The Science of Perseverance – How Your Beliefs Can Strengthen (or Weaken) Your Motivation

By: Michael Pollock


Professionals, Students

Persevere: To persist steadfastly in pursuit of an undertaking, task, journey, or goal, even if hindered by distraction, difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement.

First, the bad news …

When it comes to creating change in your life or achieving your goals, it probably won’t be easy. You may struggle. It’ll likely take longer than you expect. It’s almost certain that you’ll have setbacks and short-term failures along the way. Especially when it involves creating new habits, developing new skills or learning new concepts. This helps explain why most people fail to achieve their New Years’s resolutions.

Now, the good news …

Struggle, setbacks and short-term failures don’t have to drain your motivation. They don’t have to make you want to quit before you’ve put in enough time and effort to reach your goal. In fact, psychologists who study motivation and achievement say it could be just the opposite; as long as you adopt the right mindset.

According to decades of research, there are two fundamental belief systems, also known as “mindsets,” that determine how people respond to struggle, setbacks and failure when pursuing their goals. In one mindset, you’re likely to get discouraged and give up on your goal. In the other, you tend to embrace the struggle, learn from the setbacks and keep moving forward – you persevere.

Before I tell you more about these two mindsets, I want to share this inspiring, true story about a boy named Stevie.

How Stevie Became a Millionaire, Bestselling Author

His mother called him Stevie. He fancied himself a writer. He wrote his first story before he was old enough to shave. His mother liked it; said it was good enough to be in a book. A few years later, he sent one of his stories to a magazine, hoping to get it published.

Unlike his mother, they rejected it.

Stevie nailed the rejection letter to his bedroom wall and kept writing. By the time he was old enough to drive, he’d replaced the nail with a spike large enough to hold the ream of rejection letters he’d received since the first. Still, he kept writing.

Ten years came and went, along with many more rejection letters.

Stevie – now a struggling, 26-year-old school teacher with a wife and two children – receives a telegram from Doubleday publishing. They tried to call him on the phone, but Stevie and his wife were too broke at the time to afford telephone service. That was about to change though, because the telegram was not another rejection letter.

Doubleday had agreed to publish Stevie’s first novel – a horror story about Carrie White, a teenage girl with telekinetic powers. They paid him a $2500 advance for the book. Not long after, paperback rights to Carrie sold for $400,000, and Stephen King was well on his way to becoming one of the most prolific and successful writers of modern times.

What Ultimately Makes People Successful?

I’m always inspired by stories of how successful writers like Stephen King started out. How they struggled for years. How they endured rejection after rejection, failure after failure, but kept moving forward. Kept honing their craft. Kept chasing their dream.

Of course, it’s not just famous writers who struggled their way to the top. If you study the background of any successful person in any field, you’ll often see a long road of struggle, setbacks and failure stretching out behind them.

Maybe these people were blessed with raw talent, intelligence, luck or other advantages the rest of us lack. Maybe they weren’t.

In this case, what ultimately made him successful was his choice to keep learning, keep working and keep moving confidently in the direction of his dreams, no matter how hard it got. What ultimately made him successful was his choice to persevere. As you’re about to see, when you adopt the right mindset, that choice becomes much easier to make.

Do You Have a Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset?

What do you believe about human qualities, such as talent, intelligence and creativity?

If you’ve adopted a “fixed mindset,” you view them as qualities that you’re either born with, or not, and there’s not much you can do to change it. On the other hand, if you’ve adopted a “growth mindset,” you see them as abilities that you can develop through education, hard work and practice.

How about character traits like self-discipline, grit and willpower?

With a fixed mindset, you believe traits like these are largely static and predetermined by your genes and upbringing – either you have them or you don’t. Through the lens of a growth mindset, you see them as malleable skills that you can cultivate and strengthen over the course of your life (science proves this to be true, by the way).

This distinction between the fixed mindset and growth mindset emerged from the work of Carol Dweck, Ph.D., and her colleagues. Dr. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has spent her career studying motivation and achievement. In her bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she presents an airtight case that a growth mindset can help strengthen your motivation, even when the going gets tough.

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success; without effort. They’re wrong.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work … This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

How the Fixed Mindset Weakens Your Motivation

The human mind is a meaning-making machine. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re constantly monitoring what’s happening around you, interpreting what it means and deciding what to do about it. This is obviously an important process for your survival, but it’s also the main driver of all your suffering – especially when it’s shaped by the fixed mindset.

When you struggle or fail to achieve your goals, you make that mean something about yourself. In the fixed mindset, it means you’re simply not good enough, or that you somehow don’t have what it takes. For example, have you ever thought or said things like:

• I’m not a math person.

• I’m not creative.

• I’m a procrastinator.

• I’m not good with technology.

• I don’t have any self-discipline.

• It’s hard for me to lose weight.

• I have no talent.

• I’m shy.

• I’m not athletic.

• I’m not a writer.

It’s healthy to acknowledge your limitations and recognize where you can be doing better in your life. But that’s not what’s happening in the fixed mindset.

Remember, the fixed mindset believes that talent and abilities are largely fixed and predetermined – either you have it, or you don’t. If you have what it takes, great. If not, why even bother to try? You might as well give up, and move on to something easier.

Obviously, this is not the kind of thinking that helped Stephen King become a bestselling author. It’s not the kind of thinking that generates motivation to persevere when the going gets tough.

How the Growth Mindset Strengthens Your Motivation

The growth mindset interprets challenge and failure much differently than the fixed mindset. Remember, the core belief of the growth mindset is that human abilities and talents are malleable skills that you can cultivate and strengthen over the course of your life.

The fixed mindset mistakenly views your limitations as permanent. The growth mindset understands they’re just a starting point – guiding stars that tell you where to focus your energy toward personal and professional development.

The growth mindset is an antidote to defeatism. It interprets challenge and failure not as a signal to throw in the towel, but as a natural, healthy part of human growth and achievement.

This may sound like good ole’ fashioned positive thinking, and maybe it is. The difference is these conclusions are based on 40 years of rigorous, scientific research – hundreds of studies that all say the same thing. If you want to strengthen your motivation, achieve your goals and lead a more fulfilling life, you’re best-served by a growth mindset.

Your Choice: Fixed Mindset or Growth Mindset

As I’ve said many times, success rarely comes easily. Anyone who’s ever reached a level of success or made a change in their life had to overcome challenges, setbacks and short-term failures along the way. Some more than others, I’m sure, but ultimately, they all persevered. They all kept moving forward, regardless of the challenges they faced.

You now have a choice regarding how you interpret struggle, setbacks and failure. You can interpret it from a fixed mindset as evidence that you’re somehow not cut out to succeed. Or you can interpret it from a growth mindset as guidance for where to focus your efforts toward personal and professional development.

If you want to protect your motivation, and keep moving forward, always make the growth mindset choice!

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