You might be thinking, there's no single trait you can have that will guarantee success. And you're probably right.
But there is one trait that practically all successful people share, and I think it'd be hard to argue otherwise: persistence. Call it what you will – stick-to-it-iveness, the ability to push through adversity, patience with challenge – you can find it in pretty much any successful person you might pick.
Study after study into the habits of top performers in every field comes up with a list of traits, usually 6-12. In almost every case, all of the traits augment or include the ability to persist through challenges, to keep going despite the difficulty.
This doesn't mean that perseverance is all you need to be successful. Far from it. But it is a required ingredient. It's necessary, but not sufficient.
The Value of Perseverance
It's not like you can just flick a switch and become better at seeing difficult situations through to a successful end. But you can learn about what it means to commit to challenging tasks, and practice it at every opportunity.
You may have heard about the infamous Marshmallow Test, a lesson on delayed gratification. In the early 60's, in a Stanford University study, children were given a basic choice: they could either have one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows later on. Either a small treat now, or a larger treat later.
The results were pretty groundbreaking. Children who could wait to get two marshmallows – who could delay their gratification – ended up doing better in a number of ways later in life, like getting higher SAT scores, and being less likely to have behavioral problems, drug addictions, or problems with obesity.
The marshmallow test has been criticized for various reasons, but it's generally taken to be a measure of internal willpower, the ability to delay instant gratification in the promise of a greater prize in the future.
The result of the test shouldn't be seen as a life sentence, a pronouncement about your character. Instead, think about what Walter Mischel, one of the original researchers of the Marshmallow test, had to say about it in a recent interview.
Your level of willpower, your ability to delay gratification, isn't fixed at birth. Instead, it's like a muscle you can flex. The more you flex it, the stronger it gets.
Take the next opportunity you get to wait a bit longer before eating that snack; work a bit longer than usual; or exercise a bit harder than you normally would. Flexing that willpower muscle is especially important when you're feeling good, because that's when you build the habits that will kick in when you're feeling not-so-good and thinking of calling it quits.
“People experience willpower fatigue and plain old fatigue and exhaustion,” Mischel said. “What we do when we get tired is heavily influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly influenced by the models we have.”
Success Takes Grit
In a TED Talk a few years ago, Angela Lee Duckworth recalled her experience of working in New York City public schools when she was younger. She noticed something strange – her best students weren't the ones that seemed to be the “smartest” in the typical sense of the word.
She went on to do psychological research, looking into the reasons why some people are successful in their endeavors and careers, while others are not so much. Who would come out at the top of their class? Who would make the most money? What she found was pretty interesting, though not too surprising if you know about the Marshmallow Test.
As she says, the most prominent factor wasn't IQ, social intelligence, good looks, or physical health. It was “grit,” as she called it: passion and perseverance for long-term goals.
There's no easy answer to how to be grittier – it's something you need to work at constantly. Try taking Duckworth's advice: live life like a marathon, rather than a sprint. Don't see failure as a permanent condition, but rather a stepping-stone to success.
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