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