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To Stay Disciplined in a Sea of Distractions

Allowing you to develop perseverance and passionate thinking

Image of a rock climber.
Photo by Alexis Gethin on Unsplash

It isn’t easy — working on a task or heading into a meeting when you don’t want to. The ability to stay focused becomes thwarted every second you stare aimlessly at the screen. As the cursor continues to blink, you can’t help but wonder why can’t I start? What’s holding me up?

You’re waiting for something to propel you forward like a jet turbine forces a plane forward during takeoff.

I agree; it isn’t easy to start anything. The first step is the hardest. Getting to the second step is more energy-intensive. Grit, on the other hand, keeps you going when each step forward feels like a never-ending first step.

Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness — John Ortberg

I used to think of my colleagues in my undergraduate career as having an immense amount of grit. Little did I know I was wrong at the time. I wasn’t the best student — that still holds today. What I learned from this experience were my strengths, weaknesses, and how I can use both to push through and capitalize on a given moment.

The ability to persevere is how I would define grit.

What is grit?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit in the context of behavior is defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.”

Psychologist Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, describes her research alongside others in her field regarding the trait of grit. This book will serve as the primary source for this article.

Based on her studies, Dr. Duckworth redefined the definition of grit as having “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

Grit comes into play when nothing else matters — when the desired option that your body yearns for is to quit, grit replenishes your will ten-fold and keeps you grounded towards your goal.

Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from indomitable will — Mahatma Gandhi

By taking control of your psyche, instilling a relentless mental model can be the difference between you accomplishing your goal or failing.

It’s easy to give up. The feeling of giving up is amplified when you’re tired and ready to collapse.

Personally, when I wrote this article, I didn’t want to start it earlier than planned. I wanted to wait a few days and begin then because of life.

Instead, I thought about the benefit of having more time to write and prepare this article and used that as the main driver for motivation.

Mind over matter, right?

What does research say about grit?

Possessing the quality of grit has been better understood through research over the last couple of decades.

Angela Duckworth writes:

There isn’t just one gene that explains the heritability of grit. On the contrary, dozens of research studies have shown that almost all human traits are polygenic, meaning that traits are influenced by more than one gene.¹

A common misconception was that the person had to have a certain edge or specific gene transferred through generations to offspring and became expressed and harnessed in some form of environmental stress/activation.

That wasn’t the case.

Researchers discovered that grit is a culmination of several genes working together to create determination. “Grit, talent, and all other psychological traits relevant to success in life are influenced by genes and also by experience. Second: there’s no single gene for grit, or indeed any other psychological trait.”

This means that even if you don’t consider yourself a gritty person, you can still become one — through experiences.

Becoming something beyond what you’re genetically programmed to implies the word malleable or, in the field of Neuroscience, neuroplasticity.

As the name implies, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to grow in the direction it is shown.

For example, let’s say you’re not very good at math. The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that you can find other ways to learn math and become great at it. As you practice more, the brain begins to change — signifying growth towards proficiency.

A recent study published in Cell Metabolism by Moon et al. tells us that the brain behaves similarly to a muscle. In fact, muscle and brain training are connected.

As you train a muscle, the muscle fibers begin to strengthen and thicken to account for the increased, repetitive applied force. The driving force acts as an epicenter for change. The brain responds in a similar fashion²:

Exercise increases CTSB in mouse and primate plasma. CTSB deficiency in mice precludes benefits of running on spatial memory. In humans there is a positive correlation between CTSB levels, fitness and hippocampus-dependent memory. These findings expand our understanding of how exercise-induced peripheral factors boost brain function.

As you begin to stress the brain with new knowledge or study techniques, the brain starts to grow and learn. Newly applied practice can enhance brain function.

This is known as neural adaptation³.

Neural adaption is the change in neuronal responses due to preceding stimulation of the cell.

That is why you should never say you’re not equipped to do something. Instead, say, not yet — I am not yet prepared to act.

In theory, you are and can be.

All it takes a bit of a consistent push, and you’ll become something more.

