The Importance of Courage and Perseverance

If I had to choose the most indispensable character trait to possess, it would be a toss-up between courage and perseverance. I say that because if you lack either virtue, you won’t be able to execute upon any of the others. Except for those born naturally talented into an environment in which those talents are catered to, I cannot think of any self-made man who lacked both of these character traits.

On perseverance, you have probably encountered this excellent Calvin Coolidge quote:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

On courage, we have this quote from Samuel Johnson:

“Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other. We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway, than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch, and knocks you down behind your back. Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue, that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.”

I do question whether we, as the American collective, have culturally lost the muscle that treasured courage and perseverance.

Not that long ago, there was a viral thread about a twenty-year old at a private college who was dropping out of school because her roommate frequently called her the b-word and disparaged her appearance.

Hesitancy about teaching the importance of mental toughness has arisen because of its political implication of victim-blaming or even possibly diminishing the welfare state. But when you set aside the politics of the matter, America’s youth are being disserved by the lack of high emphasis on mental toughness.

Just recently, I began studying the life of John Francis Queeny, the man who founded the predecessor of what became Monsanto. Studying his life—which is a separate inquiry from studying Monsanto the global behemoth—provides much instruction on the value of courage and perseverance.

With $5,000, Queeny put his into life savings into an effort to develop saccharin that could be sold to fund Coca-Cola’s growing syrup operations in the American Midwest in 1901.  Eager to begin operations as soon as possible, the factory caught fire before the insurance policy went into effect and he experienced a total wipeout event in middle age. He allowed himself a week to lament his loss before he began to rebuild.

After rebuilding several years later and begin to produce both saccharin and aspirin, he began to encounter extreme competition from German manufacturers (led by Bayer, yes, the same Bayer that pursued it to merge a century later) who priced aspirin at a loss so that Monsanto would be bankrupt and German would maintain a monopoly on the product. By ramping up production at the factory and leaning on the saccharin production, he was able to turn a tiny profit and maintained that status quo for three years until the German counterparts gave up on the price squeeze.

If Queeny had sulked after the failure of his refinery, none of the charities that bear his name would have existed nor would the business that bears the name of his wife, Monsanto Corp.

It is hopefully well-accepted that a primary purpose in life is to narrow the gap between what we are capable of producing and what we actually produce. Courage and perseverance, manifested through mental toughness, is a necessary condition precedent to maximizing our potential. That is why I lament the modern American trend towards treating sensitivity as a form of moral authority. It is a bar to realizing your potential, and should be labelled as such. When Queeny’s business literally went up in smoke, he battened down and rebuilt from nothing with nothing. Queeny’s spirit of perseverance and courage should be emulated by all.