The hardest part of doing anything worthwhile is usually getting started. Take these blog posts for example. I love doing all the research, I love writing them, but most times it’s hard to sit down, focus up and get started. Fortunately, once I’ve nailed the opener I find it much easier to ride the momentum and write, edit and proof for hours. It’s never easy, but it’s ALWAYS rewarding. And that’s exactly we’re talking about today: Grit.
Grit is defined in the MW dictionary as “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” In more relatable terms, it’s a powerful characteristic that drives people to achieve goals despite any obstacle, real or perceived. Take any success story, ever, and you’ll find that more often than not (if not always) grit plays a major factor. The ability to consistently (and habitually) put one foot in front of the other determines whether you reach your goals or end up right back where you started. Let’s dig in!
Passion – Strong and barely controllable emotion; An intense desire or enthusiasm for something.
Perseverance – Continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure or opposition; Steadfastness in accomplishing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
First off, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of the book Grit by Angela Duckworth. This is where my research started and where most of the valuable nuggets in this post are going to come from. It’s an incredibly in-depth look at research, interviews and studies around the subject of Grit and the individuals who exemplify it. Promise I’ll try not to make this sound too much like a book report.
In the book, grit is presented as a simple equation: Passion + Perseverance = Grit. In this equation, passion is the compass that POINTS you in the right direction. That direction being your purpose or overarching goal. No one can tell you what that is, you either already know or you need to look within to find it. Perseverance is what MOVES you to complete your goals.
So for this first installment, let’s break down some core principles of grit and look at some action items around cultivating it to reach health and fitness goals.
Without Goal Hierarchy and Momentum…You Will Quit
I have a few gym memberships: one for LA Fitness so I can play basketball (my preferred method of cardio) and another to a private gym near my office. In January, I avoid LA Fitness like the plague, b/c there’s inevitably going to be a bunch of new bodies taking up stations and machines, often for much longer than necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I admire anyone who realizes the need to invest in their health, but waiting for a specific day to motivate may set you up for failure. This just means your goals and priorities are out of sync.
Setting your goal hierarchy would be more effective in creating momentum that moves you closer to overall success:
Low-level goal(s): These are very specific small goals or tasks that get the ball rolling. They are a means to an end and create a sense of accomplishment when achieved. They are the foundation to which your top-level goal depends on. If these goals are failed, it will have detrimental effects on all goals that follow.
Mid-level goal(s): The point of your low-level goals is to move you effectively into mid-level goals. For example, if you set a low-level goal to create a detailed meal plan, it may be because your mid-level goal is to be able to easily meal prep and eat a diet that helps you lose weight.
Top-level goal: This is your North Star and should be/be in-line with your passion. The “ultimate concern” that guides you and gives meaning to all low/mid-level goals that came before.
The most important takeaways here regard your low-level and top-level goals. Those who exemplify grit and determination are careful of Positive Fantasizing, because the disappointment of not reaching a low-level goal could derail progress. They know that failure can happen, even with low-level goals, so when they experience failure, they will replace low/mid-level goals with something else that still keeps them on the path to their top-level goal. Lastly, they see the importance of keeping the same top-level goal for a LONG time. It takes time, diligence and a willingness to consistently push yourself beyond your limits. Soon, the thing that you couldn’t imagine yourself being able to do will become second nature.
Human Nature, Discomfort and Deliberate Practice
The old motto is tried and true, and doing anything worthwhile is going to be uncomfortable in the beginning, which is usually where most people quit. But, it’s natural. Discomfort – no matter how well-meaning or self-improving – is seen by our brain as a threat to our well-being, which is why it can be so difficult to lock in new habits. Working out isn’t easy, we all know that. Neither is cooking at home, cutting back on booze or cutting down on carbs. But they’re all necessary sacrifices for your physical, mental and even financial health in the long run.
