Developing a “Gritty” Life

“I believe that anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do, provided he keeps doing them until he gets a record of successful experience behind him.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The ability to remain persistent and passionate about your life goals even when things get tough is a trait of highly successful individuals.  It is what we call “grit.”   Grit has a great many correlates, nuances and anomalies, and those who possess it may express it differently from day to day.  Some days it is stronger, and other days weaker.  It responds to how you access, ignite, and control it each day.  Following are a few qualities or practices tied to the presence of grit in people.

Courage is not the absence of fear, rather the ability to manage fear and push forward into fear-inducing situations.  Courage manifests only in the presence of fear.  The ability to manage fear of failure is highly important to grit and the growth mindset.   Rather than avoiding failure or challenge at all costs, gritty people embrace these as parts of a process. For those who are vulnerable in their perseverance and passion, there are valuable lessons in defeat.

Fear of failure is characterized by an unhealthy aversion to risk and/or a strong resistance to embracing vulnerability. While many people experience this fear, the problem is not insurmountable.  The first 35 years of my life were characterized by a debilitating fear of failure emanating from a fixed mindset.  In overcoming this fear, I have found that courage is like a muscle; it has to be exercised if it is to grow and remain strong.  If one is not scaring oneself regularly, courage will atrophy.

Long-term goals and endurance are critical to developing grit.  Returning to the Angela Lee Duckworth quote at the end of the previous post, she stated “… achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions towards a long-term goal.”  The commitment of time and effort required to be a top performer in a field is high, even for those with prodigious talent and ability.  Malcolm Gladwell will tell you it takes 10,000 hours of practice to gain the highest levels of performance.

Not just quantity time, either.  Out of this large quantity of time must come purpose and focus, and the time must include significant quality time.  Long-term goals will drive such quality time, providing the framework and context that will yield focus, stamina, courage, and greater passion.

Grit does not only apply to long-term projects.  The grit one develops in the longer campaigns will yield results in the smaller campaigns along the way.  In some respects, pursuing the big vision with grit and determination will improve character and enhance performance for all of life.

Excellence is the goal, not perfection.  Gritty people learn early that it is not as useful to seek perfection as it is to strive for excellence.  As one writer put it, “Perfection is excellence’s somewhat pernicious cousin.”   Most of the time, pursuing perfection is demanding, exhausting, and distracting from what really matters to success. Interestingly, perfectionism is a common characteristic in a number of serious mental illness presentations.

Excellence is an attitude, not an outcome.  It is a way of doing business, not a finite or subjective achievement.  Excellence allows for challenge, set-back, and failure along the road to improvement and high performance.  Excellence requires grit, and both values lead one to a life of continuous seeking, striving, finding, and never yielding.

Developing grit is not about talent, although talent is useful in the application of grit. Grit is often the energy that overcomes a lack of talent or experience.  The people who have achieved primarily by grit and determination and not by intelligence or experience are too numerous to ponder.

Following are some ideas for developing greater grit in life, and fostering a growth mindset

  1. Pay attention to your inner narrative – what is called self-talk. People with grit do not berate themselves for failures or setbacks. They turn these into learning events, grow from them, and quickly move on. This means learning to speak kindly and positively to the self even in the face of a failure. It is possible to speak one’s way into a grittier existence by managing the self-talk process.
  2. Pay attention to your human landscape – surround yourself with people who have both passion and perseverance towards their goals.  You need to have the right tribe influencing your development of grit and a growth mindset.  Too many slackers and naysayers will hold you back, and possibly torpedo your progress. One source of positive people in your life is found in your reading material.  Read true stories of people who achieved in real life (not in fiction). Learn from them and appropriate the mindset and grit they radiate in their stories.  These will help to strengthen or grow the mindset required to increase grit.
  3. Pay attention to thinking patterns – work to reduce rigidity in thoughts and actions. Flexible thinking allows resilience and grit to blossom, in part because flexible people don’t see problems, they see opportunities. Enthusiasm and creative thinking produce capability and confidence, which in turn feed grit.
  4. Set smaller goals in line with your purposes and go for the quick wins. By creating smaller short-term goals that align with the bigger purpose, one can increase the success rate and the speed in accomplishing goals.
  5. Reflection is vital to developing grit – reflection can take the form of meditation, journaling, gratitude exercises, and solitude practices such as going for walk or taking time to reflect away from the grind. When done often and in a non-judgmental way, effectively evaluate progress and plan for the next goals and steps.

Teddy Roosevelt, in a speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1907, summed up the idea of grit when he stated: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strived valiantly; who errs, who comes again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

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