I love stories about grit. They speak to the triumph of the human spirit and the alchemy that occurs when perseverance and passion collide and goals are achieved that would be impossible if either ingredient was missing.
Examples abound and they have the power to inspire us. Lance Armstrong won seven grueling victories at the Tour de France, overcoming a cancer diagnosis and treatment that could have ended his career and his dreams, if he was willing to abandon them. Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open with a broken leg. I thought about him last week as he made an astounding charge from behind on Sunday afternoon at the Masters. He might have succeeded if he had one or more holes to play, but he never gave up. His career stands in contrast to that of John Daly’s, a golfer long on talent and passion but lacking the sustained and focused application of that talent over time, that is a hallmark of grit according to the work of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and her colleagues. While Woods grinded it out on the course, Daly sold T-shirts from a makeshift booth set up right outside the gates of Augusta National.
Grit is Not Talent
Duckworth and her colleagues examined the role of talent in grit. While she noted the need for further research in this area, preliminary interviews indicated that the quality that distinguished star performers in their respective fields was not necessarily talent, but exceptional commitment to ambitions and goals. In fact, she concluded, that “to the extent that challenge is higher for individuals of modest ability, grit may matter more, not less.” The story of Daniel Ruettiger, which was chronicled in the film about his life (“Rudy”), is a quintessential tale of grit. Lacking the grades and money to attend Notre Dame and lacking the talent and physical size to play football for them, he achieved both. He did this, not with exceptional talent, or craft or cunning, but simply by dint of the dogged pursuit of his goal over time. What made his story so moving was precisely his lack of talent for his outsized dreams. While other famous achievers may appear to glide effortlessly to their goals, Rudy let us see him sweat and we loved him all the more for it.
Examples of grit are found in all domains of life, not just athletics. In popular culture, the show A Chorus Line, based on the true life stories of performers who sacrifice and endure rejection after rejection at countless auditions to achieve their dreams of dancing on Broadway, is a testament to grit.
The Dark Side of Grit
So, one can easily conclude that grit is good. It can contribute to success, goal achievement and ultimately happiness. What concerns me about grit is the possibility of grit gone wild. If everything is grit, while the path may lead to achievement, it may leave happiness eating its dust on the side of the road. In her work on grit, one population Duckworth studied was National Spelling Bee participants. I will always remember the young boy standing nervously at the microphone at the Spelling Bee finals, and then fainting before he could spell his word. I’m sure it takes a boatload of grit to memorize a dictionary when you are 12 years old, but it does raise the question: for what is gained, what is lost?
Grit and Mindfulness
This brings me to the importance of mindfulness, paying attention to the here and now and the payoff of being present as much for the journey as for the destination. When Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, he describes it as, “the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are. Perhaps its value lies precisely in this. Maybe we all need to do one thing in our lives simply for its own sake.”
On a superficial level, it is easy to cast grit and mindfulness as polar opposites. One can mistakenly conclude that perseverance is an antonym for Kabat-Zinn’s concept of non-doing. To some, hooked on the adrenalin of achievement, of triumphing over one impossible goal and then another, the practice of mindfulness might seem like a colossal waste of valuable time better spent achieving something. My experience is that grit and mindfulness are not mutually exclusive and in fact are powerful cohorts in achieving happiness. I was slow to come to the table on this issue but now I find I am as equally inspired by the following words of Thoreau written at Walden Pond, as I am by the tales of grit mentioned above.
“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes in a summer morning… I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiselessly through the house,until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life but so much over and above my usual allowance.”
I am a great fan of grit. I proudly count myself as a gritty person but for me, I have found my true grit when I am as conscious and awake to the journey as I am to the outcome. I like my grit served with a healthy portion of mindfulness.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are. New York: Hyperion.
Thoreau, H.D. (2004). Walden. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Morro Rock at sunset on Morro Strand State Beach by Mike Baird
High School Football, Gainesville by adobemac
Autumn rocks #2 by James Jordan
Great information. I posted this to my social media outlets.
I like the way JB @ http://www.morningcoach.com puts it: you need to have patience, a reflection of mindfulness, coupled with drive/determination (grit) in order to get a good outcome. Paradoxically, the more I strain, the more success may elude me. Yet, without some strain, success will also elude me.
Gail, what a wonderful way to begin my day! Thank you for articulating so clearly how grit and mindfulness can play together. I especially love your last 2 lines:
“I have found my true grit when I am as conscious and awake to the journey as I am to the outcome. I like my grit served with a healthy portion of mindfulness.”
I agree that even though mindfulness is not about striving, that there is a close link with grit/perseverance. Indeed, one has to be very persistent in order to maintain a mindfulness practice and in order to engage in mindful living, as both present infinite obstacles. Mindfulness is the means and the ends in dealing with the obstacles, i.e., taking a mindful approach to the barrier which leads to deeper present moment awareness. This is all about perseverance. I’m glad you’ve made the link for people.
I am sure that you have found out the meaning and purpose in your mid life. By sharing your thoughts and profound inspiration from your work experience and new real life transformation, you also enlighten our own awareness of our infinitive possibility to be just there.
Grit and mindfulness finally are oneness.
Greeting from Taiwan.
Gail, another convert to mindfulness.
Don’t you find it interesting that with a few exceptions (Fredrickson) that none of the PP gurus are into mindfulness? eg Peterson and Seligman aren’t
Why do you think this is?
Perhaps it was time that the VIA was updated to reflect mindfulness
I loved the way you tied in the quote from Thoreau in this piece. It created a very visual sense of mindfulness at it’s absolute finest for me. It takes grit to allow one’s self such delicious freedom. Thank you for this insight…the blending of grit and mindfulness.
Thank you all for your astute comments. Yes it takes grit to be mindful, particularly when it is so easy to get caught up in the doing and not the being of life. I am far from perfect at it and I guess that’s why they call it a “practice.” I am always practising and always learning. As my friend Ping noted, this connection between grit and mindfulness is something I came to in mid-life after decades of focusing on what’s next, instead of what is real in the here and now. As the story goes … a young Buddhist monk asked his elder teacher after a meditation session, “What is next?” The reply, “There is no next. This is it.” Love that story!!!
enjoyed your article. i am now going to the golf course to “grit” it out!
Good article! Watch the movie “The Wrestler” and you’ll see the dark side of Grit.
I am very glad I came across this article… The Thoreau quote has helped lift off a blanket of dispair that has settled upon me lately as I attempt to transition from stay-at-home mother back to “the real world”…. I gladly put my career on hold as I had an opportunity to stay at home with my children…they are now school-aged and so I am now trying to reenter the work force and have been dismayed that my 8 year absence is seen as a disability at best, or a total waste of my “peak career climbing years”…. I had started to question why on earth I had stayed at home all this time to be with my family–am I simply unambitious?
The quote made me realize that I am not unambitious, but rather that I opted not to miss the “bloom” of that time….