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  • Writer's pictureSimon Boardman

True Grit

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Grit is such a big deal that there have been two movies called “Tue Grit” and one book, called Grit. The movie version I’m familiar with was the 1969 one that starred John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell. Then there was a 2010 Coen brothers' version produced by Steven Spielberg that starred Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, along with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper. Then, of course, there's the 2016 book Grit: “The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth. According to Quartz at Work, “Angela Duckworth is the world’s leading expert on Grit (although I still think it’s John Wayne) , the much-hyped ingredient in personal success. As Duckworth defines it, Grit is “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.”

I was reminded of the subject of Grit when discussing "resilience" and the amount we'll need to get through this Covid induced fatigue and uncertainty. While I wrote this article "pre-Covid," it seems unrealistic to not revisit it with some new perspective given these changing circumstances. We seem to have moved into a form of weariness and resignation. The “grit” tank is getting close to empty. The stories of the joys of working from home are on the decline as people realize that, like everything in life, working from home is accompanied by its own set of tradeoffs. Those who cannot work from home are rightfully worried about their futures, those who can worry too. However, zoom fatigue, fatuous digital happy hours, and skepticism that these changes are NOT “all good” aren’t in the same league as contemplating unemployment or financial ruin.

On the other hand, some people are doing even better than before this Covid era, and there are people whose situations don't seem to have changed much. I can't figure out how much of this is true and how much it comes back to maybe an overdose of a component of “grit” (that of projecting a positive outlook, no matter what's happening). In closing this preamble, I'm reminded of the variation on the famous Rudyard Kipling quote, “If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs…you’ll be a man, my son.” The humorous version (and I cannot remember who said it) goes something like, If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs…then you don’t understand how serious things are!"

Get On With It

Let’s get back to it. The subject of Grit is covered here in two parts. So the good news is that you'll have a couple of weeks before you have to read Part 2! In part 1, we introduce the idea of, and try to define, Grit (with help from Angela Duckworth – who else?). We present a couple of our components of Grit, maintaining that these constituent parts and their effect on “grit” have been generally overlooked. In part 2, we look at the physical effects of our psychological condition and return to the idea of stories and why it's essential to tell yourself a positive one. Finally, we make some recommendations about the concept of Grit, encouraging you to stay away from the "grand" ideas that are often used as illustrations. Stories about people becoming entangled in their cave climbing lines to the point that they had to cut their arm off with a penknife are extraordinary and worthy of our admiration. But to be honest, they are not the problems that confront most of us on rainy Monday mornings. So, we have tried to make practical recommendations about Grit in the Verto Verdict. Advice that will help you preserve through those rainy Monday mornings.

I Don’t Get It

Grit is often poorly understood – it certainly was by me. It's another one of those ideas that have established cliché status, where no one wants to ask for a definition lest they get sneered at by the all-knowing group of peers. I could never get past a superficial understanding and struggled to find anyone who could meaningfully explain it past the obvious or differentiate from other well understood qualities. For example, as Romeo Vitelli (Ph. D.) wrote, "There are different definitions for grit, but the one that seems to be used most often is "perseverance and passion for long-term goals." According to psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, author of the popular book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance grit is "an often-ignored psychological trait that can help explain why some individuals succeed when others with equal or greater ability do not." Commentators all use predictable examples of "grittiness." Military stories like you'd expect. Stories of winning against all the odds and overcoming significant adversity. Basically, overused cliché's like; "don't take no for an answer, get back on the horse, if you get knocked down….etc.". You know the stuff. These stories are all well and good, and the protagonists are deserving of our admiration. But the question I always had was how and where you use the idea of Grit in the everyday world? I'm not usually confronted by a problem where I must cut off my arm and then crawl 50 miles for help. Great story of overcoming adversity but not that relevant to the problems that engulf most of us on those Monday mornings, as we have said. Some would argue that the idea of "grit" is just old wine in a new bottle—a re-packaging of other well-known qualities like perseverance, or conscientiousness and resilience, and persistence.

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker does a great job explaining at least one component of Grit in practical, easily applicable terms. Barker also uses stories from gritty people (special forces soldiers, for example) but analyses the nuts and bolts of how they break things down into small tasks. For example, rather than looking at having to cover 50 miles in 10 hours across rough terrain, they'd look at it in smaller chunks and play competitions with themselves to see if they could cover the next 2 miles in 30 minutes (or something similar). Being competitive with oneself crosses over into a characteristic of emotional intelligence (as Daniel Goleman discusses again in his HBR article on leadership). Namely that of looking to achieve things for the sake of achievement itself.

