Persistence vs. Perseverance

Persistence vs. Perseverance

“The Subway” in Zion National Park – 2006
Nothing exemplifies the power of persistence like the slot canyons of the Southwest.
“The Subway” is a very hard hike, but undoubtedly my favorite. This place makes you feel small and insignificant as you stand below 800 foot cliffs that rise up vertically on both sides. 

My last post (here) about beginner’s luck has me thinking about persistence as useful remedy for life’s challenges. In doing so I came across a fantastic talk by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin on perseverance.To make things potentially more confusing is the related word perseveration.** Perseverance is often considered to be synonym of persistence; perseveration is a derivative of it. But there are very important differences between these words, and they have me thinking about persistence vs. perseverance in particular.   

Since it’s very easy to confuse the terminology, here are the formal definitions:

Persistence: the act of persisting; enduring tenaciously.
Perseverancesteady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., esp. in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
PerseverationUncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus, usually caused by brain injury or other organic disorder.

Since perseveration is a mental illness, it’s differentiation from persistence and perseverance is less nuanced. Not so with the differences between persistence and perseverance.  Perseverance can be thought of as persistence in a noble or just cause in spite of hardship or opposition. Where perseverance has connotations of things noble and good, persistence has connotations which are more mechanical and less principled. While persistence isn’t necessarily always bad, perseverance is almost always good. 

I’ve seen the following quote used to exemplify the fact that persistence is not always a good thing.

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

This quote is usually misattributed to Albert Einstein (or Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain). It actually comes from the 1981 Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous. In his Psychology Today article (here), Ryan Howe, PhD shows that although the aphorism is clever, it is a lousy definition for insanity. The idea does, however, illustrate that persistence in an of itself is not necessarily enough. Dr. Howe’s article quotes another blogger who points out that sometimes wisdom dictates that we do exactly what would otherwise seem to be insane.

Sometimes doing the same thing a second time when it hasn’t worked the first is indeed just foolish. But sometimes it’s shrewd. Wisdom consists, in part, in knowing the difference. 

I do not believe that persistence alone will be enough to see us through the tempests of life and safely into the harbor–even when guided by wisdom. The counsel of God’s prophets would argue that it will require perseverance. Perseverance requires faith and hope. Paul didn’t actually use the word perservere when he was telling the Philippians to hold fast, but that’s what he was talking about (Philippians 1:27-28).  Elder Wirthlin taught:

I bear testimony that perseverance is essential to us in learning and living the principles of the gospel and that it will determine our progress as we strive to reach exaltation. 

With all the innuendo and subtleties that differentiate perseveration, persistence and perseverance, here’s what I’ve taken away:

  1. Mental illness or neurological disease drive us to repeatedly speak or act with nothing good coming of it. 
  2. Wisdom dictates when we should be persistent and receive it’s many rewards. 
  3. Faith and hope enable us to persevere in remaining true to God and our covenants despite hardship, opposition or temptation. 
  4. Only perseverance brings eternal rewards.

Left Fork of North Creek, Zion National Park – 2005
Persistence: a small stream within a stream cuts a channel into the bedrock.

It’s neither good nor bad–just amazing.

* This topic has also been addressed by others including the Apostle Paul (see Ephesians 6:18), Joseph Smith Jr.James E. Faust and David A. Bednar.
** Read this article from Psychology Today for a great comparison of perseverance with perseveration. 

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