Positive Psychology of Persistence and Flexibility
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Also availible as a .pdf document for printing. Download
What are the most valuable life strategies essential
for survival and resilience? What are the most common traits shared
by successful athletes and CEOs? More importantly, what are the
virtues most important in living the good life?
My answer to all the above questions is the
same: persistence and flexibility. You need these two virtues to
slay your inner dragon and vanquish your deadly foes. Persistence
beckons you with eternal hope, while flexibility enables you to
get through the obstacles that stand between you and your dreams.
If you can understand and apply the positive
psychology of persistence and flexibility, then nothing can prevent
you from achieving success. In this essay, I can only scratch the
surface on this topic, but I trust that it will get you thinking
about its relevance to your own life.
Imagine yourself in the last stretch of a marathon.
Your entire body is aching and crying out desperately for oxygen.
Your legs become rubbery. The end is within sight, but your spirit
is wavering. No, you can't do it, you will never make it - this
negative voice gets louder and louder. You are on the verge of total
collapse. At this crucial moment, what keeps you going? What sustains
you when all the opposing forces seem overwhelming?
Once you dig deeper into your inner reserve
and change gears, somehow you manage to find the second wind. By
sheer determination or some magic power, you are able to muster
just enough strength to reach the finish line.
What separates winners from losers is how they
persist in situations when most mortals would give up.
Those who outlast everyone else will have the
last laugh. Refusing to be deterred by problems or discouraged by
setbacks, they forge ahead, limping and crawling, towards the goal.
Whatever their aspirations and life goals, their capacity to persist
is their key to success.
Elsewhere, I have elaborated on the virtues
of endurance, determination and commitment, which are all ingredients
of purposeful, goal-oriented persistence. It is worth repeating
the famous quote from Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the
Nothing in the world can take the place of
Talent will not;
Genius will not;
Education will not;
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
But why do some people persist in the face of
mounting difficulties, while others fall prey to helplessness? Why
do some people manage to overcome great obstacles, while others
simply give up? The answer rests in the differences in their past
experiences and learning.
Psychological research on learned helplessness
and learned persistence gives us a great deal of insight how we
can increase the capacity of persistence and decrease the tendency
of learned helplessness.
What happens to animals when they are exposed
to an experimental setup, where events are uncontrollable? How would
they eventually behave when they learn their behavior has no effect
on the outcome?
In the late 60's and early 70's, at the University
of Pennsylvania, Marty Seligman and associates (Peterson, Maier,
& Seligman, 1995; Seligman, 1992) discovered that when laboratory-raised
dogs or rats were confined in a box and given uncontrollable shock,
they eventually would give up their frantic but futile efforts to
escape and become passive. Later, they would give up the chance
to initiate an appropriate action to avoid the shock, even when
avoidance was now made possible by the experimenter. They called
this phenomenon "learned helplessness".
Later, they found that when university students
were given unsolvable problems, this experimental manipulation would
also lead to emotional, motivational and cognitive deficits. This
set of findings gives Seligman the insight that depression may be
caused by learned helplessness.
According to the learned helplessness theory,
exposure to uncontrollable events gives rise to the expectation
that events in the future will also be uncontrollable. Such negative
expectation would result in passivity, demoralization and even depression.
Obviously not everyone exposed to uncontrollable
situations would become helpless; otherwise, no one would have survived
given that many situations in real life are beyond our control.
In fact, everyday observation and experimental research show that
most people can cope with such situations quite well. Seligman (1996,
1998) has reported cognitive strategies of learned optimism can
prevent learned helplessness. Amsel and I have discovered some more
basic behavioral strategies of learned persistence that can also
immunize people and animals against helplessness.
Learned persistence and frustration theory
Frustration theory as developed by Abram Amsel
(1992) and extended by Paul Wong (1995) has a long and venerable
history. It began with the recognition that organisms live in a
world where biological significant events (reward, non-reward, and
punishment) are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. Through
simple S-R mechanisms, frustration theory is able to explain a variety
of motivational and learning effects related to the inconsistency
of reward and non-reward.
For example, frustration effect refers to the
invigoration of behavior immediately after an encounter with non-reward
following a series of reward. Persistence effect refers to the phenomenon
of increased persistence after experience of a mixture of reward
and non-reward. Without our awareness, long-term dispositions are
developed, depending on how we have learned to react to success
and failure (Amsel, 1992; Wong, 1995).
Generalized persistence and resilience
During the same time period when Seligman and
Steve Maier were publishing their studies on learned helplessness,
Abram Amsel and myself at University of Toronto and later the University
of Texas were publishing a series of studies on generalized persistence,
a phenomenon seems to be the opposite to learned helplessness. We
exposed rats and chicks to a variety of uncontrollable events, such
as shock, nonreward and aversive stimulation. We discovered that
if we introduced these negative events gradually in order not to
disrupt their goal-oriented behavior, this habit of persistence
tends to generalize to other uncontrollable situations.
For example, if animals learn to overcome frustration
in one situation, they show learned
courage later in situations of uncontrollable shock. Similarly,
if they learn to overcome fear and pain in one situation, they demonstrate
learned optimism later in situations
of prolonged failure. Such generalized persistence has shown to
be very durable. The effect still remains even after long durations
of intervening events and in very different situations.