Passion Plus Perseverance

The most talked-about recent authority on Grit is Angela Duckworth and her book of the same name. You can't credibly discuss Grit these days without reference to this book. However, she wasn't the first to look at Grit and isn't the only one to have an opinion on it. She mentions that people hold many misleading ideas of what Grit is. For example, she quotes a businessperson noting that Grit is an appetite for taking financial risks, which seems to be more of a vanity description than anything else. Authors and academics use Grit examples, which are more driven by vanity than they are from judgment. To her credit, she went further with her analysis. However, she still got some predictable definitions, such as "winners love to go head to head with other people. "Winners hate losing, or no matter the field, the most successful people were also gritty AND talented." Duckworth’s description of Grit is all about determination and direction. Grit is a combination of passion and perseverance. Maybe that's nothing new.

If I Didn’t Have Bad Luck, I’d Have No Luck!

Throughout the work we've done and our experiences over the years, one cannot deny the role of luck, timing, and randomness in both people’s successes and failures. We return to this theme in other chapters but mention it here as, like talent, it is often singled out to explain success and failure. Nothing is a guarantee of either success or failure. No single factor determines an outcome; it’s always a combination and the sequence. What is guaranteed is how badly we recall both our successes and failures and where we apportion credit and blame. We always attribute our accomplishments to our brilliance (despite the usual superficial and nauseating attempts at humility). We will usually recognize the role of luck in our failures (bad luck), and interestingly in the success of other people (their good luck). As Jean Cocteau famously said, “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like”.

Duckworth talks about the Grit of long-term plans and the need to adopt a whole life philosophy. Once more, I fear her examples, while all staggeringly famous, are prone to the same fallibilities—that of adopting a revisionist approach to their own history. Successful people (in all degrees of success) will tend to re-write their own accounts to tell the story of some grand master plan. Their success resulted from them executing against that grand plan. They trivialize the role of luck, timing, and randomness. Remember, we're looking for insights and useful examples that can get us through that mournful Monday morning. You know the type when you sit and contemplate the meaning of life, and your relevance, or the possibility of irrelevance. That nagging thought that we might have done unremarkable things and lived inconsequential lives, none of which was part of a grand plan, or at least not our grand plan.

We can all think of the examples in our lives where we (or someone close to us) have needed Grit to overcome significant obstacles like illness or the sickness or death of our most immediate relatives. There are maybe different types of Grit. The kind that gets you out of bed in the morning when you're facing an uncertain future is different from that which gets you out of bed in the morning, facing the inevitable loss of a loved one. I find the latter almost incomprehensible. Once more, we reach a stage in our lives when we have dealt with death – but usually in an orderly way. The loss of parents is not easy to deal with, but it follows a natural course of events and is expected. The loss of children or spouses, or siblings is a different matter. Surviving and preserving after this is entirely different and requires a more significant variety of Grit from the one we’re discussing here.

As we’ve said here, we’re looking for what I call the short-term Grit. As mentioned, the type that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other. The kind that provides you with the fuel to satisfy the idea that, as Woody Allen maintained, "80% of life is simply showing up".

The 30 Year Overnight Success

As Mark Twain once said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” The same principle applies to success and the role of Grit. Contrary to what the media would have us believe and what we want to think, most success stories are years in the making. Those that are not are genuinely exceptions, which causes us a problem. The overnight success is what catches our attention and fires our imagination. That's what we want to believe. We want to think that we, too, could achieve this when the odds are very much against it. It's fashionable, but unrealistic, to support this kind of idea nowadays.

Humans are lazy; we like to take short cuts, figure out the path of least resistance. Psychologists and award-winning Behavioral Scientists and Economists like Tversky and Kahneman have illuminated this in the last 15-20 years. We're hard-wired to use what they call heuristics. So, while we all find the quality of Grit admirable, we refuse to accept a 30-year struggle to get where we think we deserve to be. It’s just too long. Therefore, we want to believe the overnight success stories. We gravitate toward them and wish to find out how they did it. We want them to tell us the way to "fast track" our success.

I don't think gritty people notice the time. They seem to keep on keeping on, resolute in their conviction that what they’re doing is right. But even then, we assign too much credit. I don't even think some of those people are that resolute – they keep bulling forward as if they don't know any other way. And then they look up, and thirty years have gone by, they’ve created a fantastic body of work (that maybe gets noticed and perhaps it doesn't). Maybe the world has caught up to them. The world has skated to their puck. They have become celebrated achieved some notoriety, and people assume they started yesterday, ‘cos after all…that’s what we want to believe.

Balancing Obsession and Grit

How close is Grit (passion & perseverance) to obsession? And is it the same? As usual, it will be about extremes and our tendency to think in those extremes. In other words, we have to be careful that we don’t use thinking that says someone had Grit or they do not. Someone is obsessive, or they are not. There are degrees, aren’t there? That’s the whole point of not thinking in those extremes. We must avoid seeing things as all or nothing, and the same is true when dealing with Grit.

Obsession might be easier to spot. One would argue that all those great examples of spectacular success in Western business – the leaders were obsessed – Gates, Jobs, Ellison, Brin, Page, Bezos, Zuckerberg. But we’re not necessarily talking about that level of "success." Surely you can still succeed without succumbing to obsession?

