Every child comes into the world carrying two sets of luggage. No, you can’t see the luggage, but every parent of young children will tell you it’s there all the same. In one set of luggage is a sense of determination, wonder, and a zest for exploration. Open the other set of luggage and you’ll find the exact opposite: a desire to be spoiled, a tendency to take things for granted, and a desire to ‘play it safe.’
Over the course of a child’s first dozen years, he or she will learn to depend more and more on one set of luggage or the other. Life experiences will encourage either more narcissism, self-absorption and fear, or more grit, curiosity and fearlessness.
Young children are naturally curious and determined. You see this when they are learning to talk, feed themselves, dress themselves or learning to walk. Let’s take the last skill as an example. Research shows that the average toddler takes about 1,400 steps a day and falls 100 times day. That means over the course of one month the toddler has fallen about 3,000 times while learning to walk. Just in one month! Toddlers are a very determined group of tiny humans.
Now fast forward two or three decades. How many adults would continue to try and master a skill that they had failed to complete 3000 times during the first month of practice? Not many. Somewhere between toddlerhood and adulthood most of us learn to dial back our determination to persist when faced with failure. We become complacent and settle for too little in life. We set aside dreams after failing to reach our goals after the first, second or third attempt. Many of us let the fear of failure keep us from experiencing what life holds for us.
But this, of course, is not true of everybody. There are exceptions. One of the best basketball players to ever run down the court was Michael Jordan. The talent he displayed during his professional career, however, was not so obvious when he was a teen and did not make the cut for his high school basketball team.
Had he given in to complacency, and a fear of failure, his life would have been very different. Not so much because he would have lacked fame and money (although that may well be true), but because he would have been robbed of the joy that comes from testing oneself, from overcoming obstacles, and fully engaging one’s dreams and God given talents.
Another example is H. D. Sanders. To say that he had a bad start in life is an understatement. Growing up in a poor southern family, raised by a single mother after his father died, H.D. dropped out of school in the 7th grade. As a young man he bounced from job to job before eventually finding the means to buy a small gas station. H. D. got married only to have his wife leave him. Later in life, when he was in his 60’s, the gas station that he relied upon began to financially flounder. He sold the business and lived off the meager proceeds from the sale of his business, in addition to a government check of 100.00 dollars that he received each month.
But H. D. was not the quitting type. He remembered how much people enjoyed his recipe for fried chicken, and thought there just might be a chance that some local restuarants would be interested in paying him to divulge the secret ingredients. Turned out that not one of the local restuarant owners was interested. Zero response. Nada.
Did that stop H.D.? Not at all. He simply packed his bags, threw them in the back of his beat-up sedan, and hit the road. From one city to another he drove to peddle his recipe. Again and again he was greeted with the same response: not interested. No matter, H.D. kept going. He was his own cheerleader and felt certain brighter days lay ahead.
After visiting several hundred restaurants (yes, several hundred) word finally caught on that this guy really did know something about fried chicken. Some business minded people up north, people with serious money, got in touch with H. D. - a deal was struck, and Kentucky Fried Chicken became a household name. That’s the sort of determination and grit that pushes fear of failure to the sidelines and grabs hold of success.
How do people develop this type of approach to life? Is it something one is born with, or is it something that can be learned? Research shows that it is a combination of both, but mainly something that is learned.
The question that you are bound to ask is “How can grit, perseverance, or whatever you want to call it, be strengthened?”
One: Take some time to recount the important victories in your life.
Recall the satisfaction you felt at that time and the benefits that may have followed from each achievement. Write each victory down on one side of a piece of paper. Next to each achievement write down the obstacles that stood in the way. Think about what was required of you to overcome these challenges, the effort and persistence that was needed. Now scan back to the other side of the page and focus on the victory you won, the goal you reached. Good stuff, right? You should keep this list, add to it as other memories come to mind, and review it from time to time. It is a part of your history of grit.
Two: Picture the quality of psychological grit as an energy source within your brain, a small bundle of neurons that glow bright every time you tap into that resource.
Now imagine that each time you persevere a little longer at a task that the neuronal bundle grows a little bigger, glowing a little brighter. Like a muscle, the more you exercise grit the stronger it becomes. Some find it helpful to elaborate on the imagery by eventually imagining the energy from grit flowing into their heart or expanding to fill their entire body. Employ this mental imagery frequently.
Three: Read biographies about others who have faced huge challenges and persisted.
Deeply consider how they might have felt during those difficult times, and in what ways their life might have turned out differently had they not persisted. To take this another step you can keep a collection of photos in your den, study, bedroom of people you admire who demonstrated remarkable persistence. Everyone needs role models, and when building stronger levels of grit, it is no different.
Four: Be Persistent
The next time you face a challenge, be intentional in reminding yourself that this is the time to exercise persistence. Push yourself to go a little further than you might otherwise. Then push yourself a little more.
Five: Be intentional.
Search out opportunities to test yourself. These should include challenges that are meaningful to you. That might be in the realm of achieving a new personal best in some physical realm (e.g., running a half marathon), learning a musical instrument, or giving a speech at a civics club. Just make sure that your choice involves something that is important to you. Then plan, prepare and execute. When you have persisted and reached that goal take some time to focus on the persistence you demonstrated and celebrate your success. Don’t focus on how you could have done better (there is time enough for that later on), but instead focus on the grit you employed throughout that process. Where else in life can you use that persistence? What might it mean to you, or those you love, were you to be just as persistent in that area of life?
If you would like to dive more deeply into this topic I suggest reading Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance.
As always, I would love to hear how this worked for you.