Rediscovering the meaning of grit during COVID-19
How global and personal uncertainty helped me find a pathway to resilience
By Stephanie Schott, VP of Product Development at Bionic
It was March 12, and I had already started stuffing t-shirts into a duffle bag by the time I Slack messaged my manager to say that I needed to evacuate New York City. I am no alarmist, and at that point, there were only 95 confirmed cases of COVID-19. But I could feel the city shifting underneath me. Shaking hands was already considered risky, and early news reports had me eyeing surfaces skeptically, wondering if touching them could be potentially fatal. As rumors began to swirl that the city could be shut down, including subways, I decided to pack my bags and head to the countryside. At the time, the notion of getting out of the city for an extended period of time felt like a vacation. But the weeks that followed were heavy, dark, and filled with fear.
As I prepared to leave, I texted a few friends to see if anyone wanted to pack a suitcase and join me for the ride out of town. My close friend of nearly 20 years, Emily*, jumped at the opportunity. Grateful for some company, I agreed to drop her off at her parents’ house a few hours outside of the city. As oak trees replaced skyscrapers, we breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of escape. Hours later, she settled back into her childhood bedroom and, so we assumed, was safe.
Life as I knew it was soon replaced by a new normal that I struggled to accept. As COVID-19 spread, I watched major upheaval in the lives of those around me. Close friends and family fled their homes and sought shelter away from urban epicenters. Our economy shattered, with thousands of businesses shuttered and millions filing for unemployment weekly. And then, on March 24th, I got the call from Emily. She was in the hospital. I heard the nurse in the background cheerfully declare that she’ll be out in no time. But five hours later, she went into acute respiratory failure. I haven’t spoken to her since.
The next week was a blur and I remember it only in snapshots. I wanted the world to stop spinning when Emily went into the ICU and her health rapidly declined; I needed it to. But life doesn’t come with a pause button and yields for no one. I have a job that demands my full attention and intentionality, a house to clean, and people to feed. My days, once productive and focused, devolved into blurry hours filled with panic and Zoom conferences.
It was clear that the disruption from COVID-19 would not resolve any time soon. Not on an economic level, societal level, and surely not on a personal level for those of us who have loved ones fighting for life. The coping mechanisms that typically carried me through hardship in the past were not competent enough to shoulder this kind of stress.
In 2013, Angela Duckworth gave a TED talk on her theory of grit as a predictor of success. I intuitively and intellectually understood the concept of grit, but it always taunted me as a characteristic I couldn’t quite claim. But the truth of it was that it never quite mattered until now.
Millions of Americans are like me. Our sympathetic nervous systems have been stressed to the point of non-functioning. We are psychologically overloaded and we’re failing in a time where our attention to work is critical. So I cracked open Duckworth’s book for the umpteenth time, desperate for answers. But here’s the reality: while research points to grit as a lynchpin factor of success, beyond having a growth mindset, there is no roadmap for attaining it.
Luckily for me, I’ve spent the past five years working for a company that drives growth and innovation inside of large enterprises, in spite of the innumerable internal cultural and systemic barriers and challenges. By relentlessly focusing on the customer and their problem, we believe that the rest can be sorted out.
Feeling defeated and desperate, I borrowed a page from Bionic’s playbook and decided to do just that for myself. Here’s what I learned:
When energy is limited, major on the majors
Many Americans are now struggling with “pandemic insomnia.” Our nights were once reserved for restorative sleep, but are now spent watching cable news and scanning articles about survival rates. Without sufficient amounts of quality sleep, physical and mental exhaustion sets in. On some workdays, you may only have a handful of productive hours. Instead of trying to do everything that could be done, focus on the one or two most important things that must be done.
A week ago, I was under an intense deadline. I found myself having a conversation about some internal politics and instead of spending time worrying about it or solving it, I ignored it and I kept going. Before COVID-19, I would spend countless hours every week ensuring each project had buy-in and support through constant communication, collaboration, and iteration. But as a business, we couldn’t afford those cycles and I personally couldn’t muster the energy to do that work, so I adopted the mindset of asking for forgiveness instead of permission.