Consider this vignette: Some young rats learn
to expand efforts to feed from a difficult-to-access food-hoper,
while their counterparts enjoy the luxury of having a pile of food
right inside their cages. When both groups reach adulthood, they
are tested in a variety of learning situations. Rats that have learned
industriousness and persistence later perform better, and show greater
Consider another vignette: Rats that have been
trained on a partial reinforcement schedules later not only show
greater persistence, master more difficult learning tasks, but also
win more contests when they have to compete with other rats for
food. Taken together, these studies provide solid empirical evidence
of learned resilience, because they demonstrate the effect of dispositional
learning of bouncing back in the face of repeated setbacks, unrelenting
frustration and prolonged fear. Most of these studies have been
summarized in Amsel (1992) and Wong (1995).
The positive psychology of learned persistence
Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is
just showing up. I can add that 80% of success in anything, including
finding happiness and meaning, is staying alive. It is not thinking
or feeling but action that really counts. Only action can get you
from Point A to Point B. Only action can see you through the vicissitude
of life. Evolution psychology (Buss, 2005) has fully attested to
the importance of behavioral mechanisms in adapting to changing
More precisely, what really matters in life
is to persist in the business of living, even when you feel depressed
and anxious. What really matters is to persist in a pursuing your
life goal, even when you cannot fully understand the meaning and
purpose of life.
We need to cultivate gratitude and celebrate
our aliveness. Praise God for every breath, and appreciate every
moment of life. As long as we stay alive and persist in getting
through the night, there is hope. There is always a new dawn for
those who endure.
The first important lesson for the quest for
meaning is persistence. Darkness will lift and the sun of enlightenment
will shine on us, only when we persist through the debilitating
feelings of helplessness and despair.
A determined person can change his life; a committed
person can achieve her dream. Generalized persistence is the only
thing that ever matters not only in the risky business of survival,
but also in the hazardous quest for meaning. Life is dangerously
exciting for those who dare to persist. That is why we need to emphasize
the virtue of persistence in parenting, education, and counseling.
Persistence and resilience
Dr. F. Flach (2003) has spent years studying
how people cope with major catastrophes and terrible hardships,
as well as potentially dangerous major turning points in their lives.
He has discovered that three the most common traits of resilient
people are (a) creativity, (b) the ability to tolerate emotional
or physical pain, and (c) the ability to discover new ways to approach
Frustration theory provides the guideline for
the dispositional learning of these new character strengths. For
example, various parenting practices, such as feeding on demand,
picking up the baby whenever it demands attention, will not cultivate
character strength. Similarly, protecting children from experiencing
failure or difficulty also deprive them of the opportunity to learn
persistence and resourcefulness. What is needed is to allow children
to have ample opportunities to learn how to stretch themselves to
overcome obstacles and how to tolerate unpleasant tasks in order
to achieve positive outcomes. Even luck tends to favors those who
Dr. Flach also reports that resilient people
tend to develop new perspectives on interpreting the negative events
and giving them meaning. To maintain a state of coherence is part
of the adaptive mechanisms to restore homeostasis in times of stress
If 80% of survival is persistence, then the
remaining 20% is finding the meaning for survival (Wong & Fry, 1998).
The take-home lesson from research on learned persistence is that
you will make it, and you will even bounce back stronger, only if
you persist through whatever life throws at you. Keep on keeping
on, and doors of opportunity will open for you.
Persistence and flexibility
Flexibility is another mega-life strategy for
survival. Charles Darwin put it very clearly: "It is not the strongest
of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one
most responsive to change." Living in the midst of rapid social
change and increasing uncertainty, the capacity to adapt to change
is another key to survival and success.
Just ask any CEO or HR manager what kind of
employees they would like to have. One of the most valued quality
is the capacity to respond to change with agility and creativity.
One either surfs the mighty waves of change or gets buried under.
It takes flexibility to harness the huge amount of energy inherent
in any movement of change.
How is flexibility related to persistence? I
have made the distinction between response
persistence and goal persistence
(Wong, 1995). The former refers to perseveration or the habit of
repeating the same response, even when it is no longer appropriate.
The latter refers to commitment and tenacity in pursuing a goal-object.
Clearly, response persistence restricts flexibility, while goal
persistence provides more opportunities for flexible display.
Another important finding is that there is
a dynamic interplay between persistence and flexibility. Organisms
are more likely to persist in their goal pursuit, when many response
options are available; they persist as long as they are free to
explore alternative pathways to success. However, they are less
likely to persist, when there are more competing goals to distract
them (Wong, 1995).
To maximize goal persistence, one needs to
focus on what really matters and ignores competing opportunities.
At the same time one also needs to be creative and flexible in trying
alternative pathways to goals.
Apart from a history of partial reinforcement,
goal persistence requires that we be committed to some core values,
centered in what matters most and focused on our major life goals.
Flexibility, on the other hand, requires that we need to be agile
and resourceful to change our tactics in order to achieve success.
