Back at you again, banging on about grit, that elusive constellation of traits differentiating the wannabes and pretenders from those who ply their craft with passion and perseverance in the pursuit of life’s big long-term challenges.
An interesting aspect to grit, in my opinion, is that it appears to be an exclusively individual phenomenon. Angela Duckworth highlights these five characteristics as underpinning grit. Courage - that ability to perform despite fear. Conscientiousness - specifically being so in a way that also orients toward achievement rather than mere dependability. Long-term goals - the unwavering sense of heading in a valued direction, with the endurance to do so. Resilience - the ability to interpret failure as a learning experience and therefore recover from it faster with less emotional baggage attached. Excellence - here defined as different from perfectionism’s inflexibility, is engaging in a never-ending process toward improvement. I don’t have an argument with these characteristics but, like the grit they underpin, they are more descriptive than prescriptive. They flesh out the puzzle about what separates the gritty from those of us who are less so. If I demonstrate these qualities, I’m more likely to be gritty than if I don’t. It’s all about me. Yep, teams can be gritty, too, but this requires grit to be present in at least a few impactful team members. If no members are gritty, no way the team can be.
What this individual-specific conceptualisation does not address is our relationship to the people around us and, as I will argue, the impact of others on our ability to be more gritty. Athletes, coaches, and frankly all humans are here today because we learned to live in and thrive in community. If we look back through time, we will see that the human race, by necessity, joined up in community with others for simple survival reasons. Banding together against what back then were the threats of the day - animals that were bigger, faster, and more dangerous - made good survival sense. As a result, we come equipped with a natural affinity for community and social support, including a suite of what social scientists call the “prosocial emotions.” Emotions like guilt and shame can have the effect of pulling us up after a social transgression, reminding us that we wronged someone in some way and promping atonement. The nagging urge to apologise for hurting someone that leads to an apology and relational repair is part of how communities maintain their integrity. We are also wired for human connection in the form of oxytocin, the neurochemical sometimes referred to as the “love drug.” In addition to its best-known role in female pregnancy and childbirth, oxytocin is the reason that hugs and close human contact with those we love feels so good.
If ever there was a resource we should be tapping into on our gritty journey toward those long-term goals worth achieving, it is through the power of our communities. There is ample evidence in the scientific literature of the impact of social support in helping us to achieve more and increase our resilience. Consider the power of Instrumental social support, those people who help us with an infusion of resources - financial or otherwise - to ease our path forward in some way. There is unconditional social support, the people in our lives who love and believe in us and share that belief with us, no strings attached. There is the “critical friend” social support - those people in our lives who tell us like it is, challenge our notion of ourselves and who give the sometimes hard-to-hear feedback that, when acted upon, makes us that much better. Of course, on the other side of things, there are those who drain our resolve, undermine our belief in ourselves or our journey, or whose negativity is a cloud onto itself. It is therefore up to us to choose our social supports wisely…but to ignore this resource is like the mountain climber who disregards the advice of teammates and goes it alone, making the journey harder and putting themselves in danger or injury or failure.
Speaking of mountain climbing…what prompted my thinking on this topic was my own recent experience climbing a few mountains while on a back-country camping trip with friends to Tasmania. While anyone who knows me knows that I love anything sporty requiring a high output of effort, I am much less confident and less at ease in situations that require ascending or descending when the handholds or footing are uncertain. I confess that even recalling these facts and writing these words is making my hands sweat with anxiety. I had gone in assuming that my fitness and tendency toward gritty effort would see me through, but more than once was paralysed on an ascent or descent where initially, I could not see a safe way forward. This was quite humbling. I was rewriting my internal narrative on the fly, adjusting to the fact that I was not as capable or brave as I thought I would be. But what, to me, was the most interesting thing was what happened when, inevitably, one of my friends would notice my pause and put out a hand to help me. Sometimes I took that hand with appreciation, received the needed assistance, propelled over the difficulty, and kept on going. But sometimes...I did not take that hand. I’d take another look at the challenge in front of me, and risk going for it. In every case I did this, I found a way forward, all by myself. I realized that the preferred hand gave me the courage - the grit - I needed to try something I didn’t think I could do on my own. A pre-risk safety net, if you will. The micro bit of comfort and belief that bolstered me through a situation I’d previously written off.
This has made me wonder about the untapped power of the social support that is just there in the background. The knowing that someone is there to help, even if they don’t. I think that the key in this situation is in how you use that power. You could either see it as comfort…or as a comforting psychological nudge to go beyond what you think you are capable of. And if that isn’t part of what makes up grit, I don’t know what is.
Thanks for reading and I welcome your feedback and thoughts!
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