Home All Determination, Resilience or Foolhardiness?

Determination, Resilience or Foolhardiness?

written by Sulynn 29 August 2007

Sulynn, MAPP '06, lives with her daughter in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She provides consulting and coaching services, leading her own company, Human Capital Perspectives. Sulynn is also the founder of the Asian Center for Applied Positive Psychology (ACAPP). Full bio.

Sulynn's articles are here.

Studies under the expanding umbrella of positive psychology tell us that we have Hope when our goal is supported by self-efficacy and self agency (Snyder). So goal setting is good and having the means to get there and knowing how well we are succeeding are all good (Latham). Resilience is a big help because it keeps us on the treadmill no matter what calamity befalls us and we keep trying (Reivich & Shatte). Seligman tells us that we need to know when to give up something, to reframe and know what we can control and change and what we cannot, etc so that we don’t go crazy with anxiety or erode our self-esteem believing that we are helpless and by extension, also hopeless.

Edison Lightbulb

Many new inventions and creations depend on the originators going past what was thought to be impossible i.e. beyond their direct control. So it seems that Optimism -Hope’s sunny sidekick, is a definite plus and Resilience re-traces hope each time that it falters and wanes. But what if that hope and optimism was misplaced? Or the methods used to get to something were wrong? Then the person gets discouraged unless he is Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison practised 9,999 times to succeed!  How did he know that he would succeed? Was it his optimism or his confidence? Who would try doing something 10,000 times?

There are also some of us who are more gungho or more resilient than others. Then the question is when or how does a person determine when to quit? Or change goal? Or change method? How do we teach or coach someone to be able to discern that moment of ‘abandon ship’ when we are no longer in their lives as teachers or coaches?

In school, we were taught to persevere. If we failed to do well, it was usually attributed to lack of effort or aptitude. Our results were somewhat within our control and we would find out all too soon whether our malaise had been noticed. Then our parents or teachers stepped in to ‘raise’ our standards. 

Take my 10 year old practising for her music exam. The time frame is finite and the combination of effort and level of skill leads to quite predictable results. I nag and cajole, bribe and scold, etc her to keep up the practices even though it has been 6 months since she had learned and repeatedly played through the pieces. We keep going through ‘flow’ and ‘blockages’ because we know what’s coming – we hold informed expectations. We don’t give up because we know that the end is near.

But what if I wanted to pursue something for which I have less certainty in the outcome and timeframe for completion? Do I push on doggedly no matter what and wait for a miracle to happen? Particularly when omnipresent sceptics and critics thrive on reminding me how futile my efforts are or how misguided I am. To these persecutors, my resilience is viewed as stubbornness and my vision deemed an obsession. Then the gremlin hops around my consciousness and whispers ‘quit while the going is good’ or ‘what makes you think you are different?’ and other choice forebodings loom in that same negative light.

Do we dig in our heels with determination and face up to challenges and letdowns with resilience? Or should we ‘grow up’ and put aside our foollhardiness? Have you ever been there in that dark corner by yourself? I have. I thought about how I made decisions on what to follow through and which ones to quit, and figured that I had probably asked myself questions such as these:

* Does it really matter in the long run (considering that in the long run we are all dead)? Would it, in Topol’s words (Fiddler on the Roof) spoil some vast eternal plan? The answers would range from ‘Yea who cares?’ through ‘It matters to me’ to ‘it could make a difference to the way of the world’.

* Am I enjoying what I am doing? Do I wake up eager to re-engage myself in the task at hand?  Do I lose myself to what I am doing? Do I experience flow states – is the tension drawn between my abilties and the challenge strong enough to temporarily suspend even ‘me’ ? (Csikszentmihalyi)

* Am I just chasing a whimsical dream or is this dogged pursuit in line with my life goals? Is there congruence with my belief system and values? What higher purpose does it serve? Would it be meaningful when I look back age and ages hence? Does it add or minus from my authenticity? Note: Seligman‘s description of pleasure being temporary while meaning is more longterm in Authentic Happiness.

* Being a erstwhile economist, I tend to examine the opportunity cost. Is it worth the sacrifice or is it mere reallocation of resources? Here, the relative values I place on different areas of my life weigh in on the answers.

  • Note, however that the actual amount of time required is irrelevant. Whether or not I do choose to do something that takes 5 years, I would be still become 5 years older in the future. However relationships may suffer and that counts for something (with me). 

*Do I go all out – do or die? Or do I set a timeout marker to trigger re-evaluation of the goal or a review of the situation? If so, what conditions may make the continued pursuit of the goal untenable? Or is this something that I would rather die trying than give up never knowing if I could have done it? The question here is again ‘will I look back in regret someday?’ (Vaillant)

  • My worst enemy is self talk – Reivich and Shatte tells us that our internal ticker tape unrelentingly regurgitates fodder for rumination and self-incrimination. The things I tell myself could well destroy the meaning in my past, rip all pleasure from my present and confuse my sense of purpose going forward.

