essay about perseverance

What Is Perseverance?

Nobody knew what the year 2020 had in store. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything changed in and around our…

What Is Perseverance?

Nobody knew what the year 2020 had in store. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything changed in and around our lives. As the world continues to adjust to the new normal, it’s important to reflect on the various ways we have created opportunities. From online education to working from anywhere, the world is navigating the crisis in the best ways possible.

Most of all, we have been able to come so far because of perseverance. Our willingness and determination make all the difference. So, what does perseverance mean? Read on!

Why Is Perseverance Important?

The importance of perseverance in current times, how to develop perseverance, practice excellence, strengthen perseverance.

At its simplest, perseverance is the act of working toward your goal despite challenges and setbacks. It’s the persistence you display, even if there is a delay in achieving goals or success. People who have long-term goals often lose focus and direction. It’s difficult not to lose motivation and enthusiasm after a certain point; however, perseverance teaches you how to continue working hard until you succeed.

Perseverance boils down to the drive and resilience you display while completing an objective. Irrespective of the challenges that emerge or the time it takes you to complete the task, you persist tirelessly and pursue your set goal(s). It’s an important quality in life as it allows you to stay in the game even though everything else says it’s time to call it quits. Perseverance helps you achieve your life’s dreams, goals and vision.

Let’s look at some famous examples of perseverance and see how hard work eventually paid off for these individuals:

Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, popularly known as Rajnikanth, is one of the most renowned actors of our time. Did you know that he used to be a bus conductor? His desire to become an actor pushed him to pursue theater and eventually enter the Indian film industry.

Before Indra Nooyi joined PepsiCo as the senior vice president of corporate strategy, she worked as a receptionist. It helped her save enough money to buy formal wear and appear for interviews with confidence. In PepsiCo, her hard work and steady determination helped her drive success and she was widely recognized for her exceptional leadership skills.

Milkha Singh, also known as the Flying Sikh, became the first Indian man to compete in an Olympics athletic event. He lost his family to the brutal violence that followed the partition of India. He brought discipline and direction to his life when he joined the army and decided to compete in athletics. His determination became critical to his success.

As we can see, perseverance can do wonders and it’s one of the most important qualities of successful individuals.

Perseverance in the face of challenges indicates leadership qualities . As already highlighted in the above examples of perseverance, individuals who demonstrate perseverance are more likely to succeed in life, especially professional life. Perseverance is a sign of stepping outside your comfort zone and staying focused on your efforts. It also means that you have a growth mindset, that is, the belief that you can develop essential qualities through your efforts. This is a highly valuable quality that organizations actively seek when they’re hiring.

Here’s why you need to prioritize perseverance and take steps toward developing this quality in your life:

Leads to mastery.

You may not know how to do something, even though you’re passionate about it. It’s perseverance that’ll help you attempt and pursue something, in addition to doing your best. Rome wasn’t built in a day; you need to be patient because hard work will eventually pay off. Sustained efforts over time can even lead you to master a new skill. You can excel as long as you stay determined.

Makes You Resilient

Say you were rejected after five job interviews. You can either quit looking for a job or refuse to give up. Perseverant people don’t quit easily. They will continue to rise up to challenges and continue to work hard. Therefore, you become resilient as you power through difficulties and continue to step outside your comfort zone. You continue to grow emotionally as well.

Teaches How To Manage Crises

Perseverance teaches you how to focus on solutions instead of problems. For example, if something goes wrong, perseverant individuals will identify ways to mitigate a crisis. They know how to stay calm and carry on. In other words, they look at the bigger picture and not abandon a situation or responsibility midway.

The importance of perseverance lies in the fact that it makes you optimistic about the future. You learn not to give up because you believe that the power remains in your hand, as long as you keep at it.

The Importance Of Perseverance In Current Times

With the rise of small businesses and start-up enterprises, the scope of entrepreneurship continues to expand. However, only a few businesses take flight and succeed in establishing themselves. There are several qualities required in starting and running your own business. Some of them include ambition, intelligence and creativity but most of all, you need perseverance. Without it, sometimes, even the best among us gets it wrong.

