Flexible Persistence

What distinguishes those who give up in the face of great challenges and those who do not? It turns out two qualities are key: persistence and mental flexibility. Persistence can be defined as the maintenance of one’s goals despite obstacles and barriers, whereas mental flexibility is the ability to respond effectively to change. Both of these qualities enable individuals to move through the world with confidence and security, and help strengthen one’s role as an employee, boss, friend, family member, and life partner.

Yet, having these qualities is easier said than done. When experiencing great stress or burden in one’s life, some maintain resilience while others experience a feeling of powerlessness. This phenomenon is called learned helplessness. After enough instances of repeated failure, individuals come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they stop trying. Yet, this feeling remains even when real opportunities for change present themselves.

Whether someone is more likely to develop persistence or learned helplessness can be influenced by external factors such as genetic predisposition, personal experience, and one’s cultural context. More often than not, however, persistence can be practiced, and learned helplessness can be replaced with learned optimism.

Indeed, research has highlighted the existence of a quality termed generalized persistence. For those with generalized persistence, learning to overcome difficulty in one situation leads to increased courage in other situations with more unexpected or uncontrollable stressors. These individuals are better able to bounce back in the face of repeated setbacks, unrelenting frustration, and prolonged fear. In other words, learning to overcome pain and fear in one scenario can generalize to other situations, indicating a degree of learned optimism.

The benefits of persistence are compounded by mental and behavioral flexibility. The ability to respond to change with agility, creativity, and resilience is exactly the quality that creates CEOs or star athletes. Studies have demonstrated a dynamic interplay between persistence and flexibility, where individuals are increasingly likely to remain committed and tenacious in pursuit of their goals when many response options are available, meaning they are able to explore alternative pathways to success. On the contrary, they are less likely to pursue these goals when there are competing, distractor goals.

As a takeaway, persistence feeds off of focus and flexibility alike. Knowing one’s own core values and identifying and honing in on personal goals can increase one’s likelihood of meeting these goals in the first place. At the same time, it’s crucial to have an open mind and be creative when coming up with pathways towards these goals. Evidently, a fine balance between persistence and mental flexibility is key. Persistence without flexibility evolves into stubbornness and closed-mindedness. Likewise, too much flexibility and too little persistence breeds weakness. The best

metaphor for this balance between these two qualities is water: something with a force of its own that is simultaneously able to ebb and flow with the changing landscape around it.

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