Grit is the term psychologists use to describe abiding perseverance. It’s sort of motivation writ large — not just the energy it takes to push through a difficult task, but the energy needed to push through years of difficult tasks.
As I’m starting in on my fourth book in five years, I’ve been thinking about grit a lot lately. I’ve also been talking to a ton of folks about it. In fact, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken with over the past six months has fielded a question or two.
So this is a best-of list — seven lessons on grit from SEAL team commanders, elite-level performance psychologists, big-wave surfers, astrophysicists, neuroscientists, chess champions, screenwriters, dead writers, and a few personal tidbits woven through.
ONE: The best four-word description of grit, ever
Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle said it three hundred years ago. It was true then. Still true now: “No pressure; No diamonds.”
TWO: The Nitty-Gritty of Grit
The version of grit that most people are familiar with is the get-after-it, day-to-day variety. It’s perseverance under any circumstance: Kick me in the teeth or sing my praises, doesn’t matter, I’m still coming. It’s also what Navy SEALs mean by their motto, “The only easy day was yesterday,” and the reason I have a sign hanging above my desk that reads: “Do the Hard Thing.” But it’s actually a much more nuanced skill than most suspect.
When researchers tease this kind of day-to-day grit apart, they actually find three overlapping traits: willpower, mindset and passion. You need all three for day-to-day grit, so we’ll take them one at a time:
Willpower is self-control. It’s also a finite resource. The short version is we lose willpower as the day goes on, so just about everyone I spoke to suggested starting your day with your hardest task and then working backwards in descending order of importance and difficulty. Of course, if you want the long version of willpower, University of Florida’s psychologist Roy Baumeister’s book — aptly called Willpower — is probably the best overview on the subject (and a great read). If you want the long version via video, here’s Roy and NY Times science writer John Tierney (who-coauthored the book with Baumeister) giving a great talk on the subject.
Mindset is what my friend Peter Diamandis means when he says: “If you think you can or you think you can’t, well, you’re right.” More technically, mindset refers to our attitudes towards learning. You’re either have a fixed mindset, meaning you believe talent is innate and no amount of practice will help. Or you have a growth mindset, meaning you believe talent is merely a starting point and practice makes all the difference. In psychologist Angela Duckworth’s groundbreaking research, a growth mindset was a leading indicator in high-grit individuals. It’s also the subject that Stanford’s Carol Dweck has spent her career studying, so her book on it is another great read.
Passion is important for grit because there’s just no other way to persevere for years on end. In fact, a lot of researchers actually define grit as “the intersection of passion and perseverance.” “Get obsessed, stay obsessed” is often how this idea is presented. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always help. The issue is that genuine passion doesn’t look like passion on the front end. On the front end, passion is nothing more than the overlap of multiple curiosities coupled to a few easy wins. Understanding this recipe is the secret to unearthing long-term passion. I break this down in significant detail in this Forbes blog: The Passion Recipe.
THREE: Someone is Always Chasing You
While I’m not always a fan of leaning on extrinsic motivators, screenwriter Burk Sharpless brought up a really powerful one last month. Burk is a member of a very elite club, one of Hollywood’s go-to-guys when it comes to big-budget action flicks. There are only a handful of these guys (and gals) in the world. For Burk, becoming one took nearly two decades of hard grinding — which is to say, he knows a bit about grit.
One of the things he knows is that it’s always a competition. “Someone’s always chasing me, “ he said. “For every one of me, there are another five thousand screenwriters just below me. They have just about my level of talent, creativity and connection — and they all want my job. I find it very motivating to remember that.”
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FOUR: Be Your Best When It Matters Most
International chess Grand Master turned world champion martial artist Josh Waitzkin argues that the most important type of grit is a third kind entirely, the kind of grit required to do your best when conditions are at their worst. “This is really the dividing line between elite level performers and everyone else,” is how he explained it.
The good news here is that there are some easy ways to train up this level of grit. When I practice a speech, for example, I always do one run-through under horrible conditions. I pick a time when I didn’t get enough sleep, have already spent ten hours writing, and went to the gym for a heavy session. I figure if I can give a coherent talk when I can barely keep my eyes open, no matter what happens on stage, I’ll be fine.
In action sports, to offer another example, the secret to survival is often the ability to maintain balance under conditions of absolute exhaustion. To train for this, at the tail end of every workout, after I’ve lifted and run and can barely stand, I get on an Indo board and ride it for ten minutes. If I fall off I have to start over. It’s another way of training my brain to produce my best when conditions are at their worst.
As William James wrote so many years ago:
In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.
FIVE: Creative Grit
When it comes to creativity, learning to be your best when conditions are at their worst requires an additional step. The reason is physiological. Bad conditions means more stress.
Yet, the more stress hormones in your system, the less your brain has the ability to find far-flung connections between ideas. Fight or flight is the ultimate example. When in the throes of extreme fear, creativity is totally reduced. The brain can only come up with three options: fight, freeze or flee.
I was speaking with Tufts professor emeritus of psychiatry Keith Ablow about this issue not long ago. He told me he solved it for himself with a neat bit of cognitive reframing. Here’s how he explained it: “I maintain a very strong philosophical position that being burnt out is a good thing. When I’m exhausted because of work done for a worthy goal, my exhaustion is an offering. By seeing it this way, I’m reframing exhaustion from a negative to a positive and this confers a certain immunity to exhaustion. It also dampens down fear, which can often be the byproduct of exhaustion, but is also a huge barrier to creativity. Just lowering anxiety a bit seems to free up hidden levels of creative thinking.”
SIX: This Is Water
Besides day-to-day grit, there are two other versions worth talking about. The first is the grit required to control your thoughts on a nearly moment-by-moment basis. When it comes to long-haul perseverance, because doubt and disappointment are regular companions, thought control is often the ballgame.
My favorite big picture thinking on this subject comes from David Foster Wallace’s amazing essay “This is Water,” This gets my vote for both the best bit of writing on the importance of thought control and, since Wallace took his own life a few years after penning this essay, a poignant reminder of how very difficult this fight really is.
For those interested in more practical advice, the real secret to thought control is to exploit the little gap (no more than a millisecond) between the moment a thought arises and the moment our brain attaches an emotion to that thought. If you can get into that gap, you can often replace a bad thought with a better one, thus neutralizing the stress response in the short term and reprogramming the brain over the long. This is one of the great benefits of a mindfulness practice. By observing your thoughts as they arise, you start to notice this gap.
SEVEN: Fear Is Your Constant Companion
Speaking of fear…. If you’re interested in grit, you’re interested in challenge, and if you’re interested in challenge, you’re going to be scared. As big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton told me: “Fear is the most common emotion in my life. I’ve been afraid for so long — well, honestly, I can’t ever remember not being afraid. It’s what you choose to do with that fear that makes all the difference.”
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