Perseverance skills can teach you how to bounce back from disappointment or failure. If you’re a professional, consider these qualities of perseverant leaders to effectively navigate business environments and career advancement:

They Keep Asking Why

People who persevere are the ones who continue to ask ‘why’. It serves as a constant motivator and keeps you on track. It can be as simple as: why am I doing this? The more you remind yourself, the clearer your purpose gets. This is what keeps pushing you.

They Have Self-Belief

You may have heard people say: if you don’t believe in yourself, how will they? If you want to achieve anything, you need to believe in your skills and qualities. Every successful leader believes in themselves and believes in the change they want to make in the world. Fostering your self-belief can help you persevere better.

They Make Room For Vulnerability

It isn’t easy to face your failures and it especially isn’t easy to ask for help. Successful people persevere because they know how to learn from their mistakes and overcome setbacks. Instead of giving up easily, they know how to pick themselves up and ask for help. They aren’t afraid of being vulnerable and connect with others in times of need. It’s okay to share your struggles with people you can trust.

It’s important to remember that perseverance is the direct result of our habits. The more we overcome our fears and challenges, the more resilient we become.

As we’ve already established, perseverance skills are critical to workplace success. Moreover, these skills can be developed over time through patience and practice. Let’s look at several ways in which you can improve your perseverance skills:

Reject The Urge To Quit

The first step to build a perseverance mindset is to reject the urge to give up or quit. If you’re unable to accomplish something, give yourself time. Start again the next day. Remind yourself of the reason you’re doing it and the ultimate objective you want to achieve.

Create An Action Plan

A detailed action plan can help you remain focused on every objective. It should account for your journey from start to completion. The primary benefit of the plan is that it holds you accountable and helps you keep track of your progress. The more you monitor, the easier it is to stay motivated.

Prioritize Improvement

At the core of perseverance lies the act of getting out of your comfort zone. You need to make peace with the fact that you need to work on self-improvement. Establishing higher standards of excellence for yourself is a good place to start. As you continue to strengthen perseverance, you continue to grow as a well-rounded individual.

While these strategies are useful in keeping you focused on your goals, it’s equally important to accommodate things that you care for. When you’re passionate about something and enjoy doing those tasks, it’s easier to stay on track; otherwise, it may start to feel like a burden.

Perseverance is a skill that employers highly value because they need people who can power through tough circumstances. If you want to sharpen your focus and remain persistent in your efforts, Harappa’s  Practicing Excellence course can help you achieve it. The course will help you learn how to continuously improve your performance and deliver excellence consistently. The 1% Rule framework, in particular, will teach you how to make small improvements for better performance. Exceed expectations at work by choosing Harappa today!

Explore Harappa Diaries to learn more about topics such as How To Show That You’re  Detail-Oriented , the  Constructivist Learning Theory ,  Asynchronous And Synchronous Learning , What Is The  Pomodoro Technique  & The Importance Of  Time Management  that will help you achieve the highest levels of performance.


Leah Marone LCSW

Resilience: The Power to Overcome, Adjust, and Persevere

Building resilience begins with increasing your self-awareness..

Posted June 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

  • What Is Resilience?
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  • Individuals with high levels of self-awareness and self-connection tend to be the most resilient people on the planet.
  • We are designed to experience an array of feelings. If we choose to suppress difficult ones, it becomes harder to feel the positive ones.
  • People are not born with high levels of resilience. It is something they earn through practice and consistency.

I begin most of my training sessions by inviting the participants to define or share their thoughts about the topic of focus. Not only does this encourage participation, but it also helps to identify the audience’s baseline of knowledge. Resiliency, a popular topic of discussion over the last year or so, tends to generate a variety of answers similar to the ones below.

  • Always performing your best
  • Standing strong when life throws challenges your way
  • Having the ability to move forward
  • Not breaking down or appearing weak
  • The strength to cope with various obstacles simultaneously

Most people seem to associate resilience with consistently pushing forward, coping without emotionally breaking down, and succeeding time and time again. All qualities, though, that by definition seem to be more associated with stamina rather than resilience. Stamina is generally associated with sustaining physical exertion within a known block of time. For example, having the energy to finish a marathon or play all four quarters of the game with the same intensity and strength. Sports and physical competitions are scheduled and the duration or goal is common knowledge to those participating. There is training involved and time allotted for rest and recovery.

