Pillars of Persistence: Strategies for Building Work Ethic and Determination

March 07, 2024
  • Private Banking
Senior Wealth Planner Ross Bruch looks at the science behind how business owners can pass down motivation and determination to younger generations.

Perseverance and diligence are traits that significantly contribute to success, not just in personal development but also in sustaining family enterprises. In today's dynamic environment, preparing both children and family business heirs to navigate these challenges is essential. Recent research by Dr. Julia A. Leonard, a noted child developmental psychologist and Yale professor, offers invaluable insights and strategies for nurturing these crucial qualities.

Integrating the studies’ findings into your daily life and business practices can cultivate a resilient, adaptable, and industrious next generation of business owners.

Study One: Struggle and Persistence:

In a 2017 study, Dr. Leonard and her fellow researchers investigated the relationship between children witnessing adult efforts and their own willingness to persist in challenging tasks. The research categorized children into three groups:

  1. One observed an adult persistently struggling with a task
  2. One saw an adult effortlessly complete a task
  3. One wasn’t exposed to any adult effort

The children were then asked to solve a difficult problem and the researchers measured how many times the children attempted to complete the project before giving up. The children who observed the adult's struggle demonstrated significantly higher persistence in their efforts than either of the other cohorts, suggesting that adult modeling of behaviors shapes early development of persistence and effort.

Study Two: Observed Effort

A related 2019 study further explored how adults’ demonstration of effort and persistence tangibly affects children's approach to challenges.

Children observed adults engaging in tasks requiring varied levels of effort, with some tasks being completed successfully and others ending in failure. Adults were told to make statements related to the tasks (e.g., “This will be hard”), offer encouragement, or not comment at all. After observing, the children were given an impossible task, and how long and hard they worked on it was an indication of their persistence.

Similar to the first study, researchers found that children displayed greater persistence after witnessing adults successfully complete the tasks compared to observing failure. Significantly, children showed the highest levels of persistence when adults also explicitly discussed the importance of effort. Phrases that set expectations, provided pep talks, or highlighted the value of trying hard were particularly impactful, especially when combined with successful demonstrations of tasks.

The study underscores the importance of not only teaching persistence, but also building an understanding of effort through example.

Study Three: Intervention

Finally, in a third study conducted in 2021, Dr. Leonard explored the impact of adult intervention on children's persistence in challenging tasks — in particular how children's perseverance is affected when adults take over tasks instead of allowing children to struggle and solve problems independently.

The findings revealed that children show reduced persistence in tasks when adults intervene and complete the tasks for them, compared to when children are allowed to face challenges on their own. Children placed in the group in which adults took over showed significantly less persistence when presented with an impossible task (a puzzle box that could not be opened) than those in groups where adults taught and/or allowed them to learn independently. This underscores the critical importance of encouraging children to independently tackle and work through challenges, with adults providing support only when necessary.

By modeling perseverance, positively framing challenges, and balancing support with independence, family business leaders can enhance the capacity of the next generation to face difficulties.

Broadening the Perspective

The insights from these studies are not only valuable for parents but are also particularly relevant for family business owners looking to cultivate a strong work ethic, motivation, and persistence within their successors. Dr. Leonard’s research offers a blueprint for fostering environments that support growth into persistent, adaptable individuals. By modeling perseverance, positively framing challenges, and balancing support with independence, family business leaders can enhance the capacity of the next generation to face difficulties.

Below are seven strategies informed by these studies which can help lay a solid foundation for lifelong learning, success, and the sustainable continuation of family business legacies.

  1. Share Personal Stories of Perseverance: Narrate instances from your own life where hard work led to success, focusing on the challenges faced and how you overcame them. This makes the concept of hard work more relatable and inspiring.
  2. Discuss the Long-Term Benefits: Regularly discuss how hard work today can lead to improved opportunities and outcomes in the future, connecting present efforts with future rewards. Gradually introduce individuals to increasingly difficult tasks and responsibilities to push their boundaries and develop resilience.
  3. Support Without Solving: If someone in the successor generation faces a problem, resist the urge to solve it for them. Instead, offer guidance and support, encouraging them to find solutions on their own. This fosters independence and perseverance.
  4. Set Collaborative Family Goals: Engage in setting goals – business-related and otherwise – that the whole family can work towards, such as a community service project or a collective hobby. This teaches teamwork alongside perseverance.
  5. Celebrate Achievements and Learn from Failures: Make it a point to celebrate achievements and discuss what was learned from any failures. This reinforces the idea that the journey is as important as the destination, and openly sharing experiences with failure demystifies it; it can even be framed as a necessary step toward success
  6. Link Hard Work to Individual Passions: As the next generation is growing up, help them see how hard work applies to the things they love doing, whether it's sports, arts, or science. Effort is linked to improvement and enjoyment.
  7. Encourage Risk-Taking Within Reason: Don’t shy away from taking on tasks with risk of failure, where the stakes are low but the learning potential is high. For a younger group, this could involve trying a new sport or participating in a school competition skill; for the next generation entering the family business this could be learning a new role or leading a project within the enterprise.


Incorporating these research-backed strategies into daily interactions with the younger generation can transform the way they view challenges and their own capabilities. Family business owners have the unique opportunity to model these traits, equipping the next generation of business leaders to face challenges with grit, motivation, and determination.

If you are interested in learning more about how BBH can help prepare the next generation for business ownership, reach out to your BBH relationship manager.

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