The best movie on this is The Prestige, which is about two rival magicians in 19th Century London. It’s a great study in obsession. The two protagonists of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are two young, up and coming magicians trying to figure out what it takes to succeed in that profession. They’re looking for the ultimate illusion to wow their audience. In the movie's early stages, they see an older, more established magician, a Chinaman. He is (apparently) so old and decrepit he can hardly walk from the theater to his waiting carriage when he leaves at the end of his act to return home. The two have been unsuccessfully trying to figure out how he performs some of his illusions. They are confounded. They believe the Chinese magician's advancing age and decrepitude disable him from physically performing the illusions. As they watch the magician slowly walk to his carriage and is helped aboard, Bale says, "this is the illusion." He has spotted that the entire image the magician projects in public is misdirection. Bale has spotted the real illusion. The Chinese magician is much younger and healthier and is performing an act in public. This act is the misdirection to convince onlookers of his physical inability to perform his tricks without his magic. That is the real illusion, and to succeed with it, he has to live that way continually. That's what they'd call obsession.

Only When I Laugh

Humor is a subject we return to a lot – it’s a common theme. Whether you recognize its role in social signaling and whether it helps you identify like-minded people, or whether it’s a determining factor of whether you’re a nice or good guy.

In this chapter, the versatility of humor again emerges. It may not immediately appear as a component of Grit – but it is - here's why. Grit is generally acknowledged as a component of EQ that influences success as much as IQ does. Humor is credited with getting some of us through life and being a characteristic of leadership. So, is humor a subset of Grit?

Professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas teach a course at Stanford about humor in business. They claim that “leaders with humor can build stronger cultures, unleash more creativity, and even negotiate better deals. Many (leaders) struggle because they hold onto the false dichotomy between bringing humor and taking your work seriously. The right balance of gravity and levity gives power to both." Health and humor are regularly discussed these days. The importance of happiness, its absence in the workplace, and the lack of humor and surplus of seriousness is a familiar subject. The psychologist Daniel Goleman maintains that humor is one of the traits of leadership. Humor is a characteristic of emotional intelligence. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of the importance of humor in how it simply helps people get along. Eisenhower said, "A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done." One would assume that to achieve successful leadership, you have to be gritty before and during. So at least Grit and humor can exist side by side. One does not preclude the other.

So Where Does Humor play a role? Humor doesn't sound too gritty. It sounds like the opposite. Grittiness is serious and severe. Humor is too often mistaken for frivolousness in this overly serious world. But it achieves the same thing as "breaking things down." Here we're talking about using it to humor yourself – to get yourself through challenging times, to maintain forward motion when it's a mean old scene. Maybe you sit staring at your computer or gazing at the other commuters on the train or the people in their cars next to you. Perhaps you ask the same question Vega asked in the first Star Trek Movie - "Is this all that I am?"

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. You can tell yourself stories and jokes. Don't force yourself NOT to laugh 'cos you heard that one before! Great jokes stand the test of time and can be told and retold – it's all in the delivery. Recount classic stand-up routines or classic comedy scenes from movies. Remember, people and friends that make you laugh. Reminisce on hilarious incidents that have happened with these friends. Something to get you smiling, laughing, and through the next few minutes. You're using short term goals - just like "grittiness."

I Feel Happy

Another way humor helps in its effects on the rest of our psychological state. Psychologists and some philosophers maintain that if you do happy, you will be happy. But don’t I have to be happy to do happy? “To do is to be” (Plato), or is it “to be is to do” (Socrates), or is it “do be do be do” (Sinatra). I accept we’re back into a classic “chicken and egg” dilemma. But the brain makes mistakes. Maybe you can fool it into a happier state that enables you to get through the next (perhaps unpleasant) task, vital to keep you moving in the right direction. If you force yourself to smile, the sensors in your skin send signals back to the brain. In simple terms, the brain senses a physical action which it associates with an emotion – happiness. It's like smiling in front of a mirror. It just keeps bouncing back and forth.

Pretty soon you are happier…who da thunk it? The brain can get fooled a lot. For example, in the world of attraction, the so-called "femme fatal" has a mysterious power over men. This power might be explained by a simple physical flaw, that of possessing unusually large pupils. This misleads those looking into those pupils that they are the object of interest, as its common knowledge that pupil dilation is (sometimes) the result of attraction. We think this person likes us (they don’t …they just have large pupils), this excites us, making them even more attractive to us. Before you know it, the restraining order has been granted. You get my drift.

There will now be a short break. Normal service will be resumed in Part Two. There we continue the idea of humor and look at how our mental state can influence our physical condition. We'll also look at the role of stories, and then, of course, conclude with "The Verdict" – the key takeaways from our contemplation on the ideas of Grit.

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