* Have I tried all avenues? Do I know deep in my gut that I need to apply more pressure on myself to keep at this project? (Baumeister).

I am sure there were more questions for I live with an internal Gestapo. Thankfully and gratefully, I have few regrets in life – determination and resilience have paid off handsomely and foolhardiness is typically weeded out with minor ego bruises. Perhaps it also helps that I am one of the lucky ones born with a flow personality looking at life sunnyside up.

 What about you? How do you decide when/what to stick with and when/on what to cut your losses?


Helpful readings:

Baumeister, R., Gaillot, M., DeWall, N. & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1802.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Latham, G.  (2003). Goal-setting: A five-step approach to behavior change. Organizational Dynamics, 32(3) 309–318.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1994). What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 13(4). Abstract.

The illustration was drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the chapter in Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves that was based on this article.

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Kathryn Britton 2 September 2007 - 4:56 pm


What an interesting way of putting the question! Here are a few random thoughts on the matter:

The only thing that differentiates Thomas Edison from the people who practiced 9,999 times and did not become famous is the outcome. You can’t know outcome ahead of time, so you just can’t know whether you’ll be Thomas Edison or a wannabe. So there needs to be something worthwhile in the doing and becoming, not just the achievement.

When I have a bad gremlin attack, I think of Margaret’s words, “Send that gremlin out on an errand.” That brings up another means of dealing with uncertainty, that is, humor. Laugh heartily and often. There is an element of absurdity in all of us.

In the long run, we are all dead, but we have shaped the lives of the people around us who shape the lives of people around them who shape … isn’t it to the 7th generation? But once again, we can’t know all those outcomes. We have lots of chances to do unnamed good deeds if you think of all the people we can affect and all the people they can affect.

Perhaps some of the goals need to be in terms of “Being” and not “Doing.” I’ve been thinking about this lately – so I’ll point you to a couple of things I’ve posted on my blog on the subject:


If you drop in, I’d love to get a comment. I’m getting readers but not many commenters so far.


Senia 2 September 2007 - 5:40 pm

Sulynn, this is a cool article. I read it as being about all the q’s from positive psychology that can be helpful to ask ourselves. I think one of the most powerful concepts from pos psych is what Doug wrote about here: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/doug-turner/20070215106 (i.e. what do you choose to focus on?)

Same with your questions. They’re great because it’s about “what do we choose to focus on?” Thanks, Sulynn!


David [at] SlowDownFast.com 2 September 2007 - 7:42 pm

Excellent post. Great job bringing several points together and laying things out.

For me, resilience often comes down to 3 things (in addition to knowing when to let go): Patience, Endurance, and Persistence.

Jeff Dustin 3 September 2007 - 10:00 am


Yes, when do we quit and when to persevere?

I suspect that this is a very subjective Q & A that is so bound to context that only a rough guideline can apply broadly to differing circumstances. Its an art in other words, not so much a science.

That being said, I think of the movie The Devil Wears Prada. There was a book review of the same on Reflectivehappiness.com Marty’s old site. A Cost Benefit Analysis could help determine what is the kill point of a project. When do you throw in the towel? Yet again, judgment is the crucial factor. You have to make choices about whether one factor is more important than another. Is comfort more valuable than say, achievement while pursuing specific goal?

If a child was inside a burning building and you could save him or her, I don’t think there would be a lot of cerebral cognition going on, you’d just run in and snatch him or her up and dash out.

Life has lots of less important goals that make value judgments trickier. Do I buy locally grown produce? Should I wear organics only? Do I donate to XY or Z charity? Should I date her? On and on these less critical but still somewhat important decisions need judgment. The Paradox of Choice really sums up the toughness of the myriad decisions. Sometimes its best to flip a coin, because in the long run, how do you know what outcomes will occur. Predicting is a shaky shaky art.

Coert Visser 4 September 2007 - 5:29 am

Hi Sulynn,
Thanks for your interesting article. I like the different perspectives you show on this topic. I think one of the reasons we admire people who have persisted so much is that we will never know FOR SURE whether we will be acknowledged for our persistence and whether it will pay off in the end. Persistent people like Edison and have shown their commitment and taken the chance despite this fact. Whether there will be external rewards will remain uncertain but I bet there will be an interinsic reward in the form of gratification. I hope more people on this website will write about this topic.

Sulynn 8 September 2007 - 9:38 am

Thank you Kathryn, Senia, David, Jeff, & CoertVisser. Maybe it simply boils down to finding engagement (whether pleasure or flow), meaning and purpose in our pursuit on the personal front, and remembering that other people matter. And in the end, whether I can live with my decision to chase the dream or give it up depends on its intrinsic value to me. If I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter 🙂 Have a great month!


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