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Winners Never Quit (Except When They Do): Reflections on Intellectual Perseverance

Nathan King

Five key marks of intellectual perseverance

Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame
September 29, 2014

Thanks to Gordon Jackson, Tomás Bogardus, and Evan Rosa for helpful comments and discussion.

At 30, Steve Jobs was fired from his own company. Having founded Apple in his twenties, Jobs found himself ousted by his own board of directors. “We need to go in a new direction,” they said. But it was Jobs who would take a different path, reinventing himself while eventually making his way back to the top of the company.

In 1936, Louis Zamperini was an Olympian racing down the track in the 5,000-meter run. Two years later, he set a national collegiate record in the mile. But instead of continuing to smash running records, he soon found himself destroying enemy targets as a bombardier in WWII. After their plane was shot down over the Pacific, Zamperini and his comrades remained afloat for weeks in a tattered raft. Hunted by sharks, baked by the sun, and fired-upon by enemy aircraft, Zamperini somehow survived in the face of danger—only to be captured and tortured in Japanese POW camps. His perseverance enabled him to survive these trials and become a successful inspirational speaker.

A young Walt Disney was reduced to eating dog food in order to survive on a lean income, but went on to fame and fortune.

Aesop’s tortoise strained to overcome sluggish limbs and long odds in order to defeat his swifter opponent.

We could go on.

A little reflection shows that perseverance is crucial not just in business and war and entertainment and turtle racing—but also when it comes to the life of the mind.

Consider:

Isaac Newton spent years developing the calculus needed for his revolutionary system of physics. As biographer Richard Westfall notes, Newton’s First Law—bodies in motion tend to stay in motion—applied not just to the planets but to Newton’s work habits. Thus, Westfall’s title: Never at Rest.

Albert Einstein labored tirelessly on the way to scientific achievements that would ultimately supplant Newton’s.

In more practical but no less intellectual pursuits, Helen Keller overcame blindness and deafness in order to learn to communicate with others and to gain an education.

Booker T. Washington overcame slavery, poverty, and racism in an effort to obtain an education and defend political views intended to aid the plight of black Americans.

What Is Intellectual Perseverance?

These are vivid examples of intellectual perseverance in action. But what is intellectual perseverance? And why is it important?

We can start by noting that intellectual perseverance is an intellectual virtue. Such virtues are the intellectual character traits of excellent thinkers. They are typically acquired traits involving one’s valuing intellectual goods (e.g., truth and knowledge) and one’s being motivated to pursue such goods. Such virtues include intellectual humility, intellectual courage, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, perseverance, and so on.

Let’s consider five key marks of intellectual perseverance:

1. Perseverance requires that we be disposed to spend an appropriate amount of time on our intellectual projects.

Those who quit before expending such time fail to persevere. That much is clear. But just spending a lot of time on our projects doesn’t qualify us as virtuously persevering. After all, we could spend a long time on our work by lollygagging. Perseverance requires more than time spent. In addition:

2. Perseverance requires that we be disposed to exert serious effort in our intellectual activities.

Recall the examples of Keller and Newton. What makes these people admirable? In part, it’s that they exerted a lot of effort in pursuit of their goals. They put forth far more effort than most of us would.

Of Keller’s early days with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, biographer Van Wyck Brooks writes, “[Helen] was unwilling to leave a lesson if she did not understand it all, and even at the age of seven she would never drop a task until she had mastered it completely.”[1]

Or recall Newton. Did you work hard when you took calculus or other math classes? Well, imagine the effort it must have taken to invent calculus!

A related point:

3. Perseverance requires a disposition to seek to overcome obstacles to achieving the goals of our intellectual pursuits.

We don’t just admire those who persevere because they put forth effort. We admire them because they overcome obstacles to their intellectual success.

For Newton and Einstein, the chief obstacle lay in the sheer cognitive difficulty of their work.

For Keller, it was blindness and deafness.

For Washington, it was slavery, poverty, and racism.

In all cases, these people persisted in the face of obstacles that might well have crushed them—and would have crushed many of us.

4. Perseverance requires that the goals of our intellectual pursuits be intellectual goods like true belief, reasonable belief, and knowledge.

