I have been promoting my forthcoming book, When Grit’s Not Enough, by unpacking some of its key concepts, and last week it was about the reasons people overuse or rely too heavily on their grit. But then someone asked me the question from the other side of the equation = “what if I don’t have ENOUGH grit? What can I do?”
Great question. But in the asking, I reckon that some of us think that grit is something that we either have or we don’t. And therefore, the sensible thing to do is learn how to get some or hire a procurement specialist like me. I have certainly spent a large part of my sport psychology career offering up tips and tricks to help athletes nudge up their gritty effort dials. But the more I understand how performers work, the less I think that it’s useful to think of grit in this way. The presumption that we are lacking something can’t help but put us into a victim mentality or leave us feeling at some level like we are flawed. The shameful secret - I have no grit. How awful.
The unfortunate follow-on from that is that we have just deflated ourselves. “I’m a failure AND I don’t have what it takes.” I just don’t have what those happy and productive people have as they motor up the road to grand accomplishment. Digging my own de-motivational hole. After all, why even bother trying if I don’t have what it takes? A very sensible conclusion…if that were true.
First, It’s About Behaviour. But what if we are actually asking the wrong question? Rather than “why don’t I have more grit?” I’d be asking first: “where do I want to go?” (Surprising how many of us don’t know even that.) And then, “what do I have to do to take that first step?” This is what gritty people do. They work to limit their thinking to what the job at hand is.
Of course, this works best when you can actually DO what the job requires. I am reminded of a young wrestler I worked with who, when I asked her what her job on the mat was, said, “I’m supposed to relax. Everyone always tells me that. But I don’t know how to do it!” Hmm. Pretty hard to do something you don’t know how to do. And then, almost too easy to beat yourself up for not doing it. So we agreed, in the short-term, to take that item off her to-list and replace it with, “learn how to relax on-demand” which became our next piece of work together.
Then, It’s [Almost All] About Emotion. I don’t know if you are noticing what I have noticed, but so often what hangs us up about our own efforts is emotional. The sense of sad futility when I see myself as a victim of my own flawed character. The sense of shame that comes over me when I compare my start-stop progress with my more productive colleague’s outcomes. The motivation-sucking sense of hopelessness when I berate myself yet again for not having the grit it takes to succeed. And if we think that the only way past all of this is to ignore or, worse, condemn our emotional reality, the truth is that (a) few of us are actually capable of doing this, and (b) it is certainly not a strategy that is sustainable or healthy.
Now I know that emotions and thoughts are very intertwined - and I am not saying that our thoughts have nothing to do with this process. But in my experience, it is not our thinking that stops us in our tracks, but the near instantaneous emotional reaction to the thought—and our demotivated reaction—that does.
So what’s the pro-grit play here? First, we stop talking about grit as if it’s something separate from who we are. It’s not something to find outside yourself. Rather, it’s something to uncover by being more true to and friendly with ourselves in all our glory. Second—and this is a topic for my next newsletter—we invest in our own inner emotional intelligence. By that I mean, we start to learn about our own emotional landscape and how we can work with it rather than against it.
Here are a few ideas on how to get out of our own way and access our own “easier grit.”
Actions, Not Intentions. One of my favourite quotes from author Steven Covey goes like this: We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviours. During my first few hectic months at the Australian Institute of Sport, not only did it feel as if I were drinking from the fire hose, but I was plagued with worries that I wasn’t doing enough fast enough. And that I was going to get dinged for all the things I had yet to do. Never stopping to consider, much less actually interrogate by asking, what the decision-makers around me actually thought about my performance. This quote quite literally saved me and I was able to pivot to a more healthy perspective that focused more on all that I had learned and accomplished while preserving my energy to keep plugging away at that never-finished to-do list. On that point, here’s a question to ponder: when is the last time you dinged someone else for the un-done items on their to-do list? The move here? Lighten up on the intention side of things, and double down on your actions. And if you have no idea what you have accomplished? Ask someone you trust to tell you. They know. :) It is through this bolstering through our actions that we make grit more accessible.
Watch Your Language. A persistent myth surrounding high performance is that you need to be hard on yourself to do it. Research on how gritty people operate tells us that they are fascinated with their own journey, and work hard on the steps. They do not indulge in the kind of character assassination I hear so often used across high-performance domains. Yet, so many of us justify our own self-directed verbal violence as the way to keep us “on our toes,” and give us that “edge.” Stop and consider how you respond to how others talk to you. If your coach name-calls and demeans you, what’s your reaction? Do those words inspire you or deflate you? Beating ourselves down does not make us “tough.” It just beats us down which means, simply, more effort is needed to build us back up again. Why waste the time and effort for rebuilding when you could be putting all of that toward going after what you really want? The next time you are tempted to character-self-assassinate after a mistake or failure, try this experiment. Acknowledge the pain of your loss or failure the same way you’d comfort a good friend or child. “Man, that hurt!” “That was really a tough loss.” Pause for a few seconds to see how you feel. As cheesy as this strategy can sound, there is solid evidence that this approach actually can increase your resilience, speed your recovery from painful moments, and get your grit back.
What are your strategies for re-accessing your grit? I’d love to hear from you!
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org