On Persistence and Perspective

I used to subscribe to the philosophy that the harder worker is always the higher achiever. It’s a simple ethos and at a cursory glance, it seems supported by evidence. In popular culture like movies and shows, and even in research studies, there exists a tenet that the harder worker will eventually succeed and accomplish their goals. Icons for achievement like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs typify a nose-to-the-grindstone approach, an all or nothing, stop at nothing mentality towards realizing their vision. When viewing this paradigm through a cultural lens, America’s support for a lifestyle characterized by hard work makes sense. From sports to religion to global business, Americans are competitive, and although hard work isn’t the only predictor of success in competition, it’s potentially the most visible. We see and judge actions, rather than motives, and the most apparent action of many successful people is their work. Therefore, we often fall into the trap of attributing the success of the individual predominantly to their highly visible work ethic. But the question of why successful people make the decisions they do is much more difficult to understand and generally codify. Given that motivations are often hidden externally, how can we learn to make decisions as successful people do? More concretely, how can we build a framework for consistent achievement and success based on general principles? I believe a general framework for the achievement of goals is centered around the iterative engagement of two personal traits: Persistence and Perspective.

Persistence and Perspective -> Achievement of Goals

As discussed, there is a strong correlation between hard work and success. This assumes that the hard work is sustained over a time interval on par with the requirements of the project; I will call this sustained work ethic Persistence. By persistence I mean the resolution to act toward a goal, the consistent devotion of time and mental effort to its accomplishment. Without this trait, there is no motion from the status quo, no capacity for growth and change. Conversely, persistence does not imply motion toward a goal. It simply allows the motion to consistently occur. So the question becomes: How can we find the optimal path of action toward the achievement of a goal? More concretely, for an arbitrary goal, what standard can we employ to determine the optimal allocation of our precious resources?

Perspective for a Simple Goal

To consider how best to approach a complex goal, it can be helpful to first examine a smaller goal. Let’s imagine a simple task, like picking up an object. To accomplish this task, we need to first ask:

For rote tasks, our mind automatically answers these questions. Because of this, we are often consciously unaware that we must have these answers prior to performing the task. Our unconscious mind will perform this automation for tasks that it has learned through experience. For tasks like these, our unconscious generally obtains accurate information and has a high rate of success for the completion of the task. Our mind has learned from many sets of training data and is effective in the domain of its experience. However, for complex tasks and multifaceted goals, our mind has not seen the breadth of training data required to form this automated response. The necessity in cases like this is adequate Perspective. By perspective, I mean the broad view of the problem. The acknowledgement of what you know about the problem and what you do not. The lack of emotional attachment to the problem and goal. The ability to observe from various viewpoints, and to discern insights from these multiple vantages. Let’s consider how we can find this perspective for a more complex goal.

Perspective for a Simple Goal

On a fundamental basis, the information and questions that describe perspective for a complex problem are similar to those for a simple problem:

By answering these questions and the inquiries they prompt, we can gain information and improve perspective regarding a problem and thus discern the optimal allocation for time and effort.

Visualization of the Iterative Approach of Perspective and Persistence

If this textual explanation has been inadequate, consider the following graphic:

In a, the framework for the problem is established. The goal and the current status are defined as points in space and are connected via a line of relevant information. The line of information is intentionally described vaguely, as information pertinent to problems can be highly varied. However, the right type of information will lead to the solution of a problem. In b, the subject defines a line of best action, based on perspective about the current position, the goal, and the information available, i.e. the tangent of the information curve. In more practical terms, the subject listens to the information available to him and determines what course of action is most appropriate to reach a specific goal. In c, this perspective is acted upon and, through persistence, the subject follows the decided line. These steps b and c are then repeated, based on the available information at each status, to iteratively approach a goal. The iterative path to approach the solution is shown in d.

Goal-Dependent Perspective

With this framework in mind, there are still many unanswered questions regarding how to best solve problems. For example, this system leaves undefined the question of what information should be considered relevant, and also does not say anything about how to find the appropriate balance between perspective – considering possible action routes based on information – and persistence – acting along the decided course. In my view, this balance is dependent upon the details of the problem – the risks of improperly informed action, the specific role of the subject, the complexity of the goal, and others.

Broadly Applicable Traits and Skills

I believe the majority of people would benefit from more time spent in perspective, in contemplation of the reasons they do something. Even if this contemplation doesn’t change the action, it increases congruency between purpose and action and reduces internal conflict. As another more general point, I believe that the capacity to rapidly switch between a perspective mindset – gathering data, interpreting positions, considering paths – and a persistence mindset – working, grinding, and accomplishing tasks – is a highly valuable skill to develop. I’ve found this to be true in my research practice and have read about similar traits of successful people in the book “Creativity” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I hope that you will find utility in developing these traits and applying this framework to problems in your daily life. I hope you will consider the why, take advantage of all of the internal and external resources available, separate your emotions from your goals, and through these methods improve your ability to accomplish what you are compelled to do. People pursue tasks that don’t have matter, depth, or meaning. This isn’t necessarily because they don’t have goals; it can instead be because they fell into complacency and routine. Use perspective and contemplation to fight this complacency – to ensure that your time is spent helping you move toward your goals and aspirations.

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