Aka resilience aka Stoicism aka resolve
A word extremely common in the fitness, self-help and entrepreneur communities.
small loose particles of stone or sand.
courage and resolve; strength of character
Fleshing this out a little, we might say grit involves powering through difficulty, putting up with discomfort, or the ubiquitous social media cliché “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable”. The essence seems to continuing in the face of difficult circumstances whilst keeping a balanced outlook.
The importance of this quality to a happy/ successful life is hard to overstate.
But is telling people to “have” grit or to be gritty good advice?
Is there any value at all in simply telling people to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”?
This advice is as empty as telling people to “be happy”.
A more productive approach might be to examine grit in a little more detail. By working out what grit is made up of, I hope to provide some practical advice as to how one might go about fostering this invaluable virtue.
The 7 Components of Grit
1. Self-belief – If you believe you can / will get through your present difficulties, you are more likely to keep pushing. Very few people continue pushing when they are sure they will fail. What’s the point? In the early days following his diagnoses, Stephen Hawking’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was told he might have six months to live. During this time he gave up on his research, questioning the point if he was never going to finish it. Hawking only returned to his work once his condition stabilised. He believed he would have the time to produce something useful. What’s more, Hawking went on to implement and innovate ingenious technology to mitigate the effects of his disability. If that’s not grit, I don’t know what is.
2. Self-Esteem – This is the idea that you are valuable, based on your achievements and abilities. This is undoubtedly a good thing to have. More valuable still is self-esteem based on a broad array of abilities. That way, if one of them fails, your self-concept can still be preserved by the abilities that remain. Self-esteem allows you to shrug off disappointments, since you are still good at many things after all. You are still valuable. That said, self-esteem is flawed because it is conditional. How many superstars fall into depression or ennui following retirement? When people are no longer able to do the things they loved about themselves, they often experience a crisis of identity. This is not a stable foundation. If it lacks stability, it isn’t gritty.
3. Self-Love has the edge over self-esteem because it is unconditional. Self-love says that you are valuable, regardless of your exploits. You are valuable as a person, as a flawed but well-intentioned being. This is a difficult concept to grasp and one I am still wrestling with. How could I love myself if I committed a mass murder? Presumably I wouldn’t, for a while at least. Leaving such extreme cases aside, it is certainly healthy to show love for yourself independent of your external achievements, just for being you. If this seems too alien or cutesy-wutesy to you, stick with self-esteem for now.
4. Strong core values. If you have belief in values that sit above the petty struggles of the day to today, you will be lifted, too. If you believe honesty and compassion are important, you will not struggle to be honest nor fret about doing so, even if this means swimming against popular opinion or causing short term tension. You will hold fast.
5.A clear vision, either strong or long. Elon Musk is a man who wants to make the future of the world as good as possible. He wants to ensure the happiness and survival of mankind. With a vision that long, is it any wonder he treats “failures” as hiccups and shows no concern towards personal attacks ? It is easier to overcome ongoing hardship if you are working towards something long-term.
A strong vision is often just as good as a long one, for the time it lasts at least. Take someone who is desperate to get a promotion, or run a marathon, or lose a stone. These goals may be achieved in weeks or months but if the intensity of feeling is behind them, the one pursuing them will overcome many issues without trouble. This is partly an issue of focus and motivation: if you find a goal that you really want and set your mind to it – you can endure an immense amount of discomfort along the way. During my rugby career, I endured considerable physical suffering on a regular basis, particularly during conditioning sessions or the day after a game. Outsiders would question how I did it, and find it odd. The truth is you don’t really notice the suffering when you’re truly dedicated to a goal, you’re too busy focusing on the goal. I notice this even now when I’m training. I often feel worse once I’ve stopped, because my mind stops focusing on the goal and turns its focus inward, noticing the distress that has been done to the body. As long as your eyes are on the prize, you probably won’t even notice the hardship along the way.
6. A support network. All my life, I have been fortunate enough to have a strong support network. I’ve often thought that family are the friends you can’t avoid. And that’s a good thing. Having a family behind you provides support and stability you may not even notice until it’s taken away. Friends – the family you choose – are vitally important too.
In 2012, I pushed my parents to the limit, and they kicked me out. I went to live with the subject of this article, Ellie Gellu. In 2014, history repeated itself, and this time I went AWOL for about 6 months. Compared to the lifestyle most Westerners are accustomed to, I was in quite dire straits. I would sometimes go a day or two without food. Yes – there’s people starving in the world. And yes – some health conscious individuals even choose not to eat for much longer. That said, intermittent fasting felt markedly different when i wasn’t doing it by choice. If I didn’t have a good network of friends, I would have been on the streets. (See end of article for gratitude**). The point is: friends are sounding boards, mentors, therapists, investors, landlords, entertainers, reassurers. All these functions help keep you balanced and able to push on. Without those, hardship is much more difficult to face.
