There has been a lot of interest in and writings on “grit” over the last few years, especially in the education realm. Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” gave the idea some legs with her research data and recommendations. However, some have found her conclusions to over-reach what the data said, and there is still another camp that believes grit is not really a good predictor of success nor can it be taught.
So what is grit and can we learn it?
In my opinion, grit is your capacity to persevere, endure, and possibly even triumph in a worst-case scenario. Can it be learned? Sure – the hard way. No six-week on-line course is going to really teach you how to stand up to and get through the emotional, physical, or mental hell that you have to face in order to survive to the other side. Most people don’t voluntarily sign up for something like that. Who voluntarily puts themselves through something they’re not entirely sure they’re going to get through without significant damage being done to them somehow?
That’s why grit is still appreciated when we see it in action in others because most of us admire them for taking those challenges on. And who are some of these folks where we can see this in action? Our armed forces serving in operations around the world; our law enforcement officers; our first responders; those rescuing, saving, and helping in crisis; those overcoming tremendous personal issues or challenges that help blaze a trail for others to take heart and follow when their time comes, to name just a few. Gritty situations can be epic dramas that everyone sees or small private battlegrounds for you alone, but either way, it’s a scary no-man’s-land that has no guarantee of survival, much less success. I don’t see too many people signing up for that course. That’s why we are in awe of those who do. So where does that leave the rest of us? How do we “up” our grit? Is there a way to start slowly or do you just jump and pray? Well . . . yes to both.
As a running coach, I’ve always told my athletes that one sure way to improve your performance is to improve your “crap” end – the worst-case scenario. How do you perform when EVERYTHING goes wrong? The weather is the worst, your gear falls apart, you’re sick or injured on the appointed day, you’ve just received terrible, world’s coming apart news as you step off – every bad thing AND the kitchen sink. How do you perform? What can you count on yourself producing in that context? The answer involves one part character and one part training. What – training? Yep.
Where we can’t learn it in a traditional way – classrooms, books, papers, and tests – we can learn it in small ways by putting ourselves into those situations we don’t excel at, those situations where we doubt our ability, those times when we’re a little scared of coming up short or just flat out failing. In training, we push limits, try new tactics, and simulate worst-case scenarios, practicing our response to them both physically and mentally. Courage goes hand in hand with grit, and whether we’re taking on hill repeats or learning something new, every time we push the limit of what we think we can do, take on, or master, we’re increasing our grit. No, maybe not in epic world changing ways, but each one of those hard, scary, uncomfortable challenges we voluntarily meet head on teaches us more about ourselves – what we’re capable of, what matters to us – and it gets us prepped for those truly epic moments we never see coming. But you have to jump in and try – that takes some courage and grit right there!
I’ve had my share of those moments – we all have. At the time, I wondered how I was ever going to survive in tact to reach the other side of the crisis. The truth is – I didn’t survive in tact; I changed. And THAT’S the key to grit. In the digging deep, the humbling of failure, the embarrassment of screwing up, the wonder in getting it right, the awe in triumphing in the end – somewhere in the midst of all that persevering and trying and failing and succeeding, I learn more about myself, and it changes the narrative I tell myself about myself. I learn and I change.
So when the next gritty situation raises its ugly head, I might still feel like my insides are about to fall out, but . . . they’ve fallen out before and I KNOW I can stuff ‘em back inside and succeed because I’ve done it before. Now I tell myself “I KNOW I got this” because I’ve trained myself to “get” this. I recognize the situation or the set-up when it happens so I can stay calm, activate the plan, and tell myself to push through because I’ve already done this before. I don’t go forward because I’m no longer scared; I go forward because I know what to do while it’s all falling apart AND I’m still scared. In that moment, the narrative I tell myself about myself changes my response to the situation. I’ve gone from helpless to hopeful and from surprised to resolved.
So can we learn grit? Sure. If we’re brave enough to look inside and face the biggest obstacle any of us ever really faces – ourselves – and have the courage to rewrite our own narratives about who we are and what we can do on our best – and our worst – days. That’s some true grit that even The Duke himself could appreciate.