What exactly is “grit” and how do I get it?
One of the things I preach about on our blog (shameless plug) is actionable advice. There is a lot of advice out there that tells you how to be or what to have, rather than giving you actionable things to do. That style of advice might apply to a much broader audience, since nobody likes being told what to do. But it also leaves the reader wondering how they get to be or have the things recommended by the author.
I’ve read, and agree with, much of the advice out there about startup grit. It’s the intangible quality that many successful (maybe all) entrepreneurs have. You’re gonna need it to be successful too, unless you get lucky and fall into success. But what is it really? Let’s dive into what grit means and how to get it.
grit = discipline + patience (with a dash of perspective)
If you have grit, you can stay the course despite uncertainty. You can resist the nay-sayers and press on with what you believe to be right for you. But you’re also patient, and you don’t have to rush forward with your course of action. You tend to consider the nay-sayers’ point of view so as to arrive at your conclusions rather than jump to them. You collect other perspectives and apply them to your course of action so as not to follow it blindly. You are unwavering in the pursuit of your goal, but you pursue it in a patient and disciplined way. That’s grit.
OK, how do I become more disciplined and patient?
Everyone knows what it means be patient or disciplined in any given situation. But we don’t really know how to apply to those things to daily activities, goals, or attaining startup success in general.
It seems like we could just be more disciplined and be more patient when the occasions arise, but that never works. We often forget that we’re supposed to be more patient, or we realize at some point that we’re not being very disciplined on a regular basis. These virtues that everyone agrees are beneficial seem pretty elusive on a practical and daily basis.
I’ve come to believe that there is an effective way to develop these qualities, and therefore become someone with grit (or more grit). Here’s my secret to becoming a more patient and more disciplined person:
That’s it. It’s a pretty boring solution and it’s not a trick of any kind, but I believe it to work as effectively for developing grit as it does for developing any talent or learning a completely new skill.
OK, so how do I practice?
It’s pretty clear how to practice things like weight lifting or the drums. We know what a championship weight lifter or a great drummer looks like, and we just start doing easier versions of those activities to practice. But how do we practice discipline and patience with the ultimate goal of having grit?
Luckily, certain kinds of activities will allow you to practice both at the same time, with the added bonus of grabbing some extra perspective in the process. Here are some examples of activities that that will help you develop grit with a short explanation of how they do it.
I run trails by my house a few times per week. I run between 3 and 5 miles each time and it takes me about 14/15 minutes for each mile. That’s just about fast enough to call it running, I think. I enjoy being outdoors and I really like the long term benefits of running, but that’s where my enjoyment ends. The tedious nature of running, coupled with foothill trail grades and 100+ degree days, make it tough.
Apart from the occasional time where I’m physically exhausted and need to rest, the battle is all mental. For much of the trek I just want to stop, and I often need to talk myself into pressing on. It forces me to experience short-term discomfort for a greater good that I know is coming in the future (better health). Doing this on a regular basis develops patience and builds discipline not just for running, but for anything I do.
There are plenty of other physical activities that can have the same effect if the components are similar:
- It should be a solo physical activity so you can rely only on yourself for motivation. Team or partner sports can have a similar effect, but they allow you to rely on others to motivate. This isn’t quite as effective. However, they can be a good bridge to the solo activities.
- You should love the benefits, but not the activity itself so much. So if you love the thrill of downhill skiing, then skiing occasionally doesn’t count.
- Frequency should be often enough to consider skipping it every now and then (don’t do that though).
- Start small in terms of time per outing and build a habit.
Reading (but not the kind that gives you confirmation bias)
Another grit-building activity is reading. I used to ride the Rapid bus downtown every day when commuting to the office. This was a great time for me to read books on various topics that interested me. At first I started with business success books based on research (books by Jim Collins, for example). I identified well with the scientific approach to success, and I also liked everything by Patrick Lencioni because his ideas rang true.
These books were helpful, but in retrospect were the wrong kinds of books for two reasons. First, I was reading about companies that I thought mine would become someday instead of reading about companies in a stage closer to my own business (here’s a tangent about why that’s not great). Second, and most importantly, I was reading authors that were confirming things I already believed to be true. This made the reading enjoyable, but I didn’t get as much benefit as I could have from reading about different perspectives.
Later on, I started reading books about psychology and religion with an interest in human behavior. These books were much more eye-opening for me, and the benefits were huge. They were not as enjoyable or quick to read because they made me think in different ways about relationships and other people. And thinking is hard.
Sometimes it can feel like a waste of time to concern yourself with topics that you don’t completely understand or are outside your comfort zone. But that’s the point of growth. We just need to expose ourselves to new information or even the same information from a different point of view. Doing this on a regular basis has the same effect as running…it builds grit.
I started meditating a long time ago, but my practice has fallen off recently. I think that’s because meditation is damn hard. For productive-minded people, it’s hard to concentrate on doing nothing.
Now, don’t misunderstand… I enjoy doing nothing as much as the next guy, but it usually involves something to keep my attention. My typical down time will let my thoughts wander and includes distractions like TV or leisure activities. By contrast, meditation requires complete concentration AND seems utterly useless in the moment. It’s not easy.
But the benefits of meditating on a regular basis are proven. There’s no better training for your mind on how to focus, and it directly contributes to one’s ability to be disciplined and patient. If you haven’t already done a bit of research on meditation, here’s a good start.
One of the automatic benefits of these activities is about perspective. When you practice doing something that benefits you far in the future, you get used to the idea. It helps you see the proverbial forrest through the trees.
Hard work is it’s own reward.
I don’t remember my parents telling me things like “hard work is it’s own reward” or “accomplishments have more meaning when you put in the work”, but they certainly led by example. They might well have told me these things too, but knowing myself back then, I would have dismissed such ideas as stupid. With a little more maturity, I now buy into this attitude 100 percent. If having grit is one of the things that makes startups successful, then putting in the hard work to develop discipline, patience, and perspective is an absolute necessity too.
A little about me — At BOUNDLESS, my co-founder and I work with entrepreneurs to clarify their ideas, find workable solutions, and build tech startups. We also invest locally, and you can have a look at our venture companies here: