INSIGHT: On the Merits of Raw Grit

by Jeff V. on March 23, 2012

Whatever Happened to Grit?

I just finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which — let me say this up front — is a book I’d recommend to anyone. It’s a great piece of nonfiction, but more importantly, it got me thinking about something nobody is talking about, but should be.

That thing is grit.

One thing you realize about the WWII generation is that nothing stopped them. At that time, we had a national spirit that could not be deterred. We were unified and resilient, and we found a way to rally even when the vastly easier route was to give up. To recoil in the face of loss. Reading Unbroken, you want to stand up and applaud that entire era. Ideologically, it seems a thousand years removed from our national discourse today.

Grit can be defined a lot of ways, but I think most would say it’s something that spurs people on after they fail. Or maybe it’s the thing that allows someone to maintain focus through adversity or distraction. Maybe it’s the unflinching drive someone has for one thing in particular, which leads to a passion to do something extraordinary.

What I’m talking about here is simple grit: the ability to clench your jaw, roll up your sleeves and walk straight into the heart of discomfort or adversity and come out on the other side — unbroken. 

We all know stories of people who aren’t the smartest of the bunch, who didn’t have the educational pedigree of others, who experienced more failure than success in their lives. But through sheer will and the ability to walk right into something difficult and painful — and stay there for however long it takes — these folks make their dent in the universe.

Today, everyone talks about intelligence development, IQ screening, private trainers, specialized learning/training routines. 10-year-olds have strength and conditioning coaches. 8-year-olds have hockey four or five times per week. Everything is programmatic, scripted.

Everything is sanitized.

What nobody talks about anymore is grit. I hear nobody telling their kids to stand tall, be strong and do what you have to do. Moreover, all too often in the workplace I see people backing down from hard conversations, not stepping up to do the right thing, avoiding some temporary discomfort as if it will kill them.

To me, grit is tied to personal responsibility and truly caring about something. If we’re to do a good job for our client on a big project, we need grit.

We need to be able to have the hard conversations.

We need to recognize our role in what we do.

We need to acknowledge that there will be long hours and tough project milestones.

We need to realize that there will be mistakes, miscalculations and oversights. People will goof-up, slip, play politics.

In the real world, far away from the Utopian pictures painted by RFP responses and slick cover-page cardstock, these things happen. And when they do, no amount of flowery prose in an executive briefing will ever make things better.

What will?

Someone who leans into the discomfort of the crisis, keeps a cool head and simply does what needs to get done. That means no quitting, no backing down, no blaming other people. It means pushing back on the world harder than it’s pushing on you.

Is this spirit alive anymore? Going back to the parenting idiom, I rarely see it. I see obsessive-compulsive use of hand sanitizer, a pathological fear of dirt and parents completely unwilling to instill some fortitude in their children. I see parents of unruly kids blaming coaches and teachers for “being too hard” on the children, and I see young adults who can’t pick themselves up after a letdown because they weren’t taught the skills.

Personally, weightlifting has taught me a lot about grit. It’s sometimes brutally hard, many days you’re whipped when you hit the gym, and standing under a 565 lb. squat lockout is a downright painful experience. I’ve been injured a dozen times, sometimes to the point of not being able to walk properly, but every time I come back.

Everyone who understands grit has their version of the story.

An entrepreneur who failed twice but kept going until he hit his stride.

The small kid who couldn’t cut it in hockey who learned that he could outwork everyone else for a roster spot.

The kid who grew up with nothing but realized most people are afraid of real work, so he swore to himself he wouldn’t be.

There are countless examples. Everyone’s heard one.

So why is it so hard to find?

If you have it, you’re lucky. If your team has it, you’re insanely lucky.

Think about this. Think about how many problems would be avoided outright or at least heavily defused if we all could learn to lean into our discomfort. Staring into adversity isn’t pleasant, but in many cases, you’ll find it blinks before you do.

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

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