On the one hand, grit is like pornography (What?? Stay with me on this…). We love seeing grit in action, love when we stick to our own difficult goals through adversity, but we often find it hard to describe just what grit is.
This is where pornography comes in. In 1964, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to describe his threshold test for obscenity in the case Jacobellis v Ohio. In explaining why the material at issue in the case was not obscene, Stewart wrote:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.
I know it when I see it is often cited as the most popular quote to come out of the US Supreme Court, in part for its unprecedented use of non-rational thinking in judicial decision-making. And so too, as we seek to understand our fascination with grit, we are faced at times with trying to non-rationally define the undefinable. We may default to the endpoint—the Gold Medal or the mountain-top—and thereby conclude something like, “Wow, that was some accomplishment! That took some grit!” Or, as has been noted, we see someone who looks gritty in the moment (this usually involves a lot of sweat and at least some dirt) and conclude something about passionate perseverance at play.
Now, we are digging deep into grit’s observable aspects, the ways that gritty people behave that are different from those who are less so. An important point to be made here is that there is no one behaviour or types of behaviours that differentiate a gritty performance from one that is not so. To get to grit, we all have to traverse from a single grunt to a journey consisting of many gritty moments. Almost anyone can grunt once. This is why fitness facilities so often see an uptick in memberships at the beginning of the calendar year. That New Year’s Resolution phenomenon thing. What blows us away when we learn of a gritty journey (because it is so hard to observe) is the duration and consistency of someone’s effort. The implacability of it all. And why gym memberships often languish after the middle of February - a few grunts does not an implacable, ongoing gritty effort make.
Last time, I talked about what effort consists of, and the idea that perseverance (the observable side of Angela Duckworth’s grit equation) is effort x time. I also unpacked a few myths about effort - old chestnuts that can actually get in the way of our best intentions to move from thinking to doing. So while we know that not all efforts are created equal, how do we effort “smarter?” By that I mean, how do we increase our chances of behaving in ways that are more often consistent with our goals, with less pain and suffering?
1. Make it More About Behaviour and Less About You. I mentioned this last week but the truth of this bears repeating. When we castigate ourselves for our lack of effort, for our tendency to procrastinate (or skip the effort altogether), for our resounding lack of willpower, self-discipline, or any character at all, we move farther away from, not closer to our goals. Character assassination does not build our resilience, it weakens it. Yet many of us persist in this vein with the mistaken notion that, by taking ourselves to account for our flaws, somehow we will galvanize action. And yep, we all have heard a version of this "insight-to-action" story: the heart-attack victim whose brush with death convinces him to start and stay with an exercise routine, losing 20 kilos, and running a marathon. Whoo, that’s gritty. But as a motivational technique, waiting around for a near-death experience is a bit of a crap-shoot…and could be a long wait. In the end, this business of sustained effort is all about behaviour, so let’s treat it as such and stop gumming up our gears with pointless personal recriminations.
2. Make it More About You and Less About Them. At first blush, this can be seen as a direct contradiction of Point 1, but bear with me. A major buzz-kill when we are dipping our toes into the effort game comes if we allow ourselves to be distracted by someone else who is invariably ahead of us in this game. As a newish small-business performance psychologist, I was trying to raise my business profile by posting my thoughts and philosophies as online articles. Every publication effort felt Herculean, but satisfying…until I noticed that other, more established practitioners were doubling, even tripling my production pace. Which stopped me in my own hopeless tracks for a good six months. “This is already so hard, and look at how much better the quality, and wow, look at all that momentum…” Here’s a thunderous truth. Unless you are the best in the world at something, there will always be many, many people who are better than you at that thing. As there are many, many people worse than you, or who are not even giving it a crack at all (but our threat-seeking minds rarely consider that side of it). When we set out to do something personally challenging, even a bit audacious, we always knew it was our journey to undertake. Allowing others to have their own journeys, wishing them well, seeing their experiences as an opportunity to learn from (or at least something to wryly admire) rather than as an indictment of our efforts will make our journey - which is hard enough, by the way - easier to live with and more sustainable.
3. Sustained Efforts = Sustained Behaviours = Habits. In the spirit of Point 1, that it is about behaviour, not character, there is much wisdom to be gained in viewing this through the prism of habit formation. Habits are the codification of perseverance. James Clear, author of the bestselling book, Atomic Habits, provides an excellent structure for how anyone can build new, desirable habits and get on the perseverance train. Let’s say that you are not a runner, but have decided on the hairy and audacious goal of running a marathon in December of this year. You will need to adopt a fair few new habits, including buying the right shoes, appropriate gear, getting into a regular running regime, and procuring and adhering to a reputable training program.
With due credit to James Clear, here are his laws as applied in this situation:
Law 1. Embed your new habits by making them obvious. State your intentions of running a marathon to yourself and others. Use habit stacking: connect your running training habit to some other habit you already have. After you brush your teeth (your established habit), you hit the road for training (your new habit). Put out your running clothes the night before, where you can see them.
Law 2: Make your new habits attractive. Find others you like to run with. Pair your training - the thing you need to do - with something you want to do. After your run, you go out for coffee.
Law 3: Make your new habits as easy to “just do” as possible. Reduce the fatigue of constant decision-making by making a training schedule beforehand. Prime your environment (clothes easily accessible, shoes at the ready near the door), and plot your route. I love this one: master the decisive moment. Every time you just choose to go running dulls the sharp edges of your objections. Take the time and make the effort to notice.
Law 4: Make your new habits satisfying. When you are on the road running, marinate in the reward value of what is happening, and take notice of how and when it gets easier and...even...at times pleasurable? When I first set the goal of writing this newsletter, I couldn’t fathom bring someone who had a a writing habit, but now I love seeing what comes up as I write and I take time to enjoy the feeling. And getting up from my desk with a draft in hand? Heaven. :). Other ideas: track your running progress and hold yourself accountable when you falter. At the same time, resist the urge to beat yourself up for missing a workout—remember this is about making new habits satisfying, not a punishing process. Celebrate getting back into it. Make a game or experiment of the process…lightening up in this way can help ease your path.
Good luck with your efforts, and congratulations, you gritty people!!
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