Why do some persist and others fail?

Among life’s many mysteries is this one: Why do some people persist in the face of adversity and some others don’t?

Sure, the Internet is full of expertise on the subject — every overly simplistic thing from “because two parents are working” to “it’s the computer games” to “processed foods” — and it’s probably not any of those things.

It’s not that hard to find two children who grew up in the same home, same parents, same amount amount of love, and one persists and one gives up. Why?

It’s grit, Vox writer Libby Nelson writes today, suggesting it’s something that should be taught in school.

One of the reasons grit has become such a popular concept is that it applies across the socioeconomic spectrum. It speaks to worries that wealthy children are being coddled, and to the reality of obstacles that children from low-income families have to overcome in order to succeed, says David Meketon, a researcher at Duckworth’s laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

“People are just as worried about wealthy kids and their being fragile thoroughbreds and not being able to persist as they are poor kids who are struggling for other reasons,” Meketon says. “It’s this combination of helicopter parents on the one hand and parents that are struggling just to survive.”

Sound simplistic? It probably is because it doesn’t answer the question of why two young people in the same situation take different paths when facing obstacles. It doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s genetics, which raises the possibility that some kids are born to succeed, while others are predisposed to fail, even excluding socioeconomic factors.

Developing long-term persistence can be tricky. It’s particularly necessary for some physical activities, such as cross-country running and ballet, but research hasn’t proved that persistence in those areas translates to the classroom. And in some cases, the abilities don’t transfer, Meketon says: Kids who play sports can devote an extraordinary amount of time and energy to improvement while their sport is in season, but afterwards return to old habits.

Steinberg, an expert on adolescence, has ideas of his own on how to do so: maybe yoga, or mindfulness training.

“These kinds of activities might be harder to persuade schools to incorporate,” he said, in part because they take time that would otherwise be used for more academic instruction. But he said he’s convinced that they could lead to improved academic results as well.

Sure, maybe the answer is yoga. But probably not.

Related: Global Views of Economic Opportunity and Inequality (Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project).

  • jon

    I suspect you’ll find that two people raised the same way is nearly impossible to find… I also suspect that you’ll find that one person will some times stand up and persist and in other situations back down.

    Those who persist don’t do so all the time.

    I’ve read that dreams are our minds way of testing our reactions to scenarios, how exactly would I react if my wife were actually trying to stab me… what would I do if I were being followed while driving my car… etc.

    I suspect the reason some people react differently is because they’ve planned differently, they’ve tested themselves in different scenarios and decided how they are going to act (consciously or not) before it happens.

    And of course taking one poorly understood phenomenon (we’ll call it grit) and linking it to another (Dreams) makes it hard to prove or disprove anything either way.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    The other thing I would point out is that persistence does not always equate to success and backing down is not always failure. As Jon said people often choose to back down in certain situations, while they persist in others.

    Success, most likely, comes form the ability of recognizing which strategy should be used in which situations.

    • kennedy

      It depends on how you define success. Popularity results from making others feel good. Financial success is very much guided by continual risk/reward analysis and knowing when to change direction. If, however, you define success as achieving something that is important to yourself the ability to continue in the face of adversity is crucial.

      Galileo theorized that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Under pressure from the church he recanted. Which was the more successful act?

  • John Peschken

    Radiolab or more likely Freakonomics did a piece on this not long ago. It was clear that the key is knowing when to give up, and not be driven by sunk costs. Persistence is over rated as a virtue.