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This is a chapter from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

This article is part of a series called Antivirus For Your Mind.

MY GRAMPA BILL lived near Kitty Hawk when he was a kid, and used to go watch the Wright brothers testing their aircraft. One time, because the Wright brothers wanted to shut the mouths of the doubters and improve the accuracy of some of the crazy stuff newspapers were printing about their work, the brothers invited reporters out to Kitty Hawk for a demonstration.

Everything went wrong. It was raining pretty hard and they were having trouble with the engine, so they didn’t get a chance to do anything until late afternoon. They made one attempt that day, and although the aircraft got up some speed, it never got off the ground.

The rain didn’t let up, so they had to wait two more days before they tried it again. This time they got about seven feet off the ground before the plane crashed.

The next day, a New York Times headline said, “FALL WRECKS AIRSHIP.” (The negative bias of the newsmedia was in full swing even way back then.) It was more than a year before any reporters came out to visit.

But the Wright brothers continued their work, as determined as ever. Why? What kept them working when they had so many failures? It all boils down to how they explained the setback to themselves. If they told themselves their goal was impossible, or that they weren’t capable, or some other explanation that took the wind out of their sails, they would not have pursued their goal, and they would have disappeared into oblivion. Anybody who explains their own setbacks that way gives up in defeat.

But the explanations the Wright brothers made of their many setbacks must have been more sensible. They must have thought the problems were fixable. They must have believed the cause of the setbacks could be changed. Explanations like these keep people from feeling demoralized in the face of setbacks.

It’s not willpower. It’s the way setbacks are explained. Remember that.

Most people think you can force yourself to keep going even when you believe it is hopeless. But when you “know” it’s hopeless, you won’t force yourself. When you are sure you are defeated, it is irrational to persist.

If you really want a drink of water, and you have an empty glass in your hand, and you can see it is empty, you won’t bother to try to take a drink from it. You know it is hopeless.

Willpower won’t help you. When you feel demoralized, finding a mistake in your explanations is the only thing that can save you.

“Through some strange and powerful principle of ‘mental chemistry’ which she has never divulged,” wrote Napoleon Hill in 1937, “Nature wraps up in the impulse of STRONG DESIRE ‘that something’ which recognizes no such word as impossible, and accepts no such reality as failure.”

Nobody knew what “that something” was back then. In a chapter on persistence, Napoleon Hill recommended willpower for persisting after a failure. We now know better.

Nature has divulged her secret to the unremitting efforts of cognitive scientists. It isn’t willpower. It is sensible explanations of setbacks that makes people determined and persistent. Good explanations are Nature’s secret “something” that gives people strength in the face of obstacles. Those who explain setbacks in the least demoralizing way have the most persistence.

In other words, the way to become more persistent is to make sure you don’t jump to demoralizing conclusions about the cause of the setback.

Instead of gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to try again even though you feel it’s hopeless, try eliminating the feeling of defeat to begin with and then persist naturally, driven by your desire — which remains undiminished by feelings of defeat.

Read the next chapter: An Aspiring Writer With a Sensible Wife

This series has been published as a book. Check it out here.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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