In an enlightening 2013 TED talk, psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth discussed some of the key personality traits that underly personal success. Duckworth’s research indicates that, while exceptional talent and measurable intelligence can help, neither factor is sufficient. More important is the combination of passion and perseverance that Duckworth calls grit. She concludes by recommending that parents and educators strive to instill this trait in children, but her findings are instructive for people of all ages.
However desirable it may be, perseverance is not necessarily easy to teach; it is equal parts skill and state of mind, and ultimately a quality that one must choose to embrace. In general, perseverant individuals hold the following beliefs:
• If I work hard enough at (name the activity or endeavour), I am capable of not only reaching the milestones I have set for myself, but exceeding them.
• (Name the activity or endeavour) is important and worthy of my time and dedication.
• The challenges I face at this moment are not guarantors of failure in the long term.
The role of faith.
By faith, I don’t necessarily mean religious convictions. Rather, faith in this context means the capacity to remain confident that the endeavour at which you aspire to succeed is not a waste of time. In other words, faith is a bulwark against the nagging voice of doubt that urges you to cut your losses and move on, particularly when you’re struggling.
Thomas Alva Edison—who patented the incandescent lightbulb in the 19th century after numerous unsuccessful attempts—once remarked that many people who accept failure don’t realize how close they were to success at the moment they decided to give up. Faith is neither rational nor irrational, but rather non-rational; it allows us to believe that our hard work will eventually bear fruit, even if an abundance of evidence suggests the contrary. It also produces a feedback effect: if you are convinced that you can succeed, you will tend to focus more intently on the steps that are necessary for success.
The power of dopamine.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with alertness, cognitive and motor control, and motivation. A healthy level of dopamine in the brain is also a key driver of perseverance. Fortunately, the brain’s production of dopamine is responsive to external and internal stimuli, such as attitude, behaviour, and a healthy, balanced diet.
Regular exercise can both stimulate the brain’s production of dopamine and allow us to rehearse the feeling of perseverance. Over time, as our bodies and minds become accustomed to the sensation of physical activity, it tends to become an enjoyable habit rather than an unwelcome chore. The same is true of perseverance in other facets of our lives.
Dopamine is a central component of the brain’s reward circuit, and attitude plays a key role in determining whether we perceive the task before us as potentially rewarding. Instead of trying to grit your teeth and grind through a task by sheer force of will, set your sights on the satisfaction you will enjoy once it is finished, and then strive to attain that feeling.
Even mundane daily chores like flossing your teeth or unloading the dishwasher are opportunities to stimulate the release of dopamine.
Set and adhere to self-imposed deadlines.