The strategy of flexibility needs also be applied
to goal-persistence. Blind commitment to an unattainable or out-dated
goal can be very costly. From time to time, we need to reevaluate
our life goals. In different stage of development and in different
circumstances, our priorities may change. When assimilation no longer
works, change is needed to accommodate the new reality. The unending
process of reconstruction requires both openness to change and commitment
to a set of core values.
The many faces of flexibility
The best metaphor for flexibility is water,
which can fit into any situation. It can go over, under and around
any blockage. It can penetrate, evaporate and solidify. Combined
with persistence, water can cause landslides and reduce rocks into
According to a well known Chinese idiom, a real
man can shrink and expand, knowing how to live in poverty and prosperity.
I have known professors and medical doctors from China now doing
menial jobs, such as pumping gas and cleaning offices because of
language handicaps. They know that their jobs do not define them,
and they can still realize their dreams in a foreign country, but
they need to be patient, humble and flexible.
The Apostle Paul personifies flexibility. When
he was in prison, he was able to say: "I have learned to be content
whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and
I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being
content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry,
whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through
him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11-15, the Bible).
But flexibility can also be weakness. Bamboos
are flexible, but they have strength. Water is flexible, but it
has strength. Flexibility without some built-in durability becomes
weakness. That's why flexibility always needs to be wedded to persistence.
Hollow reeds bend with the wind. A jellyfish
has no backbone. A person without a clear sense of self or direction
is no better, because such a person only responds to external stimulation.
He can never stand up for anything, because he does not know what
he believes, and nor does he have the courage to follow his own
conscience. Flexibility without firm guiding principles amounts
to prostituting one's soul.
How to manage change
Persistence and flexibility are mega-life strategies,
because they enable us to manage ourselves and interact with the
external world with a sense of freedom and security. We are able
to persist and move forward without self-doubts, when we know who
we are and where we are headed. We feel free from anxiety and fear
in the face of uncertainty, because we are prepared to respond to
any change without losing our way. Persistence and flexibility are
always a winning combination. They are the wings that can carry
you to your Promise Land through the storms and the valleys.
Most people are fearful of change, because it
threatens their habitual way of existence and heightens their sense
of insecurity. They prefer things to be the way they used to be
and would do anything to defend their way of life.
Unfortunately, technological innovations greatly
increase the rapidity of social change. Very few cultural customs
can long survive the relentless onslaught of progress. Very few
traditional values can long withstand the tidal waves of secularism
The scope and intensity of the recent cartoon
rage in the Muslim world illustrate just how sensitive and fierce
people can be when they perceive that their cherished religious
beliefs and symbols are violated. Their violent protests reflect
the intensity of their fear and insecurity in the face of modernization.
Bu violence can never turn back the clock, and
terrorism is doomed to fail as a cultural defense, because violence
is self-destructive. I have made the compelling case that creative
flexibility is a far more adaptive strategy than aggression (Wong,
How should we manage change constructively,
when it creates a crisis situation? O'Neill and O'Neil (1974) have
offered some helpful insights.
In the crisis culture in which we live,
the need for commitment takes on a special significance. We continue
to hunger for love, whatever we may tell ourselves. In our hearts
we know that life cannot have real meaning for human beings without
challenge and creativity. But we tend to be particularly skeptical
of commitment in this period of social upheaval. What are we supposed
to be committed to? (p.22)
This is essentially a crisis of meaning. It
directly challenges us to commit to something meaningful, something
bigger than ourselves. This something may be our most cherished
beliefs or universal values. Once we discover who we are and what
really matters in life, then we can pursue the good life with determination
and tenacity. Being centered in our secured self-knowledge, we can
persist with a sense of confidence and security.
The crisis also challenges us to be creative
and flexible in our pursuits. Commitment always manifests itself
in action, but actions must be appropriate and effective. Banging
our heads against a stone wall is not the way to succeed. We need
to keep on trying different pathways until we realize our dreams.
It may take ten years. It may take a life time. But it will be a
life of vitality, meaning and significance.
Amsel, A. (1992). Frustration theory: An
analysis of dispositional learning and memory. New York: Cambridge
Buss, D. M. (2005). The handbook of evolutionary
psychology. New York: John Wiley.
Flach F. F. (2003). Resilience: Discovering
a new strength at times of stress. New York, NY: Hatherleigh
O'Neill, N., & O'Neil, G. (1967). Shifting
gears: Finding security in a changing world. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E.
P. (1995). Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal
control. Wellington Square, UK: Oxford University Press. Reprint
Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Helplessness:
On depression, development, and death. New York: W. H. Freeman
& Company. Reprint Edition.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1996). The Optimistic
child: Proven program to safeguard children from depression & build
lifelong resilience. New York: Harper; Paperback edition.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism:
How to change your mind and your life. New York: Free Press;
Reissue paperback edition.
Wong, P. T. P. (1995). Coping with frustrative
stress: A behavioral and cognitive analysis. In R. Wong (Ed.), Biological
perspective on motivated and cognitive activities. Pp. 339-378.
New York: Ablex Publishing.
Wong, P. T. P., & Fry, P. S. (Eds.). (1998).
The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research
and clinical applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,