The small team of psychologists who set out to build a science of human thriving dug through over two hundred “catalogs of virtue,” as Dr. Martin Seligman called them, from “traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth.”
When they had finished their digging, they had a list of six virtues that were endorsed by almost all religions and philosophical traditions:
- Wisdom and knowledge
- Love and humanity
- Temperance, and
- Spirituality and Transcendence
And it was from these virtues that they developed the 24 character strengths that express them. Their perseverance paid off, creating a solid foundation for building the new science of positive psychology.
Perseverance is Courage in Action
But that was just the beginning. They had a long way to go.
It took more long hours of thought and study to figure out what made a particular trait a genuine strength and then to identify the ones that expressed the six virtues.
And they had to keep going even when their peers scoffed at their goals or dismissed their efforts as futile.
To persist in your efforts when the going gets tough takes courage. The temptation to quit, to throw in the towel and give up can be strong when you’re tired, when the work seems overwhelming, when you’re not getting much support from others. And courage is exactly the virtue that perseverance expresses.
A Definition of Perseverance
When you look at the list of 24 VIA (Values in Action) Strengths, you’ll see that perseverance is also associated with industriousness and diligence because the three traits are so similar in the real world. Here’s a definition ofperseverance from Dr. Seligman that gives a clear picture of it:
“You finish what you start. The industrious person takes on difficult projects and finishes them, ‘getting it out the door, with good cheer and minimal complaints. You do what you say you will do and sometimes more, never less.”
If that describes you, congratulations! Perseverance is probably one of your signature strengths. But if, like me, finishing what you start takes genuine effort and determination, don’t give up hope.
Building Your Stick-to-it-ivity
Unlike inborn talents, strengths are traits we can build. Each of us has his signature strengths—the ones that seem so natural that we take them for granted, the ones that others easily see in us and that energize us when we’re using them. (Note that the person who has perseverance as a signature strength not only gets things done, but does them cheerfully. She gets a charge from wrapping things up.)
Perseverance is such a valuable character trait (I’ll talk about why in just a minute.) that Napoleon Hill, in chapter nine of his famous book Think and Grow Rich, says the four steps you must take to develop it are “essential for success in all walks of life.”
The four steps he gives are:
- A definite purpose, backed by a burning desire for its fulfillment;
- A definite plan, expressed in continuous action;
- A mind closed tightly against all negative and discouraging influences, including negative suggestions of relatives, friends and acquaintances; and
- A friendly alliance with one or more persons who will encourage one to follow through with both plan and purpose.
Sounds a little daunting, doesn’t it? Well, part of that is the way Hill says it. His language is a little over the top for us today. What he’s really saying is nothing more than have a goal you care about and a plan for moving toward it. Ignore what everybody else says about your goal; make up your mind that you are going to do it no matter what. Then enlist the committed support of a trusted friend or two and get going. Take one little step after another, after another, after another.
Let’s look at the first step: Have a goal that you care about.
If your goal is going to be “to build my persistence,” you have to know why it’s important to you. That’s a quality all good goals have, by the way; they’re genuinely meaningful to you on a personal, heartfelt level. It’s the “why” of a goal that gives it motivating power.
So what’s in it for you that would make building your ability to to finish what you start worthwhile? Mental health counselor Mike Bundrant offers these powerful benefits:
1. Self-Respect: “No matter what you are struggling with,” he says, “—no matter what—you will respect yourself more if you keep up the good fight. Every day that you continue efforts to make progress, you know within yourself that you are doing all you can.”
2. Hope: Because perseverance tends to pay off, it gives us hope, Mike says, for the days ahead.
3. The Passion of the Struggle: (And personally, this is my favorite one.) “In a deeper way, those who valiantly persevere through the difficult challenges of life share something in common with the greatest people who have ever live. Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged people who simply kept on going.”
But there’s more. Not only do you develop an enhanced sense of self-respect when you consistently get things done that you set out to do, other people learn that you can be trusted to follow through, too.
Especially in the work place, a reputation for being able to get things done, thoroughly and on time, is a tremendous asset. People begin to think of you as reliable, as someone they can trust with projects that matter. In every walk of life, the ability to deliver what you promised is seen as the mark of a leader.
Knowing that you will finish what you began builds your confidence in yourself. Your goals become more real to you because you know you won’t abandon them when the going gets tough. You might falter. You may need to start again and again. You might need to revise your plan or to find a new strategy or method. But when you know, as a certainty, that you will find a way and keep on keeping on, you will find yourself daring to accomplish more, and bigger, and more beautiful dreams.