True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience
Three steps that you can take to increase your ability to persevere.
By Christian Jarrett – Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara
Whether we’re talking about a great novelist like John Irving or an era-defining entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, it’s natural to conclude that the mega-successful owe their achievements to an almost magical quality that you’re either born with or you’re not: talent.
But according to Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who’s made it her life’s goal to help children thrive, this is mistaken. Yes, the aptitude you bring is important, but few of us ever reach the limits of our natural abilities. Instead what holds us back is a lack of commitment or a lack of focus. “Enthusiasm is common,” Duckworth writes, “endurance is rare.”
Effort counts twice, she explains, because it translates your aptitude into skill. And then it combines with your skill to manifest as achievement. In other words, it takes effort to get good at something, and then it takes effort to apply that skill, to create.
If you look at John Irving’s life story, for instance, it isn’t one that begins with him displaying savant- like brilliance at an early age. Far from it, in fact he struggled at school with English. What distinguishes his lifelong approach to his art is his doggedness. “Rewriting is what I do best as a writer,” says Irving. “I spend more time revising a novel or screenplay than I take to write the first draft.”
But determination isn’t enough, you also need to apply yourself with focus. Rather than chasing a different dream each week or month or year, you need – at least eventually – to settle on a higher calling and never let go. When you have drive and determination combined with single-minded direction, this is what translates into meaningful accomplishment.
Crucially, Duckworth, who has written the book on grit, argues that grit isn’t fixed like your height. Rather it’s something that you can cultivate, more like learning a new language. Here are three steps from Duckworth’s book that you can take to make yourself grittier – and dramatically increase your ability to persevere.
Find your calling
Most high achievers have “an ultimate concern” or what Duckworth calls their “compass” (because it provides a sense of direction) and nothing will stop them in pursuit of this higher goal. How can you find yours if you don’t have one already? The first thing to realize is that you’re not going to find it through introspection. You need to get out there and try things. A relevant misconception is that passions instantly grab us in one magical eureka moment. In reality, the first time you encounter your would-be passion, you likely won’t even realize it. This means you need to expose yourself to as many different pursuits as possible and give any nascent spark a chance to catch.
In time, what overarching passions or concerns have in common is that they have a greater purpose – yes, there is pleasure and fascination in them, but more than that, usually there is a deeper meaning or cause that involves helping other people in some way. In a 2014 study that she conducted with her colleagues Katherine Von Culina at Yale and Eli Tsukayama at The University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth found that people with high levels of grit are as motivated by the pursuit of pleasure as much as anyone else, but what marks them out is their greater interest in meaningful activities that serve a higher purpose.
Of course, we can’t fight every battle. Sometimes it makes sense to change course. If you’re struggling to recognize the difference between your overarching career aim and lesser, more disposable goals, consider visualizing your aims as a pyramid with those at the bottom feeding into your ultimate goal at the top. If they cause you problems, you shouldn’t be afraid to save energy by dispensing with lower-level goals. As you approach mid-level goals and beyond, you should become progressively more dogged. Reserve your never surrender attitude for your ultimate goal or life philosophy that guides all you do.
Once you know what your passion is, you need to hone your craft through unrelenting practice. Duckworth’s research–including a 2010 study into the winners of National Spelling Bee championships–has shown that gritty people devote more time to what psychologists call “deliberate practice” and that they enjoy it more.
This kind of practice involves more than simply putting in the hours. It’s an arduous process that requires pushing yourself to perform outside of your current ability levels (Duckworth recommends setting yourself “stretch goals” – specific areas of performance where you would like to make gains); getting meaningful feedback on how to improve; and then doing it all over again, implementing that feedback to achieve superior performance.
Duckworth quotes dancer Martha Graham’s description of what it feels like to do this kind of training: “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.”
Be it sport, acting or art, when we watch superstars perform, their output often seems effortless, which only serves to fuel the illusion that they were born with a supernatural gift. In fact, the reason their performance is so fluid and graceful is because of all the hours and hours of intense, painstaking practice they’ve completed.
Think like an optimist
In pursuit of your creative ambitions, it is inevitable that you will experience set backs. As shown in Duckworth’s research involving school teachers working in schools in poor districts, gritty people tend to respond to these setbacks with an optimistic mindset. Optimists see failure as a chance to learn. They consider the changeable aspects of a disappointment that can be addressed and adjusted to make failure less likely next time. Pessimists, by contrast, will tend to blame the failure on a fundamental cause that can’t be changed, such as the belief that they don’t have what it takes. A related concept you’ve probably heard of is whether or not you have a growth mindset. Gritty optimists tend to have a growth mindset, believing that traits like intelligence can be nurtured. Pessimists instead see such things as fixed.
There is a dynamic, interactive nature to these things. Duckworth’s research suggests that encountering adversity–as you surely will–and believing pessimistically that you have no power over events, will encourage you to give up without a fight. You condition yourself to be passive, and you lose your grit. In contrast, responding to challenges with optimism and determination and finding a way through (in Duckworth’s language, this is “adversity plus mastery”), you will nurture your grittiness. Next time you encounter difficulties, you will be even more determined to push on. “To be gritty,” Duckworth writes, “is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”
If you’re a lifelong pessimist, you might be feeling skeptical at this point, but it’s worth noting that a study last year reviewed all the evidence into whether we can train ourselves to be more optimistic and the results were, well, rather upbeat: the researchers concluded that optimism is indeed something we can learn.
By finding your true calling, honing your craft through dedicated deliberate practice, and responding to setbacks with an optimistic, problem-solving approach, you will follow in the footsteps of the many outstanding achievers Duckworth has studied, all of whom are characterized by that mix of passion and perseverance.
To believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, while the rest of us are not, is demoralizing. You might understandably wonder whether the focus on grit simply shifts this concern to a different trait: that perhaps a rare few are blessed with grit while us lesser mortals are destined to weaker will and an absence of purpose. In fact, twin studies suggest that the “heritability” of grit is between 20 to 40 percent, meaning that less than half the difference in grit between people can be traced to genetic causes. This leaves plenty of room for grit to be influenced by other factors such as life experiences and deliberate cultivation. “Like every aspect of your psychological character,” Duckworth writes, “grit is more plastic than you might think.”