Years ago when I was trying out for my high school basketball team, my dad said something that stuck with me, “Just practice. No matter what it is, you get better every time you pick up the ball.” As the years went on, I became much more aware of just how adaptable people are. Then I began to notice nuances that I couldn’t explain properly until now. There are those who practice, and there are those who focus on deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is hard, it’s draining and it yields results far beyond any sort of unfocused practice. Think about it like this: Player 1 practices by taking shots from various spots on the court vs. Player 2 who takes 100 shots in the same spot and moves to the next spot only after the 100 shot goal is met. Player 2 fits the profile of deliberate practice. The extra time and effort spent focused on this single goal will:
Allow the individual to break down the components and mechanics of his shot
Allow for dynamic mental problem solving
Speed up muscle memory
Create an environment for more focused reflection
See real-time improvement and experience the ecstasy of getting better
This absolutely applies to diet, exercise and more importantly, to willpower which works just like a muscle in that it will grow and improve when it’s consistently pushed to its limits. Just get up and put one foot in front of the other until you get to the gym; prep one ingredient at a time until you have a homecooked meal; say no to something that you know you really don’t need. Each time you do, it’ll be that much easier the next time.
Habits and Helplessness
At our core, we’re animals and all animals learn from a system of punishment and reward. Babies and toddlers spend most of their time figuring out what they can/can’t do. We learned to walk by falling, we learned to talk by saying words incorrectly, we learned to read by making pronunciation errors and we learned to write by misspelling. Young animals are instinctually in a constant cycle of pushing themselves beyond what they can currently do in order to learn new habits. But somewhere along the way, we were taught that failure was bad, which makes it tough for some people to put themselves in situations where failure is an option. Or, they try something a few times, fail and move on to the next thing instead of digging in and figuring out effective ways to be better (deliberate practice).
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding or regretting of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my hearers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.
- William James
There’s a pattern of learned helplessness (LH) in many people who have trouble following through. LH and grit are in direct competition with each other. Those who are gritter can often look past negative self-talk and thoughts of helplessness even after failure because the vision of their goal and determination keep them passionately focused. They’re often optimists with growth mindsets, who seek to find the specific cause of their failure or suffering and find a solution. On other hand, pessimists with fixed mindsets experience failure and fall prey to believing their negative self-talk has been validated.
The key to silencing negative self-talk lies in habits and interpretation. Your mind will be the biggest obstacle, so if you struggle with negative self-talk, put some effort towards trying to think like an optimist. “I tried, I failed, but I learned a lot.” is infinitely more effective than, “I tried, I failed. I knew I couldn’t do it.” Both statements are incredibly powerful and could sway your mind in the direction of trying again or giving up, but you get to choose which. Your habits must serve as the backbone of any goal, and your determination will help you create those habits. If every day you push yourself past what you could do yesterday, you’re not only increasing your grit, you’re strengthening willpower, changing your inner self-talk and solidifying habits.
You want to see your goals and resolutions through? It’s about hard work and there’s no way around it. Hard work won’t get easier, but eventually you’ll be able to work harder and harder while appreciating the fruits of your labor instead of dreading the process in the moment. Crush your goals and stay resolute.
I’m gonna go read some more William James now.
** More nuggets of wisdom around grit, practice and habits for inspiration (some paraphrased) **
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t…you’re right.”
- Henry Ford
“The problem with fixed mindset is that you will eventually hit a bump in your life, and at that point, having a fixed mindset becomes a liability.”
“So much of what we do comes from belief. Belief comes from self-image and self-image comes from what people have said about us throughout our lives.”
“Learning Disabilities” fall away in the midst of deliberate practice, expert tutelage and an environment conducive to learning.”
[KAIZEN] “Continuous improvement; To resist the plateau of arrested development.”
- Japanese Social Concept
[LEARNED INDUSTRIOUSNESS] “With practice, industriousness can be learned. It’s a habit like anything else. Constantly solving tough problems makes it easier to solve each consecutive problem.”
“Without directly experiencing the connection between effort and reward, animals whether they’re rats or people, will default to laziness.”
The easy way to become gritty is to use conformity. Find individuals who exemplify how you want to be and what you want to do. Surround yourself with them until, “The way we do things around here” becomes “The way I do things.”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
- Theodore Roosevelt
[SOCIAL MULTIPLIER EFFECT] The principle that high levels of one attribute among peers can have spillover effects on an individual.
- Social Concept/Theory
“Grittiness and happiness are connected. The grittier a person is, the more likely they will enjoy a healthy emotional life. Grit goes hand-and-hand with well-being, no matter how it’s measured.”
“Limits are self-imposed, and as a result we do not venture as far as we might have.”
“The initial encounter of an interest must be followed by subsequent actions/encounters that will re-trigger this interest. Interests thrive when you have a crew of encouraging supporters. Other people add security via positive feedback and ongoing stimulation that causes us to be more and more interested.”