Events or experiences that require resilience tend to occur without warning, lack a structured format, and can be highly unpredictable. Typically there are no known timeframes or clues to inform you about what may happen next. Of course, the most recent example being the pandemic and how it continues to impact us socially, academically, politically, and economically. It has been a long, intense journey, but also one that has provided unique opportunities to pause, reflect, and rearrange priorities.

How do some people:

  • Remain hopeful and creatively adapt?
  • Push forward and live through life's hardships?
  • Consistently access their resilience and avoid stagnation?

Genetic factors can play a small role in one’s level of resilience, but overall it is something that is learned and acquired through action and perception. Life is not a sprint, but rather a marathon through valleys, mountains, sunshine, and rain. Building resilience consists of several steps. Ones that require time to reflect, acknowledge, adjust, and restore. Individuals with high levels of self-awareness and self-connection tend to be the most resilient people on the planet.

We can persevere through difficult times and uncomfortable obstacles. The necessary tools are already something we possess. They may just need to be activated or nurtured.

Every time you challenge yourself and live with an open mind and open heart, you are increasing your repetitions and in turn, building your confidence and. As humans, we are designed to experience an array of feelings. If we choose to constantly suppress or avoid the difficult ones, it becomes harder to access the extraordinary ones too.

Ways to Build Resilience

1. Accept that change is part of life

This is a challenging step for many simply because we love control, but let’s face it, we don’t have much of it. Change is inevitable and how we receive it is key. Rather than viewing change as derailing or sabotaging, try welcoming it as a challenge, an obstacle, or an opportunity. This mindset will channel strength and optimism rather than trigger feelings associated with the ‘victim’ mentality.

2. Acknowledge what you have already accomplished and navigated

Just pause for a moment and think about all of the events, experiences, and conversations you have been involved in. They are over, in the past. You survived them, pushed through. Sometimes with grace and vigor and sometimes with pure luck. It is so important to encourage ourselves, our children, and our co-workers to take positive risks and welcome the unpredictable and uncomfortable. This is what builds resilience and creates the memories to access later. The wins, the tears, the laughs, and the struggles—they all count. They are all part of your story. You are the creator and therefore have the power to ignite and utilize the strength and knowledge acquired from your past.

3. Maintain presence and perspective

Limit your distractions or at least take the time to identify what it is you need to repeatedly distract yourself from. The world is not out to get you or create havoc. Unfortunately, we tend to do a pretty good job of this to ourselves. Practice showing up as a participant and acknowledge that whatever you are presented with also comes with the opportunity to choose how you respond or react. We are all intertwined and connected. Our actions and words do matter and can positively or negatively impact others, sometimes more than we know.

4. Challenge your mind and body: keep learning and sweating

Never stop learning and connecting to your environment. Our bodies and our minds want us to thrive and be as healthy as we possibly can. They are on our team, not working against us. Our bodies and minds need to be nourished, challenged, and replenished. View anxiety , pain, restlessness, or exhaustion as opportunities to set a boundary or invite something new into your world. They are signals to make adjustments or adapt a viewpoint or behavior.

essay about perseverance

5. Build a positive support network

This year has forced us to take a step back socially and perhaps re-evaluate the types of relationships or exchanges we tend to invite or engage in. What role do you typically play in relationships? Do you find yourself constantly seeking validation from others? Do you tend to feel depleted or re-energized? Aim to surround yourself with people who are active listeners and value relationships that are balanced and non-competitive.

6. Complete small tasks from start to finish

Whether you create daily checklists or schedule reminders to keep yourself focused, remember the power of the process. We build momentum and confidence every time we start something and see it through to completion. This could be as simple as making your bed or washing your face. These simple tasks demonstrate respect for yourself and your environment. The focus and the control required to finish something creates purpose and builds resilience. Perhaps try something completely new like learning another language, listening to a new genre of music, or cooking a dish from a different country every week.

