The power of persistence

 
When Luchia Ghebreselasie arrived at the Literacy Council of Montgomery County in Rockville, Maryland, to enroll in an English program, the teachers knew it was going to be an uphill battle. It had only been a few years since Ghebreslasie and her family had been sponsored to immigrate to the U.S. by a local church, and she was still adapting to the American lifestyle. What’s more, she had six children at home, which meant there was precious little free time—or personal space—to study.
 
And then there was the matter of her education. It wasn’t just that she barely spoke English; Ghebreslasie had never even been to school before. When she was growing up in Eritrea on the Horn of Africa, one of the poorest and most strife-ridden regions in the world, her family had decided the safest thing for a young girl was to stay at home.
 
“I helped clean, I helped cook,” says Ghebreslasie. “By 8 years old, I was a very good cook.”
So, when Ghebreslasie started at the Literacy Council in November 2008, she was given the most basic English course, known as Skill Book 1. It was supposed to take 12 months to complete, but after the first year she wasn’t close to being done. After two years, there still wasn’t much progress. And by the end of the third year, people were beginning to wonder if she would ever finish.
 
“I don’t think anybody has ever taken so much time to get through Skill Book 1,” says Catharine Ratiner, a teacher at the Literacy Council whom Ghebreslasie likes to call “Miss Kate.” “I really expected her to get frustrated and give up, but she kept getting on that bus, she kept coming to see me, she kept working at her English.”
 
This past April, after three and a half painstaking years, Ghebreslasie finally completed the course. The directors of the Literacy Council were so impressed with her that they gave her a special Persistence Award. And, to everybody’s surprise, at the awards banquet, Ghebreslasie was confident enough to stand up and give a thank you speech in English.
 
“It is hard,” she says. “But if you try hard, it will be all right.”
 
Age-old wisdom 
Ghebreslasie’s words echo an age-old wisdom. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “Perseverance is the foundation of all actions.” Plutarch noted, “Many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little.” And, more recently, Benjamin Franklin declared, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”
 
But Ghebreslasie’s story also illustrates a far more contemporary phenomenon: the new science of persistence. Researchers have located the part of the brain responsible for persistence and believe it can be physically strengthened over time. This is precisely what happened with Ghebreslasie. The incredible resilience she showed while completing the first stage of the literacy program was merely the culmination of years of daily persistence required to survive in a poor East African country and then to adjust to the complexities of American life.
 
This is hopeful news for us all. Just as daily push-ups give us stronger biceps, with the right mindset we can gradually strengthen our persistence “muscle.” This means that in the long run, we can all have a much better chance of overcoming obstacles and achieving our goals.
 
In a most fundamental way, persistence has been essential to humans since the dawn of our species. After all, early hominids endured perilous climates, -uncertain food sources, tribal rivalries and hungry predators. Simply put, if you weren’t persistent in your quest for nourishment and shelter, you died. But in an astonishing twist, some anthropologists now believe persistence played an even more vital role in our development. Without it, we may never have evolved into humans in the first place.
 
Endurance running 
Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has long been fascinated by the question of why people are good at running marathons. After all, humans are one of the few mammals capable of running long distances and the only ones who attempt such feats in the heat of the day. He has come to embrace a fascinating theory: Endurance running became a favored evolutionary trait 2 million years ago when early hominids engaged in “persistence hunting.”
 
This technique was used before the -invention of tools like bows and arrows or stone-tipped spears and relied on the fact that most animals are only capable of short bursts of speed. Early hunters would jog after large animals for hours until their prey overheated, collapsed and could be killed with little risk of getting clawed or bitten. “Our ancestors were hunting big, prime-age animals with no projectile technology,” says Lieberman. “That meant they would have had to get very close to those animals to kill them, which would have been really dangerous, not to mention difficult, without persistence hunting.”
 
In a likely scenario, persistence hunting provided nearly all the meat for early hominids. And, of course, it was this regular supply of protein-rich meat that allowed our bodies, especially our energy-thirsty brains, to grow and evolve to the point that we could create tools and develop languages, the very things that make us quintessentially human. There is even the possibility, first raised in Louis Liebenberg’s book The Art of -Tracking: The Origin of Science, that this type of persistence laid the groundwork for our most -advanced intellectual pursuits.
 