7. Emotional / psychological make up. Some People are much more vulnerable than others. Perhaps they were the babies who got left crying for a minute too long, or they had a bullying older sibling, or they were never shown love. Maybe they were abused. Some people are much tougher than others. Maybe they had a sh*t time, too. It’s hard to know.
The role your early-life conditions play in your adult development is another thing that’s hard to overstate. This view is shared by almost all mainstream psychological schools, from psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung to Cognitive psychologists like Piaget. If early events give you the impression you aren’t valuable, or aren’t worthy, or are deficient in some way, it’s likely your self-concept and thus your resilience will suffer down the line.
Ok, so those are the components of grit.
So far so good.
Let’s get practical.
How to develop grit: A place to start
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that becoming virtuous is a demanding process. Indeed, virtue wouldn’t be as valuable if it was easy.
The same is true of grit.
Despite what the Instagram gurus seem to imply, these aren’t the type of things you can just “switch on”.
Developing the seven components discussed above takes time, thought and energy. Some of them – such as self-worth – may be projects that last a lifetime.
This is all the more reason to get started now.
In the immortal words of Cheryl Cole, “If it’s worth having it’s worth fighting for”.
How might one go about this quest?
Each one of those strands is worthy of a book in itself, and indeed, books have been written on each topic.
I will give some cursory suggestions here.
Start with awareness. You cannot have self-love if you don’t know who you really are. You can’t have strong values if you don’t know what you really care about. Without a sense of self and a set of values, you can’t really decide how to move forward, making self-belief and a strong vision hard to attain.
It all starts with being quiet, and listening to yourself. This is a long process. Your head is full of gunky thoughts, memories and feelings, many of which are just inherited or assimilated from various external sources, or left over from different versions of yourself.
Start by sitting quietly for 10 minutes each morning. If this is difficult for you, that should tell you something about your mental state. After the sitting, try writing down your thoughts. Be curious about them. Where are they coming from? What are the feelings behind them? Most people are excellent liars, especially to themselves. Self-deception is a coping mechanism, it shields us from the horror of our true thoughts and feelings. Start peeling back that curtain bit by bit. You might be surprised what’s inside. I guarantee it will be less gruesome than you thought.
Eventually you may want to progress into more formal “meditation” – but just sitting quietly without doing anything is challenge enough for most people, especially the high-achieving “busy” ones.
Distract yourself less. Spend less time on your phone. Turn the TV off. See what happens when it’s just you in a quiet room or a forest.
Once you start to work out who you are and what you want, you’ll find that the rest starts to fall into place. You will become more welcoming – seeing opportunities rather than obstacles – and more charismatic – drawing others to you.
Well- we seem to have gotten a long way from the “no pain no gain”’ brand of grit that the reductionist quote-spammers like to espouse. But here we are.
The foundation of lasting resilience is self-love, and that, as the name suggests, starts with you.
NB: In this article I do not address the kind of ‘me-against-the-world’, f*ck you, grit that many of us are familiar with.
I accept that this kind of attitude can be useful, particularly for getting through very tough times, but the energy that fuels it is not positive, and by being built on opposition to to external forces, is not built to last.
Perhaps I will discuss this in a future post
I’d like to take this moment to thank all the people who helped me during that turbulent period in 2014. My family, for not giving up on me. My Nan for that month’s rent. Ellie Gellu for many loans she feared may never be repaid (they were). Callum B and Swaggy Wezu for their faithful companionship. Ollie B, Matt G, Gaynor F, Liam D and Jamie J for accommodating me. The Willy Hill VIP commune collective: Tom P, Kay and Egg. We looked after each other. Gracey Chess for doing a big shop for me and never expecting a penny back (I got to repay you eventually). All the Bamber Bridge Rugby crew for many small acts of kindness. I’d also like to thank everybody (there are too many to mention) who helped me or contributed to the Beef Jerky Business I started to feed myself, especially Ryan O and Danny B. You invested in me and have never asked for a dividend. It’s coming, and you know that.
Some things to look into:
Self-compassion – Kristin Neff
Anything by Jon Kabat Zinn on mindfulness. His guided meditations are very good, and free on youtube
Freud – The Question of Lay Analysis
Eckhart Tolle – A New Earth. Plus all his Youtube content.
Little Book of Buddhism – Dalai Lama
12 Rules for Life – Jordan Peterson