How to Grow Grit when You Feel You Don’t Have It
The surprising value of “grit” and how it helps you succeed
When I found out that John would be working at the school doing odd jobs, I internally rolled my eyes. I am usually rather perceptive when it comes to analyzing the work ethic of my students. I just knew that I would spend the summer walking past his work assignments to see jobs half finished. I would have to constantly remind John to “get back on task.”
After all, that had been my previous experience. I used to be in charge of students who worked to pay for their education. They would “clean the school,” which really meant that I would clean up behind them. Many would complain the entire time and leave the job with more than something to be desired. You could almost hear the sound of their feet dragging as they trudged from assignment to assignment. They would have excuses about not having clear instructions or not knowing where the supplies were located.
Then came the surprise.
John would disappear for an hour. The only time I would see him was when he would come to report that the job was done. The first time this happened, I muttered to myself “Yeah, right.” I smirked as I went to check his work.
But to my surprise, John did it. There was no complaining and no excuses. The job was done perfectly.
He continued that summer with the same attitude. If he had a problem he would solve it, and when given another task, he would smile. In fact, he smiled the entire time he was working.
All the kids I have worked with have been respectful students with decent grades. However, John stood out in his work. He has a gift, a crafted character trait, that not many people have. This character trait will not only make him successful, it will also make him happy. That character trait is GRIT.
Recently a teacher friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post with this video:
It is a TED Talk given in 2013 by Angela Lee Duckworth who is a teacher turned psychologist. Angela studies how grit, self-control, and perseverance can predict the success of individuals. In her talk, she discusses how grit was more a predictor of student success than any other factor. Test scores, IQ, and even a sense of safety in the classroom were not the best predictors of success.
As an educator and life-long learner, I was interested in her theory. I thought that safety, emotional connection, and fun were the main influences on learning. I never thought to consider something like grit.
What is grit?
When you type “define grit” into Google, one of the first definitions to come up is this:
Google’s definition of grit: “courage and resolve; strength of character.”
Mariam-Webster defines grit as, “firmness of mind or spirit”.
Dictionary.com’s definition seems a little more abrasive: “firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck:”
According to those definitions, people who have grit have made up their minds and will not be easily changed. It is part of who they are, part of their character. They are firm in their decision, almost unmovable.
Maybe that is why grit also describes the texture of objects. When these people rub up against you, their determination might sting.
Contrast those images with someone who does not have grit.
- They cave under pressure.
- They give up prematurely.
- They make excuses as to why they will not succeed.
- They change their minds “when the going gets tough.”
I think Duckworth summarizes grit well in her TED talk:
“Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”
Why is grit so powerful?
Grit is a powerful force because our brains will adapt to our decision. When we make up our minds to do something, and then picture our success, the brain automatically starts to look for the opportunities to make that outcome a reality.
Defining grit is one thing. The application of grit is another. Some people seem to be born with grit in their blood. It seems to be a trait that only the chosen possess. For the rest of us, grit has to be cultivated in the garden of our mind. The good news is, thanks to the adaptability of our brains, grit will not only grow in any mind, but can also flourish.
6 Ways to grow grit.
1. Deliberate practice:
According to Anders Ericsson (author of the book Peak). Deliberate practice is one way that people become experts. Experts have grit. Duckworth alludes to this in her TED talk. Deliberate practice is more than just doing the same action over and over again. It involves actions like trying activities just outside of your comfort zone or working with a coach to receive feedback. You can read more about deliberate practice here:
2. Accountability through community:
Community is one of the most powerful tools for instilling grit into yourself or inspiring it in others. Here is a practical example: At the school where I teach, there is an extremely talented girls volleyball team.
Something that I have noticed about the team is their ability to overcome challenges. Many of them start on the team knowing nothing, but by the time they are in high school, they are the best in our conference.
The volleyball team does this through community. The team keeps each other accountable to practice. On the court, they take responsibility for their mistakes and hold each other accountable to those mistakes. The older girls mentor the younger girls. The whole team has bought into the idea that they are the best, and through their practices, traditions, language and culture they make it possible.
You may have heard the phrase: “Tell me who you spend time with and I’ll tell you who you are.” It’s true. If you want more grit in your life, spend time with people who have it.
3. Listen to your feelings:
If you are going to find grit, you have to be authentically you. Even when obstacles arise, it is not enough to simply “Be positive.” Let yourself feel the full extent of the challenges in front of you. Fear and worry are there for a reason and have something important to say, but they do not have to determine your final course of action. Again, find a trusted community who will listen to you and empathize with you. After you have processed what you feel, decide to continue your journey in authenticity.
4. Baby step to long-term goals:
It is no secret that we live in an instant gratification culture. We are no longer in the age where we have to wait months for our crops to be harvested. Anything we desire we can get on Amazon at our doorstep in a matter of 2 days or even hours. If we don’t have the money, we can apply for a credit card right there on the site. Our food is fast, our work is fast, our entertainment is fast. If you don’t believe me, count how many times a commercial switches camera angles in one minute. It will hurt your head.
To overcome this culture, it is going to take time and practice. Start by taking baby steps to long-term goals. Set a goal that will take a week or even a month, and then divide that goal up into small bite-size pieces that will satisfy your desire for quick gratification. Work your way into longer goals. You will eventually want goals that will take even 5 to 10 years. It may seem impossible at first, but practice and time will work their wonders.
5. Value your fails:
A large part of grit is learning how to interpret failure. If you have already decided that you will achieve an outcome through grit, the failures required to get there become learning experiences as opposed to obstacles or stop signs.
You are going to fail as you move through life. It is part of growing. No Olympian ever made it to the stand without a single failed attempt. Take your fails and learn from them. Use them as fuel to do better next time.
I think this Gatorade commercial sums that idea up pretty well.
6. Find a coach
Apart from a community, it also helps to have an expert on your side. Get someone who will stand with you and will be an extra set of eyes as you move to your goal. They will push you when your tired and will encourage you to move forward.
Remember that you get what you pay for. If you are not willing to pay someone for their time, in the end, they will not be committed.
Pay someone for their expertise. Your success is worth the investment.
Grit is not passed out freely at birth. Not everyone is born with this gift. However, it can be built into your character. Use the above tips to practice grit and use it to fuel your success.
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If you are breathing, you are an educator.
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