There are not many things more important these days than grit. If you want to achieve a meaningful life, lived on your terms you need to prepare to fail, and then keep going. And then do it again. You see, the only true failure is if you stop trying.
As a species we exist due to our grit. Compared to most other animals our size we are slow and weak. We have only been able to survive by being gritty. We can chase an antelope across the plains, and with enough determination we can tire it out, and eventually kill it and eat it.
But damn that’s a lot of work. I think I’d rather go to the fridge and just make a sandwich.
OK I’m back..
(MMM… that was good.)
The funny thing is, for a species that evolved being persistent, we sure do suck at it these days! In the olden days it was a lot easier to be gritty when laziness would lead to starvation. These days when most of us have food, a flushing toilet, electricity and a cell phone it’s hard to drum up the motivation to push yourself to the next level. Why bother? Things are pretty good already.
Without old school grit you wouldn’t have food and shelter. New school grit is more of an emotional tenacity to solve mundane problems. It is harder to rally the energy for this…BUT we still need to so lets dive in.
Knowing a little about grit will be beneficial in trying to foster it. Fortunately it has been well studied.
Persistence is like a muscle. If you do not exercise it you will become weak. It is very important to push your persistence muscles on a regular basis. A corollary to this seems to be equally important (at first glance.)
When you exercise a muscle really hard it can be tired and weak for a while.
Head shrinkers have shown that immediately after using self restraint your persistence is diminished. For example, at Maastricht University, hungry students were left in a waiting room with fresh warm chocolate chip cookies, and told not to eat them.
Then they were given a puzzle to solve. It turns out the puzzle was impossible and students were just timed to see how long until they gave up. The insight was that the students who were told to resist the cookies gave up on the puzzle much sooner than the control group. Their brains were tired of working right? That has been shown to be the case in numerous studies….But here is a little twist.
In a similar study to the chocolate chip cookie study, some students were told: “Often people think they have to rest after an effortful task. However, scientific investigations prove that this is not the case after emotional effort…” These students exhibited significantly more grit than those who were not told this.
It seems like our brains are pretty easily influenced, and maybe we do not tire as quickly as we think.
So, how do we go about getting ourselves grittier?
The good news is grittiness is not genetic and is not linked to intelligence. It can be learned at any age.
Here are some ideas…
Read biographies of people who have overcome adversity. Studies show that people exhibit much more grit after reading an article about someone else who has succeeded after overcoming many obstacles.
Choose specific goals and attach them to things that are beyond your control. For example don’t say “I need to get into better shape.” Instead say “I’m going to do 20 push-ups as soon as the next commercial starts” Sometimes I set my watch to beep on the hour and I do a minute of plank as soon as I hear the beep. No thoughts, no will power, just pure action.
Start a gratitude journal. At the end of every day write down 3 – 5 things you are grateful for. As we saw in the above example our minds are easily influenced, so they might as well be influenced by good stuff.
These things will help you believe in yourself, and that is the most important thing of all. Here is an inspiring story about a guy named George Dantzig who showed up late to class one day…
“During my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day to one of Neyman’s classes. On the blackboard were two problems which I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework — the problems seemed to be a little harder to do than usual. I asked him if he still wanted the work. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever.”
“About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o’clock, Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: ‘I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.’ For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard which I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.”
Since George didn’t know the problems were “unsolved” he was not limited by his beliefs.
Suround yourself with people who believe in achieving greatness. Read about it. Tell yourself about it.
And remember…”There is no spoon”