7. Use a keyword, phrase, or song to refocus and reset

We all have experienced what it feels like to be overwhelmed and discouraged. It’s not easy, but try to view these feelings as opportunities to learn and reorganize. Scan your memory and think back to a time when you felt strong, empowered, peaceful, or safe. What was happening? Who was around? What was stimulating your senses? Identify what word or song resonates with these memories. This is now your "reset," your resilience on demand. Use it as a tool to re-ignite and reconnect with the energy it once took to rise up and persevere.

8. Find the positives, practice gratitude

You are not alone if you are currently feeling stressed , depressed , exhausted, or negative. At times, finding the positives can be a challenge. It may require you to "fake it till ya make it." Challenge yourself to smile at least 10 times a day. Of course, these smiles might not be completely genuine, but you are sparking positivity. Smiling actually activates tiny molecules to help fight off stress and even trick your brain into thinking you're happy. Give it a try. What do you have to lose?

9. Focus on what you can control and own

Begin to identify your response patterns and the level to which you internalize. Do you tend to take ownership of other people’s feelings/actions, adjust to avoid conflict, or constantly compromise your needs for the needs of others? In order to change such tendencies, you must first learn to establish healthy boundaries . This step serves as a reminder to acknowledge your feelings and needs that tend to be overshadowed by the intense desire to please and accommodate others.

10. Maintain a healthy lifestyle: rest and restore

Prioritize the basics; set yourself up for a good night’s sleep, drink plenty of water throughout the day, be mindful of what you eat, and move your body. A healthy body and mind create a strong foundation and the resiliency it takes to move forward in life. Currently, people are working longer hours at home than they did in the office. To avoid burnout , you must schedule ample time to relax, disconnect from work, and be present with friends or family. Resilience can only be sustained when you set healthy boundaries and make the time to rejuvenate. Don’t just go through the motions. Truly live life by being deliberate and present.

Embrace the idea that you will not have always have all of the answers, know how to react, or work gracefully through an obstacle. These though are the times when extraordinary growth takes place and we have the opportunity to watch ourselves bounce back and recover.

Resilience is something you earn through practice and consistency. It requires a healthy mindset, time for reflection, and the ability to be present with your feelings.

Remain hungry and truly welcome the adversities and challenges that are sure to come your way.

Leah Marone LCSW

Leah Marone, LCSW , is a psychotherapist who works with teens and adults. She is also a corporate wellness consultant and speaks on performance anxiety, resilience, and mindfulness.

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The Thinker Who Believed in Doing

William james and the philosophy of pragmatism.

William James in 1865, wearing sunglasses and a hat

The photograph of William James was taken in 1865 in Brazil, where James had traveled to explore the Amazon with the biologist Louis Agassiz.

MS Am 1092 (1185), Houghton Library, Harvard University

"Be not afraid of life, believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact." "The martial type of character can be bred without fear." — William James

On a late September morning in 1891, William James walked reluctantly to his class in Harvard College’s Sever Hall. Characteristically dressed in a colorful shirt and a Norfolk jacket with a boutonniere, he must have seemed slightly bohemian. His lectures were spontaneous and rambling, unlike those of his more logical, organized colleagues. James claimed he did not like teaching, particularly to listless Harvard undergraduates. Yet he was good at it, even exceptional. Conversation with James, Walter Lippmann recalled, was “the greatest thing that has happened to me in my college life.” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “He was my friend and guide to clear thinking.” In his biography of James, Robert Richardson says, “William James was one of America’s great teachers.” 

William James also avoided his study. In 1878 he signed a contract to write a psychology textbook in two years. It took 12. Writing was harder for him than speaking at conferences or climbing mountains. Sprinkled with anecdotes and personal examples and written in energetic prose,  The Principles of Psychology , published in 1890, was praised in America and Europe both by academics and lay readers. Historian Jacques Barzun declared it a classic and likened it to  Moby-Dick . 

The psychology text was just a start. Throughout his life, James wrote essays and books that transformed psychology and philosophy. He popularized pragmatism, a distinctly American way of thinking that argues we must test our beliefs and decisions by results. 

