When persistence becomes a fatal flaw

by Dec 8, 2018

What happens when persistence becomes a fatal flaw?


In relationships, careers, running  a business or a country there is a tipping point when persistence becomes a fatal flaw 

We know persistence as one of those “must have” personal qualities. Leadership coaches and gurus tell us constantly to never give up on our goals. Napoleon Hill suggests: “Patience, persistence, and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”

It’s not just about failure, it’s also about picking yourself up and starting over. Persist and you will get there!  But what happens when persistence becomes a fatal flaw and turns into a negative self-sabotaging quality?


What is persistence?

In psychology, persistence (PS) is a personality trait. It is measured in the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) and is considered one of the four temperament traits. Persistence refers to perseverance in spite of fatigue or frustration. It consists of:

  • Eagerness of effort (PS1)
  • Work hardened (PS2)
  • Ambitious (PS3)
  • Perfectionist (PS4)


A study comparing the Temperament and Character Inventory to the five factor model of personality found that persistence was substantially associated with conscientiousness.

We characterize persistence with the ability to be organized and dependable. It shows self-discipline, acting dutifully, aiming for achievement, and preferring planned rather than spontaneous behaviour. We also associate high levels of conscientiousness with being stubborn and focused. Low conscientiousness therefore appears to be unfocused and lacking in energy.

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persistence becomes a fatal flaw

A dark side

Persistence, the almost heroic quality that we are all told to admire, shares the same characteristics as self-awareness. Multiple studies suggest that leaders perceived as bold, persistent and resilient (a sister quality) can become “rigidly and delusionally resilient and closed off to information that could be imperative in fixing — or at least improving — behavioural weaknesses.” 

What happens when persistence becomes a fatal flaw? “Like any other personal quality there is a tipping point when it can work against us” says psychologist Nathalie Jameson. “People who are highly persistent get focused on one thing only, achieving their goal. They fail to factor in some warning signs that things are not going well, that they need to let go completely or change direction. They stop listening, observing and asking questions.They rarely ask for help. We see this in every aspect of life from business, to careers to relationships. It can very often cause them to put up with situations and outcomes others wouldn’t tolerate, which eventually have negative outcomes. They absorb more work than they should in a group. They pick up the slack in relationships. When persistence is motivated by self-advancement or fulfillment, success is frequently associated with denial.

“People who are super persistent can often be rigid perfectionists. They are driven by a highly developed sense of duty, which is frequently rooted in their upbringing.They may fear failure. Some might say that British Prime Minister Mrs. May is perilously close to this tipping point with the Brexit issue at the moment. For whatever reason, she seems unable to say ‘stop, I need help.’ Her path has been called “an act of national self-harm.“


Maribelle said this about her marriage. “There were lots of warning signs that my relationship was abusive. But I was raised to be persistent, to stick at it, never give up, to do my duty to my family and to be patient. I kept trying harder and harder to make things work, but eventually I realised that to protect the physical and emotional well-being of myself and my children, I had to leave. I had been afraid of failure, what people would think of me and coming from a religious family the reaction of my parents and siblings. I was trapped by my own thinking not just a violent marriage”.   


It can also happen in careers. Keisha worked 70 hour weeks and even longer, for 10 years to build up her reputation so she could make Partner in her law firm. One day earlier this year she woke up in the middle of the night with a severe asthmatic attack. She’d never had one before. Her throat felt swollen and constricted, her chest tightened  and she struggled to find her breath. She managed to call an ambulance and was admitted to hospital. She thought she was dying.

She is still having tests to establish what might have caused the attack, but her doctors and husband have advised her to re-appraise her lifestyle. One doctor thinks it was a severe panic attack. She told 3Plus: “I had always wanted to get to the top in my profession. But you can’t do that if you’re dead. I either need to make other goals or discuss how to achieve them in a more realistic way with my boss. He may well tell me that if I can’t take the pressure, I need to leave! So be it”


Lucy Magnelli pursued her passion and dream of opening up her own organic catering company, offering services to organisations and individuals. In 2004, together with her business partner Jill, they enjoyed early success. “At first there was a huge buzz around this new hip concept. We were one of the first on the market in my area. We had a lot of business, things were going really well. We developed a good reputation and invested in equipment, hired staff and rented office and kitchen space. Then came the recession and the inevitable cut backs. I thought we could handle it. Jill didn’t want to invest any more and we had fewer projects. I still thought we could handle it. I re-mortgaged my house. Our service to high-end clients fell-off completely. Jill exited our partnership.

“I picked myself up and carried on letting the permanent staff go. I cancelled the lease on the office space, which incurred a penalty. When I did get a project, I struggled to get contract staff. I only woke up when my accountant told me that if I wanted to carry on I would need a cash injection of $30,000, which I didn’t have. I closed the business in 2015 before I bankrupted myself, paying off my debts with a loan from my brother. It’s going to take me years to pay it off.”  

Key takeaways

Persistence is one of those personal qualities that can work well, but it can also turn against you. However driven and focused you are, it’s important to never stop listening, observing and asking questions. But above all, asking for advice and help is key. In a culture where we are continually exhorted not to fail and stick to our goals there are very mixed messages out there.

Warren Buffet famously said “Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

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3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Leadership and Competence Building or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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