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Grit

Why it's essential for transforming your life and career and how you can develop it

The ability to bounce back from adversity (i.e. resilience) and to keep going when things get tough (i.e. perseverance) are two important traits people need to make successful life and career transitions. In a previous blog post, I explained how to incorporate the three R’s of resilience into your life. Resilience, together with agility and flexibility constitute a critical meta competency required for successful life and career transitions. This meta competency falls under the cluster of meta competencies we call Existential Intelligence and involves learning to operate outside of your comfort zone. If you are to make a successful life and career transition, you need to develop the capacity for asking questions and reflecting on your life situations. You can then use your interpretations of the world around you, to shift your place in it. Your level of resilience, agility and flexibility determines the extent to which you are willing to persevere in building the life you want when you are faced with setbacks. Perseverance, together with passion, constitutes the two key ingredients of a character trait defined by Angela Duckworth as grit.

What is grit and why should you care about it? In her book, Grit: The power of passion and perseverance, Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for your long-term goals”. Grit is your ability to keep going after failure. It could also be called tenacity. It is a ferocious determination to keep going no matter what and it usually plays out in two ways: (1) Being resilient and hardworking and (2) Having a clear sense of direction. According to Duckworth, one of the key elements of grit, is the drive to continuously improve and to persevere even in the face of adversity. Being gritty means being the opposite of complacent.

Calling grit by its other name, tenacity, creates the impression that grit is an inborn character trait, and by implication you are either tenacious or you are not. So, can grit be learned? According to Oppong, grit is both a trait and a skill. Duckworth acknowledges that genetics does play a role in your level of grit, but she also firmly believes that grit can be developed. She devotes an entire chapter in her book to how grit grows. However, how much grit we end up possessing, seems to be determined by a combination of the cultural era we grew up in as well as how old we are and how much life experience we’ve accumulated. It seems that people become grittier over time, but that previous generations were encouraged to work hard and to persevere more often than current generations are. There are some research studies indicating that Millennials are less gritty than their older counterparts, and that they tend to quit more readily – one of the reasons we are seeing an increase in job hopping in younger generations.

However, if grit can grow, this means that even Millennials can learn to be grittier. But how does it happen? According to Duckworth, a good place to start, is to understand where you are today – or put another way, understand your journey up to now and write your current narrative as it stands. If you are not as gritty as you want to be, ask yourself why? Most people come up with a superficial reason for quitting – “I’m bored”, or “The effort isn’t worth it”, or “I can’t do this, so I might as well give up”. When, the deeper reason for quitting something you started, is probably because you have no clear sense of direction or purpose. We tend to get swooped up by inspirational talks or moments of insight, without real reflection and consideration of our deeper calling.

For this reason, the journey should start with uncovering your authentic purpose or your Why. Your Why explains what drives you and why the accomplishment of a specific goal is important to you as a person. Your Why not only aligns with your personality type and your values; it also provides the themes for the key events in your life and why these events were critical to the development of the person you are today.

Clarity about a deeper Why, provides a sense of direction that helps you determine your higher-level goals. These are the goals that Duckworth explains drive all your decisions and actions, because they speak to your calling or what you want to accomplish with your life. Having a clear sense of purpose (what we refer to as the meta competency of Purpose Orientation) makes sticking to your goals – even when faced with setbacks – possible, because now the goals actually mean something. You can’t get bored, because these goals speak to your authentic self and the things that matter the most to you. You know the effort is worth it, because your actions bring you closer to reaching your goals and fulfilling your calling or building your legacy and you know you can do this, because it is aligned with who you are. And even when you stumble upon things that you don’t understand or haven’t learnt how to do, this does not deter you from learning what you need to learn to move forward – what we call the meta competencies of Systems Thinking and Forward Thinking. You embrace the challenge of learning, because there is purpose behind the learning. You embark on the learning, because it is a stepping stone that pushes you closer to reaching your goal.

What also happens when you have a clear sense of direction that is encapsulated in an authentic Why statement, is that mistakes that are made along the way no longer constitute failure or a reason to give up. Mistakes become learning opportunities that propel you forward, and you realise that the sooner you make mistakes, the sooner you can move forward and get closer to the goal. So, you choose not to remain stuck or let the mistake define you as a failure. It is simply another step on the journey.

A lot of what Duckworth has learnt about grit has come from interviewing men and women who epitomise the qualities of passion and perseverance – people she calls “grit paragons”. Duckworth’s research has revealed that there are four steps in building grit.

First comes interest. Passion is ignited when you are engaged in an activity that you intrinsically enjoy doing, but it is difficult to figure out what that would be if you haven’t tried out different things to eliminate the ones that don’t work for you. So, first you must figure out what you are interested in and then from these interests, determine which of these interests are truly meaningful to you as a person.