In intellectual pursuits, virtuous perseverance must aim at the right goals. Aiming at these goals is what makes intellectual perseverance intellectual. Such an aim rules out vices like dishonesty and indifference to truth. If we value this aim, we admire those who seek the truth even when doing so is hard; we also think poorly of those who don’t care about the truth, or who deliberately intend to deceive. We respect someone who can take responsibility for being duped (“I was wrong” carries more weight than “mistakes were made”). We disdain the liar (insert your favorite political example). And we’re not impressed with the indifferent (students who shrug off a lecture with “whatever” won’t soon earn their teachers’ respect).

5. Perseverance is a mean between the vices of irresolution (a deficiency) and intransigence (an excess).

Irresolute people quit their projects before they’ve spent serious time and effort on them (picture a high-schooler giving up on her math homework after two minutes). Or they give in to distractions (picture a college student fiddling with his fantasy football lineup during class). Or they persist slothfully, taking much longer than needed to complete their projects (picture the present author taking a dozen snack breaks while proofreading this essay).

When it comes to intellectual character, quitting is for losers…

…except when it’s not.

There’s a vice on the other side of perseverance: intransigence. This involves persisting in a project after learning that further progress is very unlikely to come. There’s nothing virtuous about that. Think of unwise explorers who continue to search for the Fountain of Youth, or of researchers seeking the key to a perpetual motion machine (a physical impossibility). When we’re looking for intellectual mentors, these folks don’t come to mind.

We’ve seen that intellectual perseverance is a matter of continuing in our intellectual pursuits for an appropriate amount of time, with serious effort, in the face of obstacles, for the sake of truth or knowledge. Meet all these requirements, and you count as virtuously persevering.

Why Care About Intellectual Perseverance?

But why is perseverance important? Let’s explore two answers to that question.

Stories of Success

For starters, consider this: The history of intellectual success in the Western tradition is largely a history of perseverance. Get into the details of any success story, and you’ll find numerous acts of intellectual perseverance.

Exercise: Try to re-describe the intellectual success of Newton, Einstein, or anyone else without talking about perseverance. It’s almost impossible. If these folks hadn’t persevered, we would never have heard of them.

So one reason perseverance is important is that it’s needed to overcome obstacles to intellectual success. These obstacles are legion:

  • A project’s sheer difficulty
  • Repeated failures
  • Discouragement from one’s peers
  • Social injustice
  • Fatigue
  • Personal biases
  • Poor funding
  • TV
  • And of course, the latest version of Lego Star Wars Angry Birds for your iPhone.

If past trends continue, obstacles to intellectual success won’t go away any time soon. We’ll need perseverance to navigate them. And that’s enough to make perseverance important.

The Next Generation of Learners

This point about future success suggests a second reason perseverance is important: it’s crucial to the success of the next generation of learners. Perseverance, grit, tenacity—whatever you want to call the trait—is a better predictor of academic success than standard indicators like raw intelligence.

Every teacher knows this instinctively.

The super-smart kid who skates by on his native intelligence may well quit when his homework finally gets hard. If he lacks perseverance, he will quit.

The gritty-but-not-brilliant kid who diligently works through a math set despite great difficulty? She’ll be fine. Grit beats genius six days a week.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this point. If it’s right that grit beats genius most of time, educators should care a lot more about instilling intellectual character in their students than they do about raising test scores or sifting data about students’ IQs.

If you think this assessment gives too much credit to character, consider this: in order to succeed, even the genius must work hard.

The Beatles would never have become famous without thousands of hours of practice.

Michelangelo and Da Vinci would’ve been incapable of producing their masterpieces without first producing innumerable sketches.

Einstein himself attributed much of his success not to genius but to perseverance: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

If all of that still seems too “rah-rah”—more a locker room speech than serious theorizing—note that what many of us know intuitively is gaining the support of serious science. Intellectual character—and not merely talent—is an important predictor of academic success. See here and here.

There’s Much More to Say.

A comprehensive post would discuss the relationship between perseverance and other virtues, the ways in which we know whether we’re being intransigent or irresolute, strategies for acquiring intellectual character, and more.

But taking these ideas further would require more perseverance than I have.

I think I’ll quit.


For Further Reading…

For those wanting more on the intellectual virtues, this book is the place to start:

Philip Dow, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Virtue Development (IVP Academic, 2013).

Readers who want to go further should consider:

Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (Oxford University Press: 2011).

Robert C. Roberts and Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford University Press: 2007).

For more on intellectual perseverance in particular see:

Nathan L. King (2014). Erratum To: Perseverance as an Intellectual Virtue. Synthese 191 (15): 3779-3801. (This is the definitive version of the paper.)

About the Author

References