If you have kept up with my musings over the last several weeks, you know that I have been unpacking some of the intangibles that underpin, undermine, or enhance our journey to getting grittier: the value of social support; working with, not against reality; our relationship with ourself; and how purpose bolsters (and in some cases, replaces) passion—among other factors. All important ingredients if you’re interested in bolstering your own grittiness, but all are internal states that we may recognize in ourselves, but can only infer in others (unless they tell us).
From Internal States to Observable Behavior.
Angela Duckworth’s understanding of grit, in contrast, started at the end of the journey - with behaviour. Her studies of grit began with people whose efforts were noteworthy for their achievements, be they West Point Cadets, elite athletes, or fourth-grade math students. The reasoning went: what these people share are hard-won outcomes that took serious time to achieve. Let’s see what their journeys have in common that might help us understand how they got here. This is the way of psychology research…we observe some interesting behaviour, and reverse engineer it to try to understand how it works. So much of psychology can only be inferred, so observable behaviour change becomes the evidential gold standard.
So now, we are taking a wander into the more tangible side of grit: perseverance. Merriam-Webster tells us that perseverance is: [the] continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition: the action or condition or an instance of persevering; steadfastness. My lay-person’s definition is that perseverance = effort x time.
Unlike the other half of Duckworth’s equation that focuses on one’s internal sense of passion, perseverance (efforts across time) requires “doing.” It creates observable activities. Either you are continuing to make effort and persevering: continuing to act, moving, doing, or you are not.
Which, as an aside, is why the word “try” is such a fraught concept in the world of grit. As a sport psychologist, when I am challenging an athlete to change a behaviour that is perceived to be a challenge, even one that we both know would benefit the athlete and move them closer to a desired goal, very often, the first response is, “I’ll try.” It doesn’t take much digging into that to reveal that the word “try” is usually code for, “maybe…but probably not.” To illustrate this point, here’s a thought-game inspired by Yoda of Star Wars fame on the fallacy of trying. Get someone to face you holding a pencil motionless in their outstretched hand. Now, try to take the pencil from them. What does the “trying” part of “take” actually look like? Most people I conduct this experiment with will immediately reach out and grab the pencil. I will then (sagely) point out that no, that was taking, not trying. The subsequent efforts involve a series of half-hearted, almost-reaching-the-pencil-then-falling-away behaviours. In essence, not taking. We eventually conclude that Yoda was right. There is no try. Just do…or not do. And at the end of the day, doing = effort.
Beyond the mere fact of action being taken, effort, one could argue, is what translates talent into achievement. Duckworth summarises it like this:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
In other words, effort pays off twice. It increases talent and then increases the application of that talent toward achievement. [Who knew there’d be so much math in this article? :)]
So, yay for effort, the secret sauce of perseverance, the thing that if applied over time will get us where we want to go, right?
Not so fast. In my experience, there are a few effort-roadblocks that stand between us, our passions, purpose, and the goal we are seeking. And it is in these roadblocks that I see so much unnecessary suffering, self-loathing, and why procrastination becomes downright attractive. Here are some examples of common effort roadblocks:
1. “Good” effort is all or nothing. Too many times, I have watched good people trying to do great things flame out due to the pressure of what they deem insufficient effort. I am working with an athlete who has recently recovered from a significant injury in her sport, who feels perpetually disappointed in her lack of effort to get back into the swing of her training routine. We have acknowledged the strong role of fear for her, and have devised strategies to acknowledge and work with her strong feelings. What was happening however, was that there would be some small obstacle to training - a piece of equipment would be broken - and rather than finding a workaround, or doing something else, she found herself abandoning the session altogether. We have since crafted a much more flexible approach to effort…on days where the fear is strong, just going down to the training area may be enough. But it is and will be about doing something, even if it’s not everything. The idea that “something” is, well, something! We can build on something while doing nothing leaves us back where we started with, well, nothing. And there is no math that can make a lot of nothing add up to something, as far as I know.
2. “Just Do It.” How many of us loved that vintage 1988 Nike slogan? I certainly did, but as I look back on it, I loved it for what it said about me with respect to the things I was already doing in my life. I’m an obsessive exerciser for whom the harder task—the effort that would take more grit, ironically— would be to not do a workout I planned on. While there is a grain of truth in that Nike phrase—one does need to at some point start the “doing”—it minimises the effort it can take to get the doing going. And in its dismissive commercial imagery and phrasing, it implies that, “hey, this is so easy, cool people are doing it. You must be a sucker AND not cool for not doing it!” Which takes us down the rabbit hole that says that my difficulty starting the things I know are good for me are all about my lack of character, will, or discipline. I find little good to come from any inner dialogue that involves sustained character assassination along the lines of, “I have no discipline” or “my willpower sucks.” As if, had I had those things, I would “just do it.” And why procrastination is so powerful: if I am suffering due to a flaw in my character or my perceived lack of willpower, I will naturally grasp at something - anything - to distract myself and feel less bad. The saying: “procrastination pays off now” is compelling to many of us for good reason. It’s so much better than the soul-searing alternative.
3. Big efforts require mental toughness. This belief is a close-cousin to “Just Do It” in the sense that we drink the Kool-Aid that tells us that there is some big strength and character gap that stands between us and the people who accomplish Big Things. We see the efforts of successful people from afar, and marvel at their grit. In some cases, literally their gritted teeth. But I have argued elsewhere that being “tough” in these kinds of instances is but a one-dimensional, simplistic approach to what is often a complex set of circumstances…especially in times of uncertainty or change. More often, grit requires a clear-eyed view and a 10,000-metre perspective that alerts us to changes in fortune, allowing us to pivot quickly in ways that may require taking our foot OFF the pedal, rather than just pressing harder, harder. Effort, by necessity, must be fluid and able to respond quickly to one’s environment. Let’s just call it what it is, smart effort. Effort that is able to climb down off one mountain path and quickly move to another in response to changes in weather, mission requirements, or terrain.
Next week, I’ll explore just what smart effort looks like and how we can all incorporate it and increase our own grit.
Thanks for reading! As always, I appreciate your thoughts and feedback.
I provide individual and group coaching on how you or your team can learn more about getting out of your own way and working with your mind for more frictionless and sustainable performance. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.