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In praise of perseverance

Satisfaction comes through effort and resolve

“If you can meet with Triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…” runs the famous quote from Kipling’s “If”. The poem describes the qualities needed to be man, chief of which is perseverance. This is not a unique observation; indeed any half-decent survey of “great” historical figures from Alexander to Churchill shows that perseverance has served these men well. It gave them the courage to trust in the paths they laid out for themselves and to take calculated risks when necessary.

Perseverance is not just a value for the “great men” of history but essential for us all. Challenges await, whether in the personal or professional spheres. No one can have it all, and certainly no one can go through life free from self-doubt — even if Instagram and lifestyle grifters tell us differently. Today we tend not to prioritise perseverance as a tool to rely on when we feel overawed by events. Instead, we flee for cover, relying on a myriad of excuses to account for our deficiencies.

Instinct tells us flight is more comfortable for the ego than confronting head on the hard truths of our lives. Yet, this approach has not delivered on any front, from the psychological to the economic. One look at the oft cited stats on mental health, loneliness and feelings of vulnerability confirms our collective failure to raise healthy, well-adjusted people — which must be considered the foundational task of any society. Instead, we have groomed a generation who are not just unhappy but oftentimes unable to adjust to troubling realities.

The losers end up in comfortable middle class positions feeling forever bitter

Economically we live in a bewildering situation where class relations are increasingly invisible yet harder to break out of than ever before. Many go on not just to college but to university, and increasing numbers are enrolling in graduate programmes. Fifty years ago this would have been the sign of social mobility — today, it is the sign of an ever more educated, ever more economically malnourished population fighting over a handful of prestigious jobs. The winners get to survive in our capital; the losers end up in comfortable middle class positions feeling forever bitter about their “failures”.

The economic degradation many now face helps no one’s ability to persevere. Home ownership has become harder to achieve than ever before, with soaring prices and a decade and a half of wage stagnation compounding matters. The importance of perseverance has declined precisely because attaining our goals feels as if it were beyond many of us. Not incentivising perseverance economically has been destructive. Why should we save? Why should we go the extra mile at work?

Given this picture, it is easy to see why so many are so miserable. The boundless optimism about our supposed potential is unrealistic and actively harmful. The myth of meritocracy centres the self; valuing excellence above all other attributes enables us to find excuses when we cannot meet the goals set for us. This is not just a personal failure, or one we can pin on any particular class of society, but a wider structural problem that stems in part from our lack of perseverance.

Perseverance is attained from a hard-nosed realism, identified by Isiah Berlin as a judgement found via reflecting on supposed objective conditions. It is the opposite of fantasy or dreaming, instead accepting the way the world is, our place in it, and the struggles which we will encounter. If we were to adopt this virtue in relation to the structural conditions that surround us, we would recognise what Ronald Dworkin astutely argues: liberty and equality may be promised, but these two ideas oftentimes run into conflict with one another. We may all be at liberty to try our best, but our talents, hard work, likeability, attractiveness and ingenuity are not of equal value.

Perseverance can help equip us with the tools for inner contentedness

We would also recognise that success and happiness do not come naturally to all of us, and neither should that necessarily be the case. Success and happiness are not the baseline of existence — they are periods of sunlight which we work hard to enjoy. Not having them come naturally or easily is not a sign of illness or disability — it is a sign that you are human.

If we shift our attention away from excellence and happiness as our central goals and values, then perseverance can help equip us with the tools for inner contentedness. Not only should this be a personal revelation, but it should be reflected in our institutions. Merit should not be the sole aim of our schooling; we should celebrate those who work day and night to earn a C just as much as someone who breezes to an A. This is not the same as “prizes” for all, which seeks to flatten differences in attainment — this recognises other types of achievement that are just as valid.

The lesson of difference and imperfection needs to be taken not just into the academic world but also the personal sphere. As Jonathan Haidt has written in The Coddling of the American Mind, today we “overprotect” our young people by demanding that friendship groups are open rather than closed. By backing away from tough yet honest conversations about the necessarily exclusionary nature of friendship, we fail to give young people the resilience to persevere until they find people who like them. Instead, we create a demand for friendship that is not possible to live up to.

As our social bonds have eroded and atomisation has become more commonplace, this has created a culture of therapising our difficulties. This is not to trivialise the mental illnesses that many suffer from — it is to say that mental illness can be trivialised by conflating it with the loneliness and insecurity that might be better treated in a social setting than on a therapist’s couch. As Yoram Hazony identifies in Conservatism: A Rediscovery, there are other ways to conceptualise meaning — through loyalty, mutual bonds and obligations, grounding the individual as something beyond merely “the self” that could help correct the fragility of our current society.

Our place in the world today is less certain than ever. Whether it is in our relationships, our jobs or our communities, we are all increasingly at sea, drowning in a multitude of choices we didn’t ask for and struggle to comprehend. We are told to reach for the stars and find happiness, but for too many this is a task for which we are ill-prepared.

Perseverance demands recognising the difference between what we can change and what we cannot. It gives us inner gratification through achievements grounded in a sober realism. We do not need to be the best or perfect to succeed — we only have to maximise our potential.

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