For those who have been following me on my journey to and through grit, thank you - for being there, and for your comments which have made my thinking better.
For those who are just joining in, I’ve become interested in what (at least in sport, where I come from) has been something of a sacred-cow concept. Sport loves the idea of grit, and of being gritty. Who doesn’t love the hard-work story of the athlete who came out of nowhere to be an Olympic champion? The story about the rag-tag team who against all odds and adversity persevered to find a way to win when the stakes were the highest.
Basically, getting to be great at anything is a hard, long process. Hard mentally to first even wrap your mind around the audacity of doing something hard and dare to imagine your own greatness. Then hard mentally to organise your life around this venture. Then hard physically to Do. The. Work.
But then in sport, the physical effort is put on steroids (in the worst case, literally). So much of the journey for athletes is physically exhausting and at times excruciatingly painful. We are in awe of that athlete or team who drives themselves to exhaustion or overcomes pain - over and over again - and gets to places we can only imagine from afar.
Think of the entire Rocky franchise (the series of movies featuring Sylvester Stallone as the boxer Rocky Balboa). We grew to love Rocky for his rags to riches (and back again) story, all built on the back of gritty training scenes. Diehard fans will recall Rocky IV where, in a montage overflowing with symbolism, Rocky is shown training in a remote cabin in Siberia with the help of his former arch-enemy’s manager, his brother-in-law, and eventually even his wife, doing exercises such as chopping wood, lifting rocks, running in the snow, and finally climbing a mountain. Behaviours reeking of grit. Meanwhile, his opponent had all the perks of modern high-performance technology (translation: less grit needed) and well, you know who won the fight in the end.
So yep, I get that grit, that combination of passion and perseverance made note-worthy in Angela Duckworth’s book by the same title, can and does make a real performance difference for those fortunate enough to possess or who have cultivated it. But like all tools in our toolbox, grit is best wielded skillfully, not as a blunt instrument. I’ve been unpacking a number of ideas about how we can get more skillful in this space – happy to send you any articles you have missed – and will focus today on an important, but as yet overlooked grit prerequisite.
Grit’s Personal Prerequisites
Angela Duckworth’s research found that grit is a combination of passion and perseverance. What underpins passion? Awareness, specifically self-awareness. Gritty people possess the self-awareness to recognise and own their passion. It would be damned hard to be inspired by your passion if you weren’t aware you had any or didn’t know what your passion actually was. Perseverance is all about behaviour. I can think all day long about my passion to write more regularly, but it’s in the doing of the work, over and over again, that actually increases my chances of getting there. Rocky’s success as a cinematic franchise – and what made a generation of movie-goers fall a little in love with him - is all about his behavioural personification of grit.
If grit - can I say true grit? :) - the kind of grit that fuels sustainable high performance - is a stool, then self-awareness and behaviour are but two of the legs. We need another leg to keep the stool from collapsing. The third leg is our relationship with ourselves along the way.
Specifically, I’m talking about how we treat ourselves. Do we fight ourselves like Rocky versus Ivan Drago (another Rocky IV reference :)), are we hard on ourselves, do we belittle or otherwise undermine ourselves, particularly after failures or mistakes? Or are we able to inject a sense of friendliness or kindness into this relationship, no matter the circumstances? Are we able and do we provide comfort to ourselves when the going is tough and we are hurting?
Going from Rocky to kindness in one paragraph might be making some of your heads spin, but stay with me. There is a substantial body of neuroscience research to back up the premise that this relationship - the one we have with ourselves - can make or break our resilience and therefore bolster or undermine our attempts to be gritty.
The Third Leg of the Stool
The official term for this relationship-to-self concept I speak of is self compassion. But before we go there, let’s first consider the meaning of compassion. Compassion, if we return to its Latin roots, translates to “to suffer with.” This is the idea that, when we see someone else suffering, we are naturally drawn to providing gestures or words of kindness and support to that person. It might be words, a smile, a touch, or a hug. Even if we can’t solve the problem causing their suffering, we can be there, suffering with them…and that in and of itself can provide significant value. Consider the old chestnut, a burden shared is a burden halved and recall a time when someone reached out to share your burden when you were suffering. How did that feel?
Yet, when I suggest to people I work with that this resource, this support, is available to each of us in the form of self-compassion, I get reactions that range from shock to confusion to sheepishness. And invariably, I hear words to the effect that, what we give so freely to others, we actively keep from ourselves or could never imagine doing so. Why? We don’t think we deserve our own compassion, we can’t even imagine doing it, never thought of it, or we think it will soften us up too much. We’ll lose our drive (our grittiness!) or edge. Even though, logically, we can see that our words of kindness often have the opposite effect on others. When people feel comforted and their suffering is eased - even slightly - they often find the energy or mojo to get back up and keep going.
Where neuroscience supports this notion comes from the discovery and increased understanding of an alternative system humans turn to in response to suffering. Most of us are aware of our “pleasure and reward” system mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine - that feel-good response we get after eating sugar, taking risks, or gambling (to name a few examples). The problem with this system is that its positive effects are fleeting, putting us on a treadmill of needing more of these activities to fuel the “feel good” effects. The alternative, called the “tend and befriend” system is fed by oxytocin (the “love” neurotransmitter I mentioned last week) and produces more enduring positive effects on mood and well-being. What triggers this system? Acts and thoughts of compassion…and self-compassion.
In closing, I challenge self-compassion sceptics to consider this. The journey to excellence and optimal performance is long, often painful, and requires sacrifice, discipline, leaps of faith, facing our fears, and eyeballing the prospect of failure at every turn. And…dare I say grit. Why would you want to make things even harder on yourself by being your own best enemy, detractor, critic, or underminer?
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