Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan
Now is the Time for Grit
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Things are hard right now. For so many reasons: Covid, remote learning, our shaky economy, political uncertainty- I’m looking at you. We are at a place where recent news about vaccine progress has finally given us a light at the end of the tunnel, but we still will need to pull through a difficult winter to get there. And everyone is tired. “Quarantine fatigue” is a real thing. It is what we are experiencing when the voice inside us says “I don’t want to do this anymore” or “I don’t care if this is a risky decision, I’m just going to do it anyways” in response to restrictions or safety recommendations. Right now we need to rely on our grit more than ever to get us through.
What is grit?
Grit is the ability to persevere and continue working at something, even when you face obstacles or things get hard (and maybe you would rather give up). It involves the ability to delay gratification and to stay focused on long-term goals and benefits over more immediate rewards. Some examples are making it through a grueling workout even though you want to quit several times, forgoing a party to stay home and study for a test, or your child learning a new skill, like tying their shoes, and trying again and again through multiple failed attempts.
Why is grit important?
Grit is important because it ultimately leads to long-term success and achievement. Taking on challenges is a necessary part of all types of growth and development and grit is what keeps you focused and working through periods of difficulty. The perseverance inherent in grit will carry you far beyond the limits of natural talent and abilities. Also, learning to work hard towards your goals can help develop tremendous feelings of self-competence, autonomy, and pride in one’s sense of mastery and accomplishment.
How can I develop grit in myself and my children?
Keep showing up: When things get hard, sustain your effort for as long as you can. Take a break to recover, and then get back at it. Showing up for challenges not only helps you work through the hard stuff, it also helps you show yourself that you have the strength to withstand difficult situations. Showing up reminds us that moments of challenge are typically temporary and that focus and perseverance can help bring you to a more stable place.
Modify instead of quitting: When the challenge of a task is so great that it really feels unsustainable, don’t completely give up. Instead, see if there is a way to make small changes that will make the level of difficulty more manageable. You can do this for your children as well- if they are struggling with a new skill, scaffold the task for them by giving them enough support that they can withstand the challenge, without completely doing it for them. As your child gets