Grit: The Key to Achievement

Young man running up bleachers.

Grit.  It is a great word.  Look it up in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and you’ll find: “Firmness of mind and spirit or unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”  Wow!

During the past 50-plus years I have been blessed to have the opportunities to coach (six years), teach (16 years), consult and write (20 years) and co-own a business (39 years).  I estimate that I have coached, taught, consulted, hired and worked with more than 9,000 people in my lifetime.  Since I have had the good fortune to interact with that many people on a frequent basis I think I developed a pretty good sense for how people navigate their successes and failures in life.

When I was young and very naive I assumed that the highly intelligent (or educated), wealthy and privileged people were those people who achieved the most in life.  Since I was a C-student, my self-esteem was pretty low and I felt I could never achieve.  As I got older, however, my experiences in life, my mentors and acquaintances taught me by example and word to see the world differently.  I discovered that those who had to fight to survive, scratch out a living, overcome disabilities and deal with mind-boggling challenges were the people of achievement.  I realized that achievements in life (positive relationships, business successes, professional respect and life satisfaction) come not only to the intelligent, educated, wealthy or lucky but to those who have grit.

Grit means working through life’s challenges and disappointments, giving your best effort despite your failures and disappointments and keeping your nose to the grindstone despite minimal or no progress in your endeavors.  Your struggles, tragedies, heartaches and frustrations build your character.  It is in these valleys that we discover who we are.  We develop strength and passion to carry on even while in the midst of defeat, disillusionment and discontent.

As I look back on my personal successes I discover that I am pleased with what I’ve accomplished.  However, except for the satisfaction of working through a thorny problem and perhaps getting some insight on how things work, I find that the life lessons learned with success tend to be few.  In fact, sometimes there is a dark side to achievement.  In my life, that murky side caused me to develop a haughtiness that was counter-productive to improving my relationships and keeping my ego in check.

On the other hand, when I review my setbacks and failures I often learn new and surprisingly important things.  These might included improving my skill-set in professional tasks, upgrading my relationships and better seeing the wonder of this world.  I also discover a new enthusiasm to reach down inside myself and continue to fight the good fight to solve a problem or issue.  Many times I discover that the pursuit of the goal to fix or solve the problem becomes invigorating.  You can even say that at times it is enjoyable.  The old saying “getting there is half the fun” holds true for me.

With the epiphany that grit is essential for achievement I began to think more on my assumption that people with grit are the ones who achieve mighty things in life.  Since my field of interest and study involved fitness, exercise and healthy living I read, studied and lectured on challenges people experienced as they engaged in active living.  I was also inspired by Frank Gifford’s book Courage in Sports (Gifford, 1975).

To analyze my thesis further, I wrote a book about average people who were faced with challenges of various types yet found ways to overcome their supposed restrictions and became regular exercisers (They Accepted the Challenge, St. Martin’s Press, 1980).

To get the book going, I contacted many of my YMCA friends across North America and asked if they could provide me with names of people who were a great inspiration to others working out at their Y.  That is, people, who exercise despite having powerful reasons not to exercise.  In other words, I wanted to talk to high achievers.  I received a list of over 100 names.  I narrowed the names to 30 people, then my co-author Lyn Cryderman and I interviewed each of them over the phone.  From that list we selected 18 people for me to visit.  Almost to a person their reaction was: “Why me?  But if you think my story is something that will help others I am willing to tell my story.”  When I visited them I probed their lives and their motivations.  It was a remarkable opportunity and honor to speak with them.

Those I interviewed were not celebrities or professional athletes.  They never set a world record or won the Boston Marathon.  However, they were men and women whose personal athletic achievements were, from my perspective, on an Olympic level, and whose reserves of courage and determination elevated them to the rank of superstar.  All 18 were gritty individuals bent on doing what they wanted to do with exercise; no one was going to stop them from chasing after their dreams.

They talked to me about their disappointments and frustrations. They highlighted their joys and support from others.  With few exceptions they were incredibly positive.  Most said: “I am what I am today because of my challenge.”  Very few used the word handicapped.  One young girl captured the tone of these hearty people: “I don’t know why what I do is such a big deal.   I am no different that any other player on the team.  I just happen to have no lower right leg and a couple of toes missing on my left foot.”

Although I wrote the book 33 years ago, I still think of my conversations with these challenge super-heroes.  Many are gone, but the lessons they taught me were truly significant.  They were driven in their pursuit of fitness.  They had a surprising amount of willpower and drive that helped them overcome a challenge that would put most people into an easy chair.

These interviews were life-changing for me and I shared their stories to encourage others.  I was truly affected by their will to achieve.  They humbled me.  Others did not see our book that way.  One cynical book reviewer wrote: “I don’t like this book because it takes away all of my excuses for not exercising.”  My answer to his review: You got it!

A current thinker and shaper of character development and achievement is Dr. Angela L. Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania.  In fact, my decision to use the title Grit is a bow to her life’s work.  Her work about achievement is spot on.  Her research confirms my experiences with my cadre of 18 high achievers and surviving life.  I think it has great implications for those who work with young children and their struggles to achieve.

For more information on Dr. Angela Duckworth go to: https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth.  You’ll get lots of information on achievement.  If you click on “Research” when you get there you’ll find an eight-item “grit scale” that you may want to give to your children.  You can view her TED talk here: http://goo.gl/asYSA

Next time I want to talk about an uncomfortable subject:  how our culture is discouraging young people to have grit.

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