Even though we do not always want to admit it, some of the advice from previous generations is accurate. When I think about the people I talk with every day, I see that everyone has difficulties, unexpected losses, and internal conflicts of one kind or another. Some people seem to withstand distress with less destructive outcomes than other people. From what I can see, the basic difference is an internal decision of determination. People may have similar kinds of loss, but the people who tell me “I am determined to make my life the best it can be, no matter what,” seem to do much better.
We have many cultural expressions to encourage determination: “Hang in there.” or “Never give up…” This persistence in the face of stress is a kind of wisdom that we have heard from our parents and grandparents. It seems simplistic and also obvious. The interesting point, though, is that determination is not about our emotional state. It is not about what we think we can do. It is not about our resources or capabilities. It is about an internal type of commitment to ourselves and our own well-being.
A while ago I was talking with the father of a young adolescent. She wanted very much to be an artist, but she was really in the middle of the class in terms of talent. Her father was struck with a sincere admiration of her spirit as she has persisted over years to become good at what she does and she is now working with some of the best teachers. He thought maybe because she was coming from behind she had to try harder and maybe that is why she did so well. It was surprising and delightful for him to watch her.
The researcher Carol Dweck at Stanford has spent a career studying people’s understanding of what they can do. She says some people think you are naturally good at things and so when they have difficulty, they believe they are not good at what they are doing and they stop. But other people recognize that capability is developed through effort. When something is difficult, they feel gratified by making the effort to develop themselves because they believe growth comes through effort. She calls this a growth mindset. In other words, if something requires effort, this type of person believes he or she will gain something from the effort.
So, really, it is a matter of deciding what we want to grow in ourselves and persisting in developing those parts. The persistence comes from determination, not motivation, not feelings or ideas. It comes from making a decision to conquer a challenge. We get to choose where we put our hours, and then, having decided what is important, we get to pour our energy into those pursuits.