Grit in the development sector

About 3 years ago, I decided I was going to grow Mentor Together (MT). Make it an organization that impacted many thousands of lives; one which had a solid organisational backbone.

I was incredibly scared because I had to completely change the mental model I was functioning under. Earlier, the mental model was one of risk calibration, i.e. how much could I manage myself. I had to discard that idea. Growing something in a true entrepreneurial sense would mean a completely uncharted path. Thinking constantly if I had exposure to more risks than I could manage personally would stymie everything. But I still felt like I needed a personal credo to guide me in this new phase. What do you hold as a fundamental maxim for a period where you’re essentially saying anything can happen?

I decided my credo would be that I would build muscle memory of grit as I built this organization. I would go back to work every single morning determined to work on any challenge/problem. Whether it was a great day or the worst day, I would show up the next day to work on things. That grit would ultimately be what made us most attuned to our mentees. That grit would be the only quality that would turn the problems of growth, into the opportunities of growth.

Working in the development sector has many ideas attached to it. It may appear that anyone who wants to be in this sector has passion and a grit to make it work.

Over the years, I’ve built a different understanding. The development sector offers an unparalleled ability to see individual impact. I remember it was the most attractive feature of this sector when 5 years ago I was comparing it with work options in the for-profit world. However, in trying to build a career within an organization in this sector— and this may sound terrible to people — it is not very different from trying to build a career in any other organization. You cannot just think for yourself. Your value comes not from the depths of your own potential, but how you use it to add value to larger goals much bigger than yourself. For me grit is sticking out to actually add value to a larger goal and not just pursuing the things that come easily to one as an individual.

The second place where I see grit in the development sector differently is in why people do the work they do. The development sector has two traps. One, intrinsically it is gratifying to know that you are helping someone. Second, the outside world laudes you with extrinsic value for taking up such work. For me intrinsically, grit is is not feeling gratified for helping, but knowing that an ability you have is being put to use to solve a larger problem. Extrinsic value is not what your work says about you (change maker, leader etc.), but that your work helps add to a larger body of knowledge and understanding about a particularly intractable problem.

In many ways grit has turned out to be the remarkable beacon of light in times of difficulty. A quality that rises to becomes your true north.

Earlier this week, my colleagues and I tackled a particularly difficult situation in one of our programs. We were left covering a sudden personnel dependency that arose in one of our cities. As the situation slowly pieced together, it became startlingly clear that there was a lot more awry in personal actions and work than what we had initially thought. It was the proverbial ground beneath your feet moving. If you asked me in 2012 to describe a situation I most feared about growing MT, I would have described this.

The first mental model that kicked in was grit — we had to turn up, pick up everything, and work on what we could do. Nothing would resolve in any reasonable amount of time. But there was no alternative to turning up. Remarkably, our grit fed each other. Seeing what each other did, we kept picking up more.

I thought hard about what was the learning from this to codify for MT. To me grit is the most important starting point of MT’s organizational culture. The future is unknown. Outcomes pan out in many different ways for individuals or organizations. Grit isn’t so much about ensuring only “positive” outcomes. But grit defines how the road to even an inevitable outcome is paved.