What does this mean in practice? Talk to your manager about resetting your priorities during this disruption. Or, if you are self-employed, perhaps you take this time to reset your internal expectations about what you need to accomplish. Or maybe it simply means choosing not to focus on the things that don’t directly serve the greater good of your existing objectives.
When your schedule stops working, replace it with one that works
In a moment like this, triggering information can interrupt our days without warning — a news alert, a text message, a harrowing thought. Stringing together a work day of 8 uninterrupted hours is no longer a realistic goal for many. Recognizing the benefit of routine to instill us with a sense of normalcy, we may fight to protect our previous daily schedule even after it becomes impossible.
But our reality has shifted. If it’s not the general weight of the pandemic, it’s the fact that our schedules are interrupted because we are stumbling over each other in our homes, or having to protect the physical and mental health of our loved ones. Grit, in this case, is not about gritting your teeth and bearing it. It’s about leaning into what’s working and what’s not working. The grit comes in our steady attention and awareness and the patience we have of ourselves and our families.
I’m adjusting to a workday that comes in blocks. The text messages, phone calls, and updates about Emily’s health interrupt my day no matter how hard I try to prevent it. I’m learning to be gentle with myself, to step away when I feel overwhelmed or panicked or grief stricken. I started to direct my awareness to the windows of my day when I feel most balanced, and I’ve scheduled work into those windows. Sometimes that means getting out of bed at 4:30 am when I am unexpectedly awake and my brain fog has lifted. Sometimes it means sending emails post-dinner when I’m well-fed and recharged. If I have to reschedule a meeting at 3:00 pm because I can’t quite muster it, I take a deep breath and remind myself shuffling my schedule does not make me an incompetent employee.
When you lack creativity, draw inspiration from newness
I used to generate new thoughts, frameworks, and approaches with my eyes closed. But in this new world, I can’t muster it. The thread of creativity woven through my days has frayed. If you’re in marketing, public relations, advertising, branding, sales, tech, graphic designer, or any number of other creative industries, you’re likely feeling this pitch. The muse isn’t showing up with regularity anymore. So-called blue sky thinking has been blotted out by dark clouds of depression. The spark of inspiration does not, well, spark like it used to. What now?
One of the keys that unlocks creativity is newness, but that’s hard to come by when every today looks identical to yesterday. So you have to find a way to change your scenery. I started walking the country roads that wind through the fields around my farmhouse. Through country roads, past horses, past homes that had been carefully restored back to life. I walked for miles. In addition to changing my visual landscape, I changed my mental imagery. I consumed books that touched on spirituality, mindfulness, and vulnerability. I listened to the onslaught of virtual wisdom, once paywalled by high conference fees. I realized that before I wasn’t holding onto the thread of creativity, I was holding onto the auto-pilot button. So I let go and set out to grasp a sense of newness, and unsurprisingly, it worked.
These three small things surprisingly shaped me into the kind of employee that can thrive in the middle of a global pandemic. I’ve learned to be hyper-productive between moments of hyper-despair. And what’s more interesting, projects that would’ve taken me months to complete prior to COVID-19, are taking weeks. Through a little bit of focus, adaptability, and a willingness to glimpse the light amid darkness, I am able to move forward.
Perhaps grit and resilience aren’t characteristics that we simply choose to cultivate or embody. Maybe they are just the natural byproduct from making a series of small steps in a positive direction after something terrible befalls us.
The uncertainty of the months that lay ahead taunt us all. Will we or our loved ones get critically ill? In the case of Emily, when will she recover? When will we be able to restore even a tiny fraction of the lives we once knew? What will all of this mean for our economy and our businesses?
The next time these questions rage in your already overloaded mind, turn off the news and step outside. Study the leaves on your trees. Take a walk around your neighborhood and try seeing it as if for the first time. We unfortunately don’t have a choice but to live in the extremes for the foreseeable future. But maybe a small silver living from COVID-19 is that we collectively just got a little stronger. And maybe we all became a little bit more gritty.
*Name has been changed
Stephanie Schott is VP of Product Development at Bionic. Prior to joining Bionic, she was a Director of Sales at Sentient Jet, a private aviation company that leverages excess capacity in the private jet market. She graduated from George Washington University with a BA in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. A DIY-enthusiast, you can find her on the weekends in the Hudson Valley renovating a 1877 farmhouse.