Now, what about talented individuals who seem to possess some innate superpower to excel amongst us?

Talent and Grit

Well, talent also is genetically influenced and gained through experience. You may be predisposed to genes that make it easier to be better at math or gain more muscle, but this can also be trained.

Sociologist Dan Chambliss competed in high school as a swimmer but stopped training when he didn’t think he could make it to national rank.

I’m small, and my ankles won’t plantarflex. I can’t point my toes. I can only flex them. It’s an anatomical limitation. Which means, basically, at the elite level, I could only swim breaststroke.¹

In his later years, Dan was also coached differently. “In retrospect, I look back now and can see I had horribly bad coaches in a couple of crucial places. One of my high school coaches — I had him for four years — literally taught me zero. Nothing. He taught me how to do a breath stroke turn, and he taught me incorrectly.”

What happened later was that Dan trained again under an experienced coach, “got back in shape again and swam a two-hundred-yard individual medley as fast as I did in high school.”

He was able to find the stimuli his training desired, and his brain responded. He became a better swimmer.

The brain can grow in any direction, sometimes in the wrong direction. Seek help from experienced good coaches and people who know what they’re talking about. It makes a big difference, especially learning under a professional.

The stories we tell ourselves are what define us.

When you say screw it and go the other way, the fun part becomes the freedom gained from evil thoughts you believe, and all existing hindrance breaks free.

I can attest to this.

Let’s get personal

When I started college, I considered myself pretty good at math. It wasn’t till I began Calculus II where things went south. Coupled with the competitiveness within Engineering school, I saw a decline in my studies. I felt inadequate and stupid compared to my peers.

I lost my scholarship by the end of my Freshman year due to being on academic probation.

What happened next was me saying no to everything and everyone around me, which was a bit extreme but proved worthy in hindsight.

I said no to the people I hung out with, to the people I thought were cool, and the idea of having fun all the time.

You can still enjoy your life but within reason. Responsibility is always at play here.

So out of anger and disappointment, I began to turn things around. I studied as much as I could my sophomore year. I removed friends and started to turn my grades around. By the end of that year, I got my scholarship back and began focusing solely on my internal engine.

When I had lost my scholarship, I also suffered from a lack of self-confidence.

After turning myself around, I began working out. I gained confidence. A lot of it to the point that this day, still exists. That was a defining moment for me in my life that I always quote to this day.

I taught myself in the face of adversity to fight back. I was not going to miss out on the opportunity to become something bigger than myself.

I graduated, went back, got another degree, and worked as an Engineer for one of the world's most innovative companies.

This isn’t a bragging story, by the way. I am trying to digest what grit means to me personally and how I had to bite my ego and take things the hard way to find my light to guide me forward.

I don't consider myself a genius AT ALL. This moment in time showed me that if I can get out of that low point and persevere, I cannot limit what I can do. I can excel.

This is why I love the idea of neuroplasticity — you play the cards that you’re dealt, or you quit and play another game.

The same applies to grit. You can learn to have fortitude and use it to your advantage.

How to become a grittier person — The four paragons of grit

One of the critical concepts that Dr. Duckworth discusses in her book is The Four Paragons of Grit¹. These are meant to associate grit as a culmination of efforts that we can work towards.

By focusing on these four areas, the author argues we can become grittier people.

#1 — Interest: People are more satisfied with their jobs when they do something that fits their interests.

One example the book uses is setting unrealistic expectations when finding a romantic partner, especially within the younger generation.

Psychologist and collaborator Barry Schwartz stated he “thinks that what prevents many young people from developing a serious career interest is unrealistic expectations. ‘It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have finding a romantic partner. They want somebody who’s really attractive and smart and kind and empathetic and thoughtful and funny.”

It takes time to develop into your best self, whatever that is. Setting high expectations raises the potential height you might fall from. Be careful.

“Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.”

Go out and discover yourself.

By taking in the external world, you’re able to understand what you want for your life. Once you figure out what you want to do, harness those thoughts and put into motion a profound fulfillment of work.

