I don’t know about you, but I have a ridiculously long list of habits I would like to cultivate, skills I would like to improve, behaviors I would like to change, etc. These range from hoola hooping to becoming fluent in Spanish, from playing guitar to flossing my teeth. I go in an out of sticking to different items on the list, but the truth is that I never really fully commit to any one of them so none of them ever really gets accomplished or improved to my satisfaction.
I have always really admired the people in my life who are good at finishing projects because this is an area in which I feel I am lacking. I have a lot of big ideas, I’m great at getting excited, and I love starting new projects, creating goals and to-do lists, or planning to make big changes. But when it comes time to follow through, to actually sit down and stick with something on a regular basis, to create a new habit and do it every day, I tend to fall short. This blog is one of the first consistent things I’ve stuck with in a long time, which has been a huge win for me and gives me hope for other things I want to accomplish! But I have to be honest, it is the exception rather than the norm.
I’m not really sure why this is and I’m still trying to figure it out. I go back and forth between being super frustrated that I never seem to stick to anything, and celebrating the fact that I am so multi-passionate (which really sounds more like a cop-out to me, but I’ll take it). I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, and learned about the research on qualities that “successful” people supposedly have.
One of these qualities that has stuck out to me is “grit”. Grit is an invaluable trait that is about a lot more than just willpower and predicts success in all sorts of areas, from high-powered business people to winning a spelling bee. As Angela Lee Duckworth defines is: “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day-in and day-out”. It’s recognizing that life is a marathon, not a sprint.
If I had to guess where I am on the grit scale, I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not the kind of person who buckles down and does whatever it takes to get something done, who is good at keeping long-term goals in mind and working towards the future on a regular basis, but I do put time and energy into the things that really matter to me and I occasionally find things I’m passionate about that I’m really willing to stick with and make a reality. I’m not lazy but I’m also not the most ambitious person I know.
I do know that I’d like more grit, but I’m not really sure how to go about getting it, and neither are the experts yet. It’s a relatively new area of research and Angela Lee Duckworth is one of the first people to really explore the topic. But it is at least helpful to know that being successful is about more than just the skills and talents you were born with.
The good news is, our brains are not wired in stone. They have an amazing capability to change, learn, rewire, and adapt and while some people may naturally have more grit than others, that doesn’t mean it can’t be cultivated.
Growth Mindset, a concept researched and coined by Carol Dweck, is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed but can change based on the effort you put in. As kids, we are quickly sorted into categories of “smart”, or “challenged”, or “has ADHD” and these labels can become so sticky that we start to identify ourselves as only these things and nothing else. We start to believe that we either are or are not born with certain abilities and talents and there is nothing we can do about it. Fortunately, this simply isn’t true and if we can foster a mindset that growth and change is possible, we can make some huge improvements.
This applies to more than just school smarts. As we grow up and figure out how we fit into the world, we create a concept of who we are that includes our personality, our abilities, the way we interact with others, etc. Just like with intelligence, we often come to see these traits as fixed and static rather than fluid and adjustable. In our constant quest to “find ourselves” in this world and define more and more of who we are, we can inadvertently convince ourselves that certain character traits are just a part of us and will never change. While it is great to have a strong foundation on which you base your morals and beliefs, sometimes we get so stuck in believing that we are a certain way that we completely give up our choice to be anything different.
If you believe that you have the ability to grow and improve, then you are much more likely to persevere when you fail because you know it’s not a permanent condition. You recognize that this just means you haven’t figured it out quite yet. Something I love that Carol Dweck mentions in her TED Talk is the power of “yet”. She talks about a school where children who would normally get a failing grade for a class are instead given the grade “not yet”.
This may sound like some New Age way of coddling children and protecting them from failure, but what it does is teach the mindset that education is a process, a continuum, and there is always the opportunity to work harder and continue learning more. It’s not giving a kid a trophy they didn’t earn, it is simply leaving open the possibility to try again, to do better next time. It is saying that you are not ready to graduate from this class, yet, but you could be in the future.
I think we could all harness the power of “not yet” and use a lot more of this mindset in our lives. It seems to me like gritty people probably know that a single setback or failure is not a dead end but an opportunity to keep persisting. Setbacks are inevitable and we can only foresee so much – if we allow every little roadblock to completely derail us, we’ll never accomplish our goals. And if we see ourselves and our brains as fixed and unable to change, we will continue repeating the same mistakes over and over, becoming trapped in our own vicious and self-fulfilling cycle of failure.
Nothing happens until you decide
Regardless of how much grit you have, we all have the ability to make decisions about what happens in our lives. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we may not have control over many of the events in our lives, including how the people around us act and treat us, but we all get to decide how we respond to the external input we receive.
We are powerful and all too often we completely give up that power. We blame our circumstances, or our parents, or our social conditioning. This makes it easy for us to escape responsibility for our problems and to stay inside the safe bubble of our comfort zones. We ignore information that contradicts our beliefs and consume only media that confirms what we already know to be true. When we fail to achieve something, we see it as a consequence of who we are rather than an opportunity for growth, because if we admit that we can do better than we actually have to put in the work to change, which is freaking hard!
We make the same mistakes over and over and we use labels to justify our behavior. “I’m just not good at relationships” or “I’ve always been bad at turning down sweets” or “I’m not really someone who likes to try new things”. Of course, it’s great to know yourself and know what works for you in life and what doesn’t, but so often we use these excuses as a crutch for remaining complacent and avoiding personal evolution. Just a few paragraphs ago, I described myself as “not good at sticking to things” and I have been telling myself that story for years! No wonder it keeps on being true – because I have created that reality for myself and I reinforce it every single day!
In her book “What I know for sure”, Oprah writes “nothing happens until you decide”. It’s so simple, but so true. We can create vision boards and bucket lists all we want, but not a single thing is going to change until we actually make the concrete decision to do so and then do whatever it takes to reach that goal. That may mean having to say no to other opportunities, rearranging your priorities, socializing less to make time for your own projects, but none of that will happen until you decide to make it happen.
This is a concept I am really going to explore this summer and I look forward to seeing what comes out of it! If you are like me and you struggle with some of these concepts, I invite you to join me in making a list of all the things you feel like you would like to be spending time on and then picking only one to really devote yourself to in the coming month.
Let June 2018 be the month you finally decide to practice Spanish every day, or go to five yoga classes a week, or cut out TV completely. But remember, JUST PICK ONE! If you’re like me, you’re super bad at prioritizing – having ten priorities really makes each one of those not a priority at all – so pick one to start with and see how it goes! And if you fail, just remember the phrase “not yet” and try again next month.