It’s one of those days and one of those jobs where you feel that you’d like nothing better than to take a break. You’re in the middle of a major household cleanup, garden job or office reorganization when the full drudgery effect kicks in. Not only are you feeling bored and unmotivated, but you’re not even sure you’ll be able to get the job done at all. You know that if you could just tap into your inner reserves, you’d sail through to the end of the job. Celebrating your hard work, you’d even become invigorated enough to take on the next challenge.
Some individuals thrive when things aren’t going their way. It’s almost as if they view each new task they undertake as a test of their mental and physical stamina. When the average person would become bored, frustrated, disappointed or some combination of the above, the highly persevering people among us never flag in their enthusiasm or effort. If you are one of those lucky individuals, you rarely question whether your efforts will lead to success. However, what if you don’t have the intrinsic ability to persevere? Is there any way you too can overcome the obstacles your life presents to you?
It does seem that perseverance is a quality that starts to show up early in an individual’s personality. Whether it’s nature, nurture, or -- more likely -- some combination of the two, there are personal dispositions that appear early in life and continue to build on this form of inner strength throughout life. Florida Institute of Technology psychologist Patrick Converse and his collaborators (2013) examined what they call “dispositional self-control” as a contributor to positive career outcomes in a large national sample of young adults.Starting at about the age of 10 and continuing through the age of about 25, the nearly 5000 participants (50 percent female) were tested on a range of personal characteristics that included, from early adulthood, their educational attainment, income, and job “complexity,” or degree of mental effort. The participants also contributed data on negative, or antisocial, teen behaviors as well as positive teen behaviors such as studying, working and belonging to high school clubs and teams.
The basic question that Converse and his team asked was whether higher self-control when the participants were children would translate into more successful career outcomes by the time they reached early adulthood. To make a long story short, the answer was that it did. Having greater ability to control their thoughts, feelings and behaviors as kids led the participants to show fewer acting-out behaviors as teens, to do better in school and ultimately to become poised to have more productive and satisfying adult lives.
The size of the study and its longitudinal nature made it possible for the researchers to draw the kinds of cause-and-effect conclusions you don’t often run across in personality psychology. Had the participants not been followed over time, or studied only on certain factors but not others, you might speculate that the “good” kids came from “better” households, and were successful as adults because they started out with more advantages when they were young.
Self-control isn’t exactly the same as the ability to persevere, but it shares many of the same qualities. When you’re high on self-control, you are able to “control the self by the self” (p. 65). You can keep yourself from engaging in behaviors that will result in problematic outcomes, such as being disruptive or impulsive. This is called “stop control.” Being high in “start control” means, additionally, that you can motivate yourself to engage in the behaviors that will advance you socially and academically.
Persevering through adversity, challenge, or just plain boredom means that you need to be high in both stop and start self-control. When your computer program won’t cooperate with your wishes, you might feel like throwing your laptop against the wall, but that wouldn’t solve the basic problem and would only make things far worse. You need to engage your stop control to keep yourself from letting those feelings overcome you. On the other hand, when you’d rather go outside for a walk, play video games, or hang out on Facebook than tackle an onerous job that needs to be completed, you need start control to get you to focus on the task at hand.
All of this might be well and good, you say, but isn’t it true that the Converse study began with children whose self-control was already in its formative stages? How can you, as an adult, make up for the lack of self-control you might have had during your own misspent youth? Or, if you’ve always been one to exhibit high self-control, and have yet to see the benefits in terms of your paycheck, would it even be worth it to work on your perseverance skills now?
There are reasons to be hopeful that you can expand on your self-control and abilities to persevere even if these were never your particular strengths. Perseverance can become a highly rewarding mental state if, as you put your mental energies to completing a task, you allow yourself to enjoy the fruits of your hard work. By setting aside the delights of the moment for the longer-term, but more persisting, joys of accomplishment, you’ll start to experience positive reinforcement for “stop” self-control. Similarly, when you bite the bullet and start in on a task that you’ve been dreading, you may be very pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not as horrible as you anticipated. We’re not exactly rats in a cage, but even the most sophisticated of us can enjoy the pleasure of positive reinforcement. Perseverance can become its own reward if you just give it a chance.
How about the argument that you’ve been a hard and diligent worker all your life but have yet to see those efforts bear the long-desired fruits? Not every effort leads to success, but to paraphrase hockey great Wayne Gretksy, “If you don’t shoot, you don’t score.” The odds are that if you keep persisting at work you believe to be important and worthwhile, one of your mighty efforts will pay off. Even if it doesn’t, you’d never know what might have happened unless you gave it a try.
The Converse et al. study also illustrates the notion of the “life footprint,” which is the proposal that our actions on our environment can alter that very environment in which we are acting. By exerting your start control, you become your own change agent. You might believe that you’ll never be able to get your community to become more pedestrian-friendly. However, if you band together with like-minded neighbors, you might very well find new sidewalks and crosswalks popping up where none had existed before.
You can also use stop control to change your world. Not throwing that computer against the wall when you’re fed up with a program means that you’ll actually have a chance at getting the fix you need. Once you do, you can post that solution on the program’s online community, and perhaps will benefit the other lost souls out there who are also at their wit’s end with this particular piece of technology.
The next time you’re ready to give up on a tough task, then, recognize that there are many practical and emotional benefits to sticking with it. Like the young adults in the Converse et al study, those benefits might eventually translate into greater career success. However, putting your self-control to work for you can have just as many, if not more, important inner rewards.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Converse, P. D., Piccone, K. A., & Tocci, M. C. (2014). Childhood self-control, adolescent behavior, and career success. Personality And Individual Differences, 5965-70. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.11.007