#2 — Practice: With both quantity and quality of practice, one becomes better at something.

Sinking hours into a hobby without purpose won’t render much results. Quality hours in deliberate practice matter greatly.

For example, the author conducted a study analyzing how gritty spelling bee kids were. She found that the more deliberate practice you experience, the better the outcome was.

If you judge practice by how much it improves your skill, then deliberate practice has no rival. This lesson seemed to become increasingly clear to spellers as they spent more time competing. With each successive year of experience, they spent more time practicing deliberately. The same trend was even more pronounced in the month before the actual finals, when the average speller was devoting ten hours per week to deliberate practice.¹

However, deliberate practice also came at the cost of enjoyment, making sense if you think about it.

Deliberate or concentrated practice implies work within constraints. That constraint is you putting effort towards harnessing the craft, which is difficult and requires discipline.

If you judge practice by what it feels like, you might come to a different conclusion.

On average, spellers rated deliberate practice as significantly more effortful and significantly less enjoyable than anything else they did to prepare for competition. In contrast, spellers experienced reading books for pleasure and playing word games like Scrabble as effortless and as enjoyable as ‘eating your favorite food.¹’

According to the author, the basic requirements of deliberate practice include:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

Deliberate practice can enhance one’s ability to understand further what they’re learning.

Defining a goal sets the scope of what work you’re trying to accomplish. This allows you to concentrate your efforts on that idea. It is crucial to establish an internal feedback loop where you track how well you are learning to reap the benefits. Consider the Feynman Technique.

By incorporating a feedback loop, you can learn effectively and efficiently, thus, reaching your defined goal.

However, to reach your goal, sacrifice of enjoyment may be required.

Keep in mind that the benefits of reaching your goals can outweigh the negatives. It depends on you.

Furthermore, deliberate practice can become slightly more comfortable to conduct when you have a reason behind it.

#3 — Purpose: The reason behind why we do something.

For some, it could be monetary or status-oriented. For others, it could be to provide for family or friends. Having a purpose provides value to our goals because it gives us a reason or idea to fall back on when times are tough.

Purpose tells us that what you’re doing right now matters. The opposite is also true. What you’re not doing right now doesn’t matter. Of course, this depends on the context of the situation.

The author spoke to several “grit paragons” and found a striking similarity when defining a purpose — altruistic thinking. Instead of being selfish, the concept was selfless.

Renowned wine critic Antonio Galloni stated he “was always fascinated by wine, even at a young age. I am not a brain surgeon, I’m not curing cancer. But in this one small way, I think I’m going to make the world better. I wake up every morning with a sense of purpose.”

The author redefines purpose as “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others,” which is true. I believe that once you begin to open the lens from tunnel vision to wide-angle, you realize that:

  1. Your problems, in the grand scheme of things, are not as big as you thought and,
  2. Creating a link to your purpose through helping others can help alleviate those problems.

Author’s words on purpose¹:

On the other hand, human beings have evolved to seek meaning and purpose. Most profoundly, we’re social creatures. Why? Because the drive to connect with and serve, others also promotes survival. How? Because people who cooperate are more likely to survive than loners. Society depends on stable interpersonal relationships, and society in so many ways keeps us fed, shelters us from the elements, and protects us from enemies. The desire to connect is as basic a human need as our appetite for pleasure.

Humans live in harmony amongst one another, not in seclusion.

I believe the pandemic has further exasperated this feeling. I miss the human connection. I long for it as much as you do.

We’re social creatures looking to learn and live with each other, trying to make sense of today and look for a better tomorrow. Which is why we should keep pushing to make the next day a better reflection of yesterday.

However they say it, the message is the same: the long days and evenings of toil, the setbacks and disappointments and struggle, the sacrifice — all this is worth it because, ultimately, their efforts pay dividends to other people.¹

Life is not meant to be easy. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth living.

Embrace disappointment and struggle; welcome it like a long-lost friend. Show yourself that with practice and discipline, things will get better.

