Persistence by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Series Introduction - See Vol 2 Number 12

This week's featured strength is Persistence.

Persistence Defined

Big shots are only little shots who keep shooting.

~Christopher Morley

Persistence is defined as "voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement" (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 229).

Just as fear is a prerequisite for courage, challenge is a prerequisite for perseverance. Simply measuring how long someone sticks with a task does not adequately capture the essence of perseverance because continuing to perform something that is fun or easy does not involve the overcoming of obstacles or disappointment.


Persistence and Success

It was tempting to begin this newsletter with a "little-engine-that-could" story about some famous person who began his or her career with nothing but achieved great success through dogged perseverance. By now we know that Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb on his first try; rather, he put more than 6,000 substances to the test before he discovered that carbonized cotton thread makes a nice filament for the electric light bulb. "Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration." Whether or not Edison actually said this is open to debate, but the message is undeniably attractive. Attractive, yes, but is it true?

To be more accurate, the 99% perspiration/1% inspiration formula needs to make room for the strength of wisdom/perspective. Persistence needs a partner. Some goals are truly impossible to reach, and some outcomes are simply unavoidable, and it takes wisdom to know when it is time to quit and move on to something else (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman; 1982). As Kenny Rogers says, "You got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."


Persistence and Self-Esteem

In general people with higher self-esteem are more likely to persist on a difficult task than people with lower self-esteem. This seems intuitive. If you believe you are a competent person with a good chance of succeeding at most things, you are less likely to quit.

What seems less intuitive is the following finding: People tend to persist longer at solving problems when they are told that what they are doing is difficult as opposed to easy. Why? Failing at a task that everyone else finds easy can be humiliating and damaging to self-esteem. In contrast, there is minimal shame when one fails a widely acknowledged difficult task (Starnes & Zinser, 1983; Frankel & Snyder, 1978)

A pernicious phenomenon called self-handicapping is a particular instance of failing to persist. Most often the term is used in the context of a failure to be persistent at practice or in preparation for a major task. Again, self-esteem comes into play. If one fails to persist in studying before a major exam, then failure can be explained (and self-esteem preserved) by blaming the failure on lack of practice rather than low ability.


Persistence and Rewards

When individuals have been rewarded in the past for effort (sticking with a task), they are more likely to persist on a future task-even if that future task is not directly related to the first (Eisenberger, 1992; Eisenberger & Selbst, 1994).

Remember this if you are an employer or a parent! But also remember that some rewards are better than others.

Certain extrinsic rewards undermine persistence. People who perform tasks for money, prizes, or awards tend to lose interest in performing a task for its own sake (Deci, 1971; Harackiewicz, 1979; Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). If the reward becomes unavailable, then persistence drops off sharply. In contrast, persistence is encouraged when a reward conveys positive feedback about competence and increases the intrinsic motivation for doing the task.


Developing Persistence

The following exercises for building persistence were adapted from a list provided by psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia:

  • Finish a project ahead of time.
  • Notice your thoughts about stopping a task, and make a conscious effort to dismiss them. Focus on the task at hand.
  • Begin using a time management aid of some sort (a palm pilot, a daily planner, etc.). Find a system that works and actually use it.
  • Set a goal and create a plan for sticking to it.
  • When you wake up in the morning, make a list of things that you want to get done that day that could be put off until the next day. Make sure to get them done that day.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of the AHC Newsletter. Join us in two weeks for a discussion of Integrity.



Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Eisenberger, R. Kuhlman, D. M., & Cotterell, N. (1992). Effects of social values, effort training, and goal structure on task persistence. Journal of Research in Personality, 26, 258-272.

Eisenberger, R. & Selbst, M. (1994). Does reward increase or decrease creativity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 116-1127.

Frankel, A. & Snyder, M. L. (1978). Poor performance following unsolvable problems: Learned helplessness or egotism? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1415-1423.

Harackiewicz, J.M. (1979). The effects of reward contingency and performance feedback on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1352-1363.

Janoff-Bulman, R. & Brickman, P. (1982). Expectations and what people learn from failure. In N. T. Feather (Ed.), Expectations and actions (pp. 207-237). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lepper, M.R., Greene, D. & Nisbett, R.E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

Starnes, D. M. & Zinser, O. (1983). The effect of problem difficulty, locus of control, and sex on task persistence. Journal of General Psychology, 108, 249-255.


The Fall 2004 Authentic Happiness Coaching Program launches Thursday, October 28, 2004, with orientation on Thursday, October 21, 2004. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. will again direct this program and once again we will have extraordinary guest lectures by such luminaries in positive psychology as Chris Peterson, Barbara Fredrickson, Barry Schwartz, George Vaillant, Karen Reivich and others. Some openings in the Fall 2004 program remain, but space is limited and will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. For detailed program information and to enroll, please visit our home on the web at <>

Information Teleconference With Dr. Seligman On Thursday, October 14th

You are invited to attend an informational teleconference call with Dr. Seligman. This interactive meeting will be held by telephone on Thursday, October 14th at 8:00 p.m. (New York time). The information call is your opportunity to ask Dr. Seligman any questions you may have regarding the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program that will begin on October 28th.

If you are able to attend the information call, please register at our website,

You will receive a confirmation via E-mail containing the telephone number to call and further instructions.


Program Graduate Listing For AHC Graduates

We are delighted to share our Program Graduate web page at the Authentic Happiness Coaching website. Our Program Graduate listing is available at <>.

Please take a look at the 355 graduates who elected to be listed--growing daily, with many more expected after the completion of the third AHC program for those who began in May 2004. All future Program Graduates will also have the opportunity to have their names and contact information publicly listed at our Authentic Happiness Coaching website on our Program Graduate webpage. We will be featuring this webpage in our twice-monthly E-newsletter with over 120,000 readers around the world!


AHC Program Resources

1. To register and view special incentives go to

2. To hear Marty talk about his life and the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, call 1-212-461-2688. (Call anytime, day or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

3. To hear Marty's Keynote at the 2003 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium culminating in a standing ovation, call 1-212-990-7245. (Call anytime, day or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

4. To hear what our participants are saying about the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, call 1-212-461-8615. (Call anytime, date or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

5. To read what our participants are saying about the AuthenticHappiness Coaching Program, click on

6. Questions? If you have questions about the Authentic HappinessCoaching Program, please E-mail us at <> or call us at 1-301-664-6756 (call anytime, day or night.)


Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, a Past President of the American Psychological Association (1998), and the author of 20 books including his most recent best seller, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. With Chris Peterson, he is co-author of the newly-released Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification and Handbook. He is also the co-founder of Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC.

Ben Dean, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, and the founder of MentorCoach, a virtual university that exclusively trains helping professionals to become coaches. For MentorCoach's home on the web and to subscribe to the "Therapist as Coach" eNewsletter, visit . To subscribe to Ben's "eCoach Newsletter" for interdisciplinary professionals interested in coaching, visit .

Ben is also the co-founder and CEO of Authentic Happiness Coaching.


To read past newsletters on The Strengths Series, click on:


"Persistence" - Vol 2 Number 22

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