Grit is one of those words that we toss around and use synonymously with bravery, courage, tenacity, perseverance, resolution, and so on. And it is all of those things, but I would venture to say that grit spans beyond the typical definitions: it is a mindset. A choice. A decision on how you pursue and tackle each and every aspect of your life. Grit is the moral fiber and fortitude for how some people choose to live their lives.
The psychology of grit
Before she became a psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth spent some years as a 7th grade math teacher, during which time she realized that it wasn’t IQ that was responsible for the success of some of her students, but what she came to regard as grit (view her Ted Talk here). The students who worked harder, who were engaged, and open to learning, were the ones who were successful. The students who were motivated to learn, excelled. As a psychologist, she eventually took her question of who is successful and why to schools, the military, and businesses, and each time, her research led to the same finding: the predictor of success in all instances, was grit.
What is grit?
Grit is that within us that leads us to endure, to work hard, to abandon giving up. It is about keeping your eye on your long-term goals in spite of and perhaps because of the hard times. It is about owning your passion, and believing in it; it is about commitment, perseverance, focus, determination, and a force deep within you that whispers: keep going. You can do this, when everything and everyone around you implies otherwise.
Where does talent fit in?
Talent by definition is a special ability that allows a person to do something well. Talent is often innate, and it enables a person to succeed in specific realms – but only to a point. That’s why someone who is say a great violinist by nature, may be surpassed by someone who doesn’t possess a natural talent, but practices religiously. We see this every day in the world of work, in sports, in the arts. Talent is a wonderful attribute, but often not enough. Talent needs to merge with perseverance, passion, and commitment—all the ingredients of grit—for it to carry a person to the next level.
The relationship between failure and grit
Failure means you gave it your all and it wasn’t good enough. (As opposed to giving up, which means that you abandoned ship before you gave it your all because you lost faith in you.) Failure requires you to keep believing in the possibility of success until the final moment.
I contend that we should all fail a lot. Failure teaches us not only how to adapt, but what’s involved in picking ourselves up. In starting again. In exploring new routes. Success is great, but it doesn’t really help us to grow. Failure builds perseverance and determination if we learn to use it as a teacher rather than a curse. I believe that failure empowers our grit factor.
I’ve heard people in the corporate and sports arena say, I know my limits. I couldn’t go on. But I don’t think we actually do know our limits. I believe that more often than not, we can go on. And the only way we discover that is by forward motion. If we quit every time that we think we are going to break, then we will never cross the thresholds that lead us into our next chapters.
The role learning plays in developing grit
It’s amazing to witness children from kindergarten to high school in learning situations. Some love to work hard, whether it’s math, writing, science. The harder a subject gets over the course of the year, the more interested some children become. Others make excuses when a subject becomes more difficult. They avoid doing homework, studying for tests. Perhaps it’s easier to be apathetic than to admit you need help, or even worse, to appear stupid.
Our relationship with learning is critical to our development. If we view learning as a one-time experience to achieve, then of course we get frustrated when new topics and information appears. When we treat learning as a life-long journey, then we get excited when new information emerges—new knowledge makes the journey more fulfilling. Understanding your relationship to learning is the key to uncovering your grit factor.
Grit in action
Ultra-running has been enabled me to see grit in action. In a 100-mile race, grit really shows its true dimensions and depth. Because about 80 miles into a race, everything hurts. Mentally, most things suck. And a lot of folks quit. They come up with a myriad of reasons as to why it is not possible for them to persist. And they believe these reasons. They become part of their story. And it’s fine! Because in reality, no one cares who finishes or does not finish a race: it’s a personal mission. But what about the people who finish in spite of the difficulties? To me, that is grit in action. The ability to focus, and to change the channel of your brain and body which is saying NO, I cannot go on exemplifies grit. Ultra-running has taught me that it’s okay to sweat. To panic. To experience a multitude of highs and lows in the span of an hour. To take a time out and reassess, and come up with a new plan. It has taught me that it’s okay to let others see you struggle and battle your demons! And somehow learning these tidbits in the physical realm has enabled me to apply them in a more concrete and thoughtful way to my life in the corporate and creative realms.
Grit is a sink-your-teeth-in and fight-till-the-end quality. It is a reminder that it’s okay to really want the things you want and that hard work is not only a key ingredient to achieving success, but that it can and often does translate to joy and growth. Grit not only breeds greatness, but gratitude, too, and a deep-rooted appreciation for what you are learning along the way. There will always be the people out there that want to take the short cut when it comes to anything and everything. If someone is giving it away, they want it. Tell them they have to work for it, they are not interested. I believe that we are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Our minds know how to spring back and find alternative routes regardless of the obstacles we face. And our bodies have much more endurance than we give them credit for. Perhaps we should all shrive to be grittier and to seek goals which deserve our commitment, passion, and perseverance.