In  Talks to Teachers on Psychology  he took the insights of psychology to the classroom. In widely read essays, such as “What Makes A Life Significant,” he extolled optimism and empathy. At the end of his life, he wrote  The Varieties of Religious Experience , legitimizing faith for an age dominated by reason and science. Alfred North Whitehead believed James was as significant a thinker as Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz.

Who was this man? Why is he relevant today?

William James as a young man, drawn self-portrait

William James’s self-portrait, 1866.

MS Am 1092.2 (54), Houghton Library, Harvard University

William James came from a distinguished and privileged family. His father, Henry, independently wealthy, was a friend of Emerson and Thoreau and wrote for the  Atlantic Monthly . Restless, he moved his family from London to Paris to Newport, introducing them to Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Stuart Mill and seeking enlightenment and the perfect education for his five children, whom he cherished. William’s brother, Henry James, was one of America’s well-known novelists, writing about American aristocratic expatriates during the Gilded Age. Alice James, their sister, has recently become famous for her letters and diaries, emblematic of women stifled in a patriarchal, Victorian society. 

William, the oldest child and always precocious, educated himself but could not find purpose or a career. In 1860 he studied art in Newport with William Morris Hunt. He journeyed to the Amazon in 1865 with the famous scientist Louis Agassiz to collect and study fish. He studied anatomy at Harvard Medical School. And he read voraciously: Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 

Neuroses accompanied his talent and wealth. Beneath an ebullient exterior, James concealed doubt and chronic illness—a bad back, weak eyes, constipation, insomnia, and depression. He avoided the Civil War, traveled back and forth from Europe, sank into suicidal melancholy, and sought relief with water cures, electrical currents, hypnosis, and nitrous oxide. He sought answers in books by such diverse thinkers as Thomas Carlyle and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Not until his mid 30s did he settle down and find some purpose and energy and some slight relief from his ailments. 

Work and love were transformative. Charles William Eliot, president of a resurgent Harvard, offered James a job teaching anatomy in 1873. The publishing house Henry Holt gave him the contract for his psychology text. At 36 he married Alice Gibbens, a cultured, strong woman, devoted to her neurasthenic husband and the mother of their five children. In an apology after an argument with Alice, he wrote from abroad, “Darling, in all seriousness you have lifted me up out of lonely hell. . . . You have redeemed my life from destruction.” 

Although James was grateful for his marriage to Alice, he never remained serene. He fled to the mountains when the semesters ended and departed to Europe when his Alice gave birth. He relapsed into melancholy and consulted psychics. As compensation for morbidness and passivity and as an antidote for recurring ill health, he commended optimism and action. His student at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote: “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” James would have agreed.

Delivering the two-volume manuscript of  The Principles of Psychology  to his impatient publisher, James attached a note, which read, “No one could be more disgusted than I at the sight of the book.” Fellow academics quickly recognized a monumental work that combined laboratory research with introspective insights. James later rewrote some of the chapters for a condensed version that Harvard students affectionately called “Jimmy,” and  Psychology: Briefer Course  became the most important psychology textbook for college students across the country. 

An early chapter of  Psychology , “Habit,” was typical: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” James makes the case for habit, calling it the “enormous fly-wheel of society,” and offers specific suggestions about how to make useful actions automatic: Make resolutions, publicize them, act on them, and persist. Proper habits acted upon and pursued become embedded in the brain. Automaticity diminishes fatigue and sets free “our higher powers of mind.” It makes daily life bearable and civilization flourish. 

James invented the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the workings of our minds. Our thinking is not orderly or logical but chaotic, our moods constantly and inexplicably shifting. “What was bright and exciting becomes weary, flat, and unprofitable.” The purpose of  Psychology  was to provide tentative insights into our vagrant minds and oscillating emotions. James tries to explain how we remember, how we associate, imagine, reason, feel, and act. 

He consults authorities. In the chapter “On Self” he invokes Job and Marcus Aurelius. He becomes personal, unusual in textbooks. In “On Attention,” he mocks a procrastinating professor (likely himself) who will trim his nails, set the fire, or take down a book to avoid teaching a course on formal logic, which he hates. He offers advice on improving memory, fighting melancholy, and getting out of bed in the morning. 