“Our evolutionary history as persistence hunters is also tied into our skills as -scientists,” says Lieberman. “A persistence hunt requires one to make hypotheses, to have a theory of mind about one’s prey, and to collect and interpret lots of data about the natural world.”
 
Evaluating persistence 
Considering this background, it is tempting to conclude persistence is hardwired into humans. And, in some senses, psychologists believe this may be the case. For much of the 20th century, the psychology community has been searching for a standard methodology to evaluate the human personality. The most widely accepted system has been the Five Factor Model, which assesses people based on five key traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
 
However, there has been a minor revolution as some psychologists argue that this is an insufficient measure. Several alternatives have been introduced, including the Seven Factor Model and the Temperament and Character Inventory. One of the defining traits in these new models? Persistence.
“There is a longstanding interest in specifying ‘basic’ dimensions of personality,” says Christopher Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Persistence is important because it reflects the pursuit of valued outcomes.”
 
Peterson is ideally placed to comment on persistence. He was part of the team of psychologists that provided the most compelling argument to date for the significance of the trait. The psychologists rolled the ideas of persistence and perseverance into the single term “grit” and defined it as “maintaining an interest in goals despite obstacles, adversity or failure.” They then developed the “grit scale” that measured this type of persistence by -having people respond to statements such as, “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one” and “I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
 
Using this scale, thousands of students, workers and military cadets were tested for grit. The study concluded that “grittier” people generally had more years of education, got better marks and were more apt to complete specialized training programs. Most amazingly, the psychologists found no correlation between grit and IQ: a high-grit person with a medium IQ often outperformed a low-grit person with a high IQ. Persistence, they concluded, is just as crucial to success as such hallowed traits as intelligence.
These grit findings have inspired a wave of new research on the value of persistence.
 
Is being persistent more important than being smart? Is it possible to train persistence? Read all about it in the rest of this article by Jeremy Mercer. Receive your free digital issue of The Intelligent Optimist here today. 

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The power of persistence

 
When Luchia Ghebreselasie arrived at the Literacy Council of Montgomery County in Rockville, Maryland, to enroll in an English program, the teachers knew it was going to be an uphill battle. It had only been a few years since Ghebreslasie and her family had been sponsored to immigrate to the U.S. by a local church, and she was still adapting to the American lifestyle. What’s more, she had six children at home, which meant there was precious little free time—or personal space—to study.
 
And then there was the matter of her education. It wasn’t just that she barely spoke English; Ghebreslasie had never even been to school before. When she was growing up in Eritrea on the Horn of Africa, one of the poorest and most strife-ridden regions in the world, her family had decided the safest thing for a young girl was to stay at home.
 
“I helped clean, I helped cook,” says Ghebreslasie. “By 8 years old, I was a very good cook.”
So, when Ghebreslasie started at the Literacy Council in November 2008, she was given the most basic English course, known as Skill Book 1. It was supposed to take 12 months to complete, but after the first year she wasn’t close to being done. After two years, there still wasn’t much progress. And by the end of the third year, people were beginning to wonder if she would ever finish.
 
“I don’t think anybody has ever taken so much time to get through Skill Book 1,” says Catharine Ratiner, a teacher at the Literacy Council whom Ghebreslasie likes to call “Miss Kate.” “I really expected her to get frustrated and give up, but she kept getting on that bus, she kept coming to see me, she kept working at her English.”
 
This past April, after three and a half painstaking years, Ghebreslasie finally completed the course. The directors of the Literacy Council were so impressed with her that they gave her a special Persistence Award. And, to everybody’s surprise, at the awards banquet, Ghebreslasie was confident enough to stand up and give a thank you speech in English.
 
“It is hard,” she says. “But if you try hard, it will be all right.”
 
Age-old wisdom 
Ghebreslasie’s words echo an age-old wisdom. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “Perseverance is the foundation of all actions.” Plutarch noted, “Many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little.” And, more recently, Benjamin Franklin declared, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”
 
But Ghebreslasie’s story also illustrates a far more contemporary phenomenon: the new science of persistence. Researchers have located the part of the brain responsible for persistence and believe it can be physically strengthened over time. This is precisely what happened with Ghebreslasie. The incredible resilience she showed while completing the first stage of the literacy program was merely the culmination of years of daily persistence required to survive in a poor East African country and then to adjust to the complexities of American life.
 
This is hopeful news for us all. Just as daily push-ups give us stronger biceps, with the right mindset we can gradually strengthen our persistence “muscle.” This means that in the long run, we can all have a much better chance of overcoming obstacles and achieving our goals.
 
In a most fundamental way, persistence has been essential to humans since the dawn of our species. After all, early hominids endured perilous climates, -uncertain food sources, tribal rivalries and hungry predators. Simply put, if you weren’t persistent in your quest for nourishment and shelter, you died. But in an astonishing twist, some anthropologists now believe persistence played an even more vital role in our development. Without it, we may never have evolved into humans in the first place.
 
Endurance running 
Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has long been fascinated by the question of why people are good at running marathons. After all, humans are one of the few mammals capable of running long distances and the only ones who attempt such feats in the heat of the day. He has come to embrace a fascinating theory: Endurance running became a favored evolutionary trait 2 million years ago when early hominids engaged in “persistence hunting.”
 
This technique was used before the -invention of tools like bows and arrows or stone-tipped spears and relied on the fact that most animals are only capable of short bursts of speed. Early hunters would jog after large animals for hours until their prey overheated, collapsed and could be killed with little risk of getting clawed or bitten. “Our ancestors were hunting big, prime-age animals with no projectile technology,” says Lieberman. “That meant they would have had to get very close to those animals to kill them, which would have been really dangerous, not to mention difficult, without persistence hunting.”
 
In a likely scenario, persistence hunting provided nearly all the meat for early hominids. And, of course, it was this regular supply of protein-rich meat that allowed our bodies, especially our energy-thirsty brains, to grow and evolve to the point that we could create tools and develop languages, the very things that make us quintessentially human. There is even the possibility, first raised in Louis Liebenberg’s book The Art of -Tracking: The Origin of Science, that this type of persistence laid the groundwork for our most -advanced intellectual pursuits.
 
“Our evolutionary history as persistence hunters is also tied into our skills as -scientists,” says Lieberman. “A persistence hunt requires one to make hypotheses, to have a theory of mind about one’s prey, and to collect and interpret lots of data about the natural world.”
 
Evaluating persistence 
Considering this background, it is tempting to conclude persistence is hardwired into humans. And, in some senses, psychologists believe this may be the case. For much of the 20th century, the psychology community has been searching for a standard methodology to evaluate the human personality. The most widely accepted system has been the Five Factor Model, which assesses people based on five key traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
 
However, there has been a minor revolution as some psychologists argue that this is an insufficient measure. Several alternatives have been introduced, including the Seven Factor Model and the Temperament and Character Inventory. One of the defining traits in these new models? Persistence.
“There is a longstanding interest in specifying ‘basic’ dimensions of personality,” says Christopher Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Persistence is important because it reflects the pursuit of valued outcomes.”
 
Peterson is ideally placed to comment on persistence. He was part of the team of psychologists that provided the most compelling argument to date for the significance of the trait. The psychologists rolled the ideas of persistence and perseverance into the single term “grit” and defined it as “maintaining an interest in goals despite obstacles, adversity or failure.” They then developed the “grit scale” that measured this type of persistence by -having people respond to statements such as, “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one” and “I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
 
Using this scale, thousands of students, workers and military cadets were tested for grit. The study concluded that “grittier” people generally had more years of education, got better marks and were more apt to complete specialized training programs. Most amazingly, the psychologists found no correlation between grit and IQ: a high-grit person with a medium IQ often outperformed a low-grit person with a high IQ. Persistence, they concluded, is just as crucial to success as such hallowed traits as intelligence.
These grit findings have inspired a wave of new research on the value of persistence.
 
Is being persistent more important than being smart? Is it possible to train persistence? Read all about it in the rest of this article by Jeremy Mercer. Receive your free digital issue of The Intelligent Optimist here today. 

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