Of course, this process is made a little easier, if you first understand who you are, what drives you and what your core fears are. With this knowledge in hand, it becomes easier to not only figure out what your interests are, but also embrace them as unique to you, because for each person it would be different. The beauty of this, is that you realise that you don’t have to keep comparing yourself with others, because they will have other interests and talents to yours. And even if you do share interests with others, the way in which you give expression to them, will be different to how another person will give expression to the same interests, simply because you are different people, with different personalities, values and backgrounds. What makes the interest worth pursuing, is what you bring to it, because no-one else will bring the same understanding or expression that you would. What’s more important, is to figure out why you are pursuing your specific interests? What do you want to accomplish? What message are you trying to leave the world with, through your chosen interests, actions and pursuits?

The ability to stick with and pursue a goal over a long period of time is an important indicator of achieving anything worthwhile in life. To leap (transition/transform) is not easy. It is tough. It requires deep, reflective work and a willingness to face your demons. It requires time and effort to learn to understand yourself and figure out what you really want. It demands commitment to long-term goals that require a clear sense of direction; even though you will be living and working in a future world of work where outcomes are uncertain and difficult to predict with accuracy.

Next you must build the capacity for practice. An interest can never develop into a passion without practice, because it is only through practice that we realise what we are truly capable of. Additionally, through practice, we build skill and we enhance our ability to pursue our interests with mastery. One of the most important things that grit paragons do every day, is practice their chosen interest religiously. They devote themselves to focused, full-hearted practice and stretch goals that will help them reach mastery. This requires an openness to feedback and a willingness to zero in on weaknesses and work diligently at minimising weaknesses and building strengths. 

As mentioned already, being gritty means being the opposite of complacent, which means that you learn to live in a constant state of dissatisfaction – but only in the sense that you are always looking for ways to improve on your skill set so that you can build mastery in your chosen field of interest. Gradually over time, as mastery increases, passion will grow as well.

The third step is to develop purpose. According to Duckworth, what ripens passion, is the conviction that your efforts matter or that your work will have an impact on others. This is why you must formulate an authentic purpose or Why statement. Interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain. So, if you don’t see the point of what you’re doing, or you can’t see how what you are doing is making a difference in the world, it becomes difficult to convince yourself to keep going and easy to just give up and resume a life of mediocrity. For this reason, your chosen interest or work needs to be both personally meaningful and socially valuable.

For some lucky few, this sense of purpose dawns early and they have absolute clarity about how they can make a difference in the world. For most of us though, the motivation to serve others or to pursue goals beyond our own personal satisfaction, develops over time. We need to explore our options and try out different things, whilst simultaneously working towards understanding ourselves better. By working on understanding yourself better, you not only develop your self-awareness (another critical meta competency), but you also learn to accept yourself with your unique strengths and weaknesses. This puts you in a position to realistically select from your different interests, the ones that are most likely to bare fruit and become pursuits of passion that are both personally meaningful and socially valuable.

The last step in the process of developing grit, is cultivating hope. Duckworth says that “hope is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance”. Although hope is discussed as the fourth step in the process, Duckworth explains that hope is not really the last step in the process, but rather defines every step in the process. From the beginning of identifying your interests to the day-to-day commitment of consistent practice, to the desire to have an impact and make a difference, hope keeps us going when things inevitably become difficult. 

In big ways and small ways, you will get knocked down on the journey of life. There are no guarantees in life and no-one is spared setbacks, failures and heartache, but we can choose to let these things defeat us, or we can choose to get up and try again. And it’s hope that makes us get up again – the hope that it can get better, or that we will figure it out or that we are too close to the end goal to quit, or that it will make a difference in the end and is thus worth the pain and suffering we are enduring in the short term.

As Duckworth explains, these four steps or components of grit, are not “you have it or you don’t have it” commodities. All of us have interests and things we enjoy doing or find stimulating. All of us naturally spend more time and effort on understanding or figuring out the things that intrigue us. Now, it is just a matter of figuring out why the particular things that intrigue you, intrigue you and how what you know, and what you can either already do or can learn to do, can make a difference in the world. And remember, it doesn’t have to be a Tesla or Space X level difference. You don’t have to find a cure for cancer. But what you must do, is show up and be the best version of yourself that you can be, because in that process, you are lighting up the world for someone – be it one person, or many or a whole community. None of the great thinkers and achievers of our time started out wanting to change the world. They simply started doing what they found interesting in a way that was unique to who they are as people and with the desire to become the best they can be at it. That is all it requires. The rest is of no consequence, because your purpose, your pursuit, is your own journey.

Originally published at leapjourney.org

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