Grit: what is it and how can we build it?

Grit. Even saying it makes you screw your face up into a grimace. Ready for battle of some sort. It evokes images of Rocky Balboa training in the rain to “Eye of the Tiger” for his big fight. The analogy cuts deeper still, as grit’s about not taking flight, but having the fight. About standing our ground when things get tough (cue Billy Ocean…).

At my dad’s football club, they have jumped on this bandwagon by adopting Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping (“I get knocked down… But I get up again…. You’re never going to keep me down”) as an unofficial anthem to rally supporters’ pre-match hopes and dreams.  If I told you he supports Sunderland, you’d understand their need for optimism…

Even as long ago as 1895, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” covered similar territory.  Despite the references to being a ‘man’, I got the sentiment when first received it on a good luck card as a child:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…

…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

And the references just keep on coming.  What about the proverb: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” (Palmer, 1840)? ‘Grit’ as a principle is far from new.

However, it’s reached prominence recently following the publication of Angela Duckworth’s book last year (‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, 2016).  She defines grit as: “commitment to finish what you start, to rise from setbacks, to want to improve and succeed, and to undertake sustained and sometimes unpleasant practice in order to do so. – her book responds to her father’s focus on the importance of ‘genius’, by arguing that genius doesn’t create greatness, but instead it’s all about the grit. She has a great TED Talk on this topic.

Duckworth explains that passion and perseverance for long-term goals, matters more than IQ, even EQ.  Writing this reminds me of an earlier blog about life lessons we teach our children and I had a wry smile when I heard Duckworth utter the words “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” in her TED talk – exactly the words my Dad said to me.  She also talks about the importance of cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ in our kids so that they understand that ability is not fixed, but that it can grow with purposeful practice.

I can trace my first awareness of it to some feedback a teacher gave me when I was at school aged 12.  My school friends and I had been set a task to sweep leaves (a task which is probably unheard of now in schools).  She later praised me for my “stickability”.  I’m not even sure it’s a proper word, but for some reason it’s stuck with me.  It’s interesting that wasn’t told that I was doing a good job, just that I kept going. That in itself motivated me to keep going (I guess I didn’t want to prove the teacher wrong).

So what can we do to cultivate grit in our children?  A fine parent website recommends:

  • Emphasise that the secret to success is failure
  • Implement a ‘Hard Thing’ rule
  • Talk about our own set-backs
  • Share our experience of failure and how we’ve persevered
  • Allow our children to experience some frustration                                                          

Great as all this sounds.  It does come with a health warning when Duckworth says: “the point of true grit, is that no one ever gets there”.  We need to be careful that it doesn’t just end up being perfectionism in disguise.  To re-use a phrase: “we need to know when it’s time for grit and when it is time to quit”.

After all, whilst perseverance is laudable, there’s no point in flogging a dead horse.

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