Grit & Tenacity

I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately. Namely- and without getting into the semantics of what “success” truly is- what causes a person to be successful?

I’ve become fascinated with the work of Angela Duckworth, a researcher, author, and recipient of the “Genius” grant. Angela studies success, and what kinds of personality traits lead to successful people. And she’s found one trait in particular that seems to always point towards bright futures: grit.

Angela defines grit as “the disposition to pursue very longterm goals with passion and perseverance.”  

But who is most likely to have this magical grit? Probably people who are naturally good and something, and thus more motivated to pursue it, right? Well, surprisingly, students and children who are naturally more talented or gifted don’t tend to display more grit. And in fact, Angela’s research has found that there’s a negative correlation between inherent ability grittiness.

Why’s that? Well, Angela has pointed out that it’s rather simple: if you’re always just good at stuff, you’ll never learn how to persevere through hard things.

This reminds me of a favorite mantra of mine: You can do hard things.

Turns out the science backs me up.

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Recently, my friend Steph Gaudreau was working on a blogpost about getting out of your comfort zone, and asked for me to contribute my own advice to the piece. I immediately replied, “You can do hard things. You were not put on this planet to only do what comes easily to you. If you were, you’d have burst into flames of enlightenment by now.” 

This bubbled to the surface because whenever I’m asked for advice, I try to imagine what would need to hear in that situation- because the truth is, I’m not a guru, and I don’t have everything figured out. Everything I write is as much a message and lesson directed at myself as it is to anyone else; and as someone whose Achilles heel is perfectionism, I know that the thing holding me back from stepping out of my comfort zone is often the fear of simply not being good at whatever new thing it is I’ve decided to try.

By giving ourselves permission to be beginners, we’re giving ourselves permission to escape our comfort zone, and magic rarely happens within our comfort zone.

For the past few years, I’ve been on a mission to escape the tempting trap of the comfort zone and embracing what it means to not be inherently good at everything I try. When you were a child, did you ever play that game where you’d jump from couch to couch or chair to chair, pretending the floor was lava and couldn’t be touched? That’s how I’ve felt with comfort lately- the second I start getting too comfortable, it feels as though the earth below my feet has transformed into magma, and it’s starting to melt my shoes. It’s then that I realize I need to take a leap, jump onto something else that isn’t becoming dangerously well-known.

Taking that leap to the next new thing is always the hardest part. Sure, that moment right when you land on the next spot and you teeter back-and-forth for a moment is pretty scary, but nothing compares to the fluttering of butterflies in your stomach right before you jump. I think this is because in that moment- no matter how brief or drawn-out it is- we’re forced to face the little voice in the back of our head that tells us that we won’t be good enough. That we’ll miss the landing. That people will think we were ridiculous for ever even trying if we fail. That we should just stay where we are, even if it’s starting to hurt us, because at least we know we were able to manage this much.

And here’s the thing, the fear of the leap is completely rational.

There’s a very real chance that you won’t stick the landing, that you’ll miss and have your fear of failure realized. But as a child playing “the floor is lava,” you didn’t just flop onto the floor the first time you missed and accept your fate as a charred blob of failure. You probably laughed along with your friends, maybe a little embarrassed, and tried again. You took a deep breath and jumped onto a different chair (or maybe even the same one, if you were extra brave), and kept doing so until the game was over.

That’s grit. That’s doing hard things.

Now to pull our nostalgic metaphor into reality, consider trying a new hobby or pursuing a new goal. Just like the moment before you jump off your perch, the moment before you decide to throw yourself into something different and foreign is terrifying, too. But the longer you allow yourself to dwell on “Well maybe I’ll be the world’s worst cake decorator,” or “Well maybe I’ll just be as bad at soccer as I was at tennis,” the more likely you’re going to be to remain in your comfort zone. And the more likely you are to remain in your comfort zone, the more likely you are to miss out on a grand opportunity.

And you know what, you may well end up being the world’s worst cake decorator or soccer player or whatever else it is. Despite what all those student athletes and motivational bumper stickers tell you, failure (at least as it is colloquially known) is most definitely an option. Not everyone is the best at everything, because if they were, the Olympics wouldn’t be the Olympics. They’d be a weekend activity. So if we’re to define failure as not being absolutely amazing at every new pursuit, I’d argue that failure isn’t only an option- it’s the likeliest one.

But that’s okay.

You were not put on this planet to be perfect, just as you were not put on this planet to only do things that come naturally to you. If you go through life only seeking perfection or being “good enough,” you will miss out on the bounty of other lessons and experiences that the world outside your comfort zone has to offer. There’s no rule that says only Olympic athletes or platinum music artists can enjoy their craft.

Learn to embrace the idea of your own personal success.

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Instead of defining success by the otherworldly outliers like top-tier athletes or your idolized friends and neighbors, define success by having gained new experiences, expanded your realm of knowledge, and having fun. 

This past summer, I decided to try something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but had always been afraid of leaping into: Olympic lifting. I’d always told myself that I would be looked down upon or thought of as silly for trying something so out of my realm that I clearly wasn’t going to be competitive in, and I’d allowed that to keep me chained in my comfort zone of yoga for years. But one day I realized: I’m probably not gonna be breaking any world records for Olympic lifting, and that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun doing it at my own level. It’s not some secretive, elite activity only for those who have been specially chosen for their unique talents.

It’s not like the Karate Kid or something.

And so I leap into it. I stopped lingering in that painful space before the leap and walked into a gym I’d never been before and told a coach I’d never met before that I wan’t to do something I’d never done before.

And it was fucking hard. There were many times where I wanted to give up, where I tried to convince myself that I’d never get the technical movements or lift as much as the people around me, so why bother? But I had a goal, and it was to dedicate myself to something new- to challenge my body, brain, and spirit in a new way. And dammit, I was going to stick with it, even if I wasn’t going to be the greatest on earth.

Grit. That’s grit.

Interestingly enough, before I came across the work of Angela Duckworth, I was talking to my dear friend Moya about the difference between “stubbornness” and “tenacity.”  What we found was that while the two seem to be often conflated, they are remarkably different.

Stubbornness is feeling bound to acting or behaving in a certain way, no matter what the feedback we receive is. You’ve heard that saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” I think stubbornness is largely the same, but often with the added belief that we’re doing something that is inherently good. We’re grinding, we’re putting in effort. But this stubbornness is inflexible and unchanging, and can result in us being bound to unhealthy behaviors, relationships, or goals. It can even lead to us existing for far too long in a comfort zone we don’t even realize has appeared.

Tenacity, on the other hand, is following the path we know to be true in our hearts, while not being bound to any one specific way or methodology. Tenacity is facing fears and embracing change, while staying true to our core beliefs. It is determination without resistance to the necessary growth and evolution that must occur along the way. It’s noticing when something we’ve decided to pursue or chase after is no longer serving us, and finding a different way to follow our higher purposes: let that be strength, humility, or just good ol’ happiness.

Consider the pursuit of health. Stubbornness would be forcing ourselves on the treadmill to run 5 miles a day (even though we hate it) and drink smoothies (even though we hate them) just because that’s what we’ve decided is the “only way” to get healthy. Tenacity is trying these things, realizing they don’t work for us, and instead of giving up on our health journey, choosing to try swimming instead of running and salads instead of smoothies. It’s being willing to try different roads to our ultimate destination if one of them ends up being closed down for one reason or another.

Tenacity cannot exist without grit, and grit cannot exist without tenacity, and neither can exist without the belief that we are capable of hard things.

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