willpower. Yet 71% of the same respondents felt this was something they could learn to improve and do better. Turned another way, nearly three-quarters of people think they can control the one area that they feel is the biggest obstacle preventing them from reaching their goals. This takes us back to the performance equation. You cannot entirely change your ability, but you have much more control of your willpower and how strongly you persist toward your goals.

If you believe you can reach something and persist toward it, you will have an advantage over the 71% of the people who believe that this is what is preventing them from achieving their goals. It could be something as basic as losing weight, or it could be something as complex as revolutionizing an industry. Both of these are less likely without persistence. All meaningful accomplishments are less likely without persistence.

Be Realistic
At the same time you need to be pragmatic and wise in your pursuits. Persistence is an important and admirable trait. Blind persistence, however, is not. You must be realistic with those things that you seek to accomplish. No amount of persistence is going to make you golf as well as Tiger Woods or play basketball like LeBron James.

Regardless of how persistent you are, you will not be able to jump over a river that is thirty feet wide. But if you take a step back and reconsider your goal—in this case, to get to the other side—you can devise a new plan. In doing so you persist in gathering the materials necessary to build a bridge to the other side and reach your goal. The point is that persistence necessitates reevaluation. Without rethinking your strategy and approach you may be persisting in a fruitless endeavor. What you can do is be as good as possible against the standard you set for yourself as you reach for your trajectory.

Preparation is Key
Persistence also requires preparation. The Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, is credited with saying, “Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.” Despite the passage of time and the exponentially more complex world in which we live and work, this reasoning still applies. When opportunity arises you will become your own enemy if you have not prepared for it in advance. If you want something you must treat it as an eventuality. You must believe that it will happen. And when it does you must enter the situation knowing that you have done everything within your power to seize that moment, which will leave you in a state or readiness when it occurs. Doing this will give you comfort, knowing you have left no effort or regrets behind.

© 2014 David L. Van Rooy. All rights reserved. Excerpted and adapted from Trajectory: 7 Career Strategies to Take You from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (AMACOM 2014). Used with permission of the publisher.

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About The Author

David L. Van Rooy is Senior Director, International Human Resources Strategy and Operations at Walmart. He is the author of the book Trajectory: 7 Career Strategies to Take You from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (AMACOM 2014).

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