Of course parts of  Psychology  are dated. James did not know about the billions of neurons in the brain, the synapses that connect them, and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and oxytocin. He could not peer into the brain during sexual arousal or depression. Contemporary psychologists would be put off by his digressions and moralizing and envious of his literary flair. Yet modesty was one of his appealing qualities: He expected and looked forward to being replaced by a “Galileo of psychology.”

In the mid 1890s James took to the road, traveling from Boston to Chicago to Colorado Springs, lecturing to thousands of teachers in an attempt to make money  and  to make his psychological research relevant in the classroom. He condensed his lectures into a small book called  Talks to Teachers on Psychology .

Drawing from the chapter on association in  Psychology , James argued that the skilled teacher commands attention by connecting his subject with students’ previous knowledge and experience. He lauds the masterful connector, the imaginative associator, the instructor who seizes the right moment and sets the right example. 

James was optimistic about human potential but realistic about human nature. In the chapters “Will” and “Instinct,” this forerunner of evolutionary psychology reminded teachers that humans are aggressive, competitive, and covetous, but added that our fighting instinct can be made an ally of the educator by driving us to master difficult, unpalatable subjects: “Make the pupil feel ashamed of being scared of fractions, of being ‘downed’ by the law of falling bodies.” 

Anticipating E. D. Hirsch’s defense of cultural literacy, James claimed that the best educated mind has the largest stock of ideas and concepts “ready to meet the largest possible variety of the emergencies of life.” At the same time anticipating Howard Gardner’s discovery of multiple intelligences, James insists that students vary in temperament and that a skilled instructor uses different techniques for different learning styles. Rare among Harvard professors at the time, James encouraged questions, praised without reservation, and invited students into his home. He was patient when a young Theodore Roosevelt pontificated. 

I start the memorial service for my father in Cleveland’s Unitarian Church with a quotation from William James: “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” My father liked James, who stressed experimentation, affirmation, and action. Americans are practical and inventive, craving facts, weighing costs and benefits. For an idealistic, optimistic, utilitarian nation, James created an American philosophy, pragmatism.

Pragmatism was a method for making decisions, testing beliefs, settling arguments. In a world of chance and incomplete information, James insisted that truth was elusive but action mandatory. The answer: Make a decision and see if it works. Try a belief and see if your life improves. Don’t depend on logic and reason alone, add in experience and results. Shun ideology and abstraction. Take a chance. “Truth  happens  to an idea. It  becomes  true, is  made  true by events.” 

James insisted he was more of a popularizer and synthesizer than an originator. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill were pragmatists, exponents of empiricism. Of course, some philosophers were skeptical of pragmatism. Truth becomes whatever is useful, whatever has cash value. Bertrand Russell was terrified that pragmatism would dethrone the ideal of objective truth, calling it “a form of the subjective madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.” Pragmatism to these skeptics encourages relativism and subjectivity and leads to irrationalism.

Not so, says contemporary historian James Kloppenberg. Pragmatism swept through the first half of twentieth-century America, encouraging the experimentation of Progressivism and the New Deal. Retreating, it is now returning, influencing legal realism and encouraging cultural pluralism and scientific government. According to Kloppenberg, it contributed to the worldview of Barack Obama. Pragmatism is the enemy of certainty, simplification, and fanaticism. It champions skepticism, experimentation, and tolerance. 

We see pragmatism at work today when the United States Office of Management and Budget “scores” a tax proposal or a medical bill. When a corporate executive demands a cost benefit analysis, he is thinking pragmatically. Contemporary jurist Richard Posner makes the law pragmatic as he connects it to economics in his 2003 book  Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.  “The devil is in the details” has become a cliché, reflecting our faith in facts, utility, and common sense as well as the infusion of pragmatism into all areas of American life. 