#4 — Hope: Not the idea that you think tomorrow will better, but instead, you will do everything in your power to make tomorrow better.

The first part of this statement relies on an external locus of control, while another is an intrinsic parameter set by you, the person taking control.

I link this belief to faith, as in I have faith that tomorrow will be better. This mindset implies that you have an idea for a better tomorrow.

The concept of a growth mindset teaches us to use an internal locus of control. By incorporating this mindset, you take control.

Only you are responsible for your change.

Some of us believe, deep down, that people really can change. These growth-oriented people assume that it’s possible, for example, to get smarter if you’re given the right opportunities and support and if you try hard enough and if you believe you can do it.¹

Having a growth mindset means that you can do better.

The author also includes a diagram to help cultivate a growth mindset pattern:

Image of a diagram that reads growth mindset becomes optimistic self-talk that becomes perseverance over adversity.
A Growth Mindset¹

To develop grit, think of the following and add these practices to your life:

  1. Work towards developing a growth mindset meaning that you can learn and grow at any rate.
  2. Practice optimistic self-talk.
  3. In the face of adversity and setbacks, continue to move forward, even in small steps. A step forward is a step forward.

By applying an internal locus of control, you take control of not only your life but the way you react to any situation. You may not be able to predict what happens on a day to day, which is okay. However, by remaining aware of the things we can expect, we can live life for all that it offers.

How gritty are you?

Grit emphasizes the use of mental fortitude to remain focused and on task, regardless of what’s preventing us from doing so. Without determination, we might give up when we’re close to finishing, without realizing it.

In Grit, the author includes a test that she calls The Grit Scale, which tells you how gritty you are. Feel free to take it.

If you take the test and want to go a bit further, Dr. Duckworth splits grit into two components: passion and perseverance, which can be found by adding the odd-numbered items and then the even-numbered items, respectively. Then take the two numbers and divide them both by 5.

Dr. Duckworth references the test throughout her book, which rates how gritty someone is.

If you’re wondering, probably not, I fall within the 80% percentile overall, with scores of 3 and 4.6 of passion and perseverance. I guess I tend to stick to goals for the most part but lack a bit in the passion department. However, I have realized that I am consistent with staying on track of the bigger picture goals over time, if that makes any sense.

Just something for me to work on.

Life is

It’s easy to get caught amid everyday things and forget about our desires. We must strive to change that, become better, and work on things that matter most to us.

Of course, we have daily obligations.

I am not saying to neglect those.

Instead, move an inch towards what you want out of your life. And you can do so by applying a growth mindset fueled by grit. To do this, keep in mind the following:

  1. Work towards developing a growth mindset.
  2. Practice optimistic self-talk
  3. In the face of adversity and setbacks, continue to move forward, even in small steps. A step forward is a step forward.

Fundamentally speaking, Angela Duckworth calls for the Four Paragons of Grit, which dictate how someone can change into becoming a grittier person:

  1. Interest — People are more satisfied with their jobs and life when they do something that fits their interests.
  2. Practice — It is with both quantity and quality of training that one becomes better at something. Sinking hours into a hobby without purpose won’t render much results. Quality hours in deliberate practice matter greatly.
  3. Purpose — The reason behind why we do something. Having a sense of purpose provides value to our goals because it gives us an explanation or idea to fall back on in tough times.
  4. Hope — Not the idea that you think tomorrow will better but instead that you will make an effort to make tomorrow better. Understand the difference.

Before parting, I leave you with a few words from Mary Oliver:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

References:

[1] Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. , 2016. Print.

[2] Moon, Hyo Youl et al. “Running-Induced Systemic Cathepsin B Secretion Is Associated with Memory Function.” Cell metabolism vol. 24,2 (2016): 332–40. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2016.05.025

[3] C.H. McCool, K.H. Britten, in The Senses: A Comprehensive Reference, 2008

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Henry Cabral

Henry Cabral

Startup Founder • Creative Engineer • Enabling your ideas into innovative solutions • Check out my links at bio.link/henrycabral