Pragmatism had another benefit. It allowed for God. James was always interested in religion and believed in its importance, encouraging his sons to attend Harvard’s early morning services. He confessed he had no experience of God, but he respected those who did. In the age of Darwin, he discovered in pragmatism a weapon to legitimate religious belief and unveiled his arguments in an 1896 lecture, “The Will to Believe.” (He told Henry it should have been titled “The Right to Believe.”) If, for an individual, faith leads to peace and security, banishes loneliness, increases endurance, and improves behavior, it can be said to be true for that individual. In all areas of life, we are acting on insufficient evidence. If religion increased happiness, encouraged ethical behavior, and offered eternal life, why not gamble?

James followed up “The Will to Believe” with 20 lectures delivered in Edinburgh, Scotland, and published in 1902 in a book he titled  The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature . Written when James was suffering from heart failure,  Varieties became a best-seller and his most influential work. It stays in print today. 

In order to defend religious belief, James needed to understand it. He collected narratives of despair, accounts of mystical contacts, and descriptions of ecstasy. He offered the poetry of the “healthy-minded” soul, Walt Whitman, and the lament of a “sick soul,” Leo Tolstoy. He quoted Jonathan Edwards and Blaise Pascal and referenced Buddhists, Muslims, and Quakers. He included stories of men saved from tobacco, drink, and lust, of mystics energized by contact with a higher power, of missionaries who nursed the sick. “Every sort of energy and endurance, of courage and capacity for handling life’s evils, is set free in those who have religious faith.” 

James describes how prayer can overcome melancholy, how confession eases guilt, and how sacrifice leads to serenity. Reminding us that “every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony,” he describes religion’s most powerful appeal—the hope of an afterlife. Insisting that there are many kinds of consciousness, he sympathetically recorded the experiences of those who claimed contact with the unseen. Religion leads to “a larger, richer, more satisfying life,” adding zest, assuring safety, appealing to heroism. 

Discounting rationalists’ claim to preeminence, he restored emotion and feeling to the religious quest and to the mind itself. Sigmund Freud insisted that religion “consists in depressing the value of life”; James believed that religion enhanced life. For would-be and wavering believers, James makes a powerful case. For skeptics, he has little to say about religion’s contributions to fanaticism, superstition, and war.

James did criticize religious hysteria. While he addressed an appreciative audience of a few thousand in Edinburgh, evangelist Dwight Moody preached an “old-fashioned gospel” to hundreds of thousands all over America and Europe. Denouncing evolution and preaching damnation, James’s contemporary, Billy Sunday, a former baseball star, reached millions. 

Varieties  remains for most believers a powerful defense against Karl Marx, who criticized religion as the opiate of the masses; against Freud, who dismissed religion as an illusion; and against contemporary writers, such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, known together as “The Four Horsemen of Atheism.” Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, read  Varieties  repeatedly. John Updike praised it in his 1999 essay “The Future of Faith,” as did A. N. Wilson in his book  God’s Funeral.

In 1900, upper-class Americans found themselves in the middle of a crisis: neurasthenia, more commonly called weak nerves. The symptoms, according to its discoverer George Miller Beard, included depression, fatigue, and irritability. Its cause—stressful office work, crowded cities, new inventions, and rapid change. The James family suffered from neurasthenia, as did Theodore Roosevelt, who fled to the frontier, and Jane Addams, who embraced the downtrodden. Religion, justified by James, was one remedy, but there might be others: yoga, spiritualism, Christian Science, different levels of consciousness, different paths to serenity in an anxious age. 

James investigated these “mind cures.” He became friends with Leonora Piper, a celebrated spiritualist, and attended her séances. He served as president of the Society of Psychical Research. James never endorsed a particular cure, but he defended inquiries into the phenomena, a pursuit his colleagues derided for encouraging superstition. 

James did come up with his own form of mind cure in a series of lectures delivered in the decade before World War I. “The Energies of Men” delivered a bracing message: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.” Citing examples of soldiers at war and civilians in the San Francisco earthquake, James argues that through necessity and will power we can all raise our energy levels and become more heroic.

James becomes a forerunner of the human-potential movement. Abraham Maslow credits James as an influence on his theory of self-actualization. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, praises James, as does Angela Duckworth, the author of the current best-seller  Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance . 

The essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” criticizes men and women who are so self-absorbed that they take no interest in others. He also criticizes the cerebral pessimist who loses contact with nature and disdains the ordinary. Praising Whitman and Wordsworth, James pleads for empathy, tolerance, and gratitude. Biographer Robert Richardson cites this essay, James’s favorite, as one of the “defining documents of American democracy.” 

In “The Gospel of Relaxation,” James applies psychological insights to everyday concerns. Limit introspection: don’t become a prisoner of morbid feelings. To feel brave, act brave. To become cheerful, smile and laugh. A calm mind requires a sound body. The key to vitality is tennis, skating, bicycling, and, above all, healthy habits. James the Harvard scientist becomes a pioneer of the secular sermon and the upbeat self-help manual promising ways to gain control of our lives, the forerunner of 45,000 self-help books now in print. 

In these popular essays, James revealed his ability to penetrate to the heart of a matter with a memorable phrase. What motivates men? “How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all time the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.” Why go to college? “The best claim that a college education can possibly make . . . is this: that it should help you to know a good man when you see him.” In his rebuke of rationalists, he says, “Our emotions, our temperaments, and our current states of mind do affect our ideas. We cannot finally separate the thinker from the thought.” The purpose of life: “There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see.” 

James not only urged personal transformation, but also spoke out against the evils of the day: alcoholism, lynching, racism, and, above all, war. “History is a bath of blood,” he wrote in 1910. The Spanish-American War of 1898 had disillusioned him. The invasion of the Philippines that followed appalled him and inspired a famous essay distributed to millions of readers, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James accepted, as a convert to evolutionary psychology, that pugnacity, pride, and patriotism were innate; but he argued that aggression could be rechanneled and that civilian conscription might replace military conscription. Privileged youth could fight nature instead of nations, could serve the community, and could find romance in fishing fleets and freight cars. “The martial type of character can be bred without war.”

In 1898 James climbed Mount Marcy, New York State’s highest peak, and strained his heart. He never recovered his health. Despite his physical deterioration, he continued to work and, during the next eleven years, wrote the two classics,  Varieties  and  Pragmatism . Freud, who met James in 1909, said he hoped to be as fearless as James “in the face of approaching death.” James died a year later, and his passing was noted in newspapers all over America.

William James reminds us “a philosophy is the expression of a man’s intimate character.” After his death, Henry wrote that he would miss his brother’s “inexhaustible company . . . originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him.” James left behind hundreds of letters to family, students, and fellow academics. They reveal an attractive personality: spontaneous, witty, playful, humane, tolerant, and public-spirited. He was a man who turned his neuroses into accomplishment. 

What is his legacy?

William James took philosophy out of the academy and into the street. In memorable sentences, he made philosophy useful to ordinary citizens who wished to understand their minds and to improve their lives. He turned psychology into a science, inventing the notion of “stream of consciousness,” suggesting the brain was a dynamic, vital organ. He popularized pragmatism, a particularly American way of problem solving, useful to policymakers and ordinary citizens today. He legitimized religious belief, bringing solace to an America perplexed by Darwinism. To Americans plagued by nervous exhaustion, he preached energy, action, and optimism. And in the early years of the twentieth century, he wrote stinging denunciations of imperialism, trying to explain and extirpate human violence and aggression in a world drifting toward catastrophe.

Peter Gibbon is a Senior Research Scholar at the Boston University School of Education and the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). He has directed four Teaching American History programs and is currently the director of an NEH Summer Seminar, “Philosophers of Education: Major Thinkers from the Enlightenment to the Present.”

Republication statement

This article is available for unedited republication, free of charge, using the following credit: "Originally published as "The Thinker Who Believed in Doing" in the Winter 2018 issue of  Humanities  magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities." Please notify us  @email  if you are republishing it or have any questions.

Sources:  William James: Writings 1878–1899 , Library of America, 1992;  William James: Writings 1902–1910 , Library of America, 1988; Jacques Barzun,  A Stroll with William James , University of Chicago Press, 1983; Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism , Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006; Linda Simon,  Genuine Reality: A Life of William James , Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.

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The Role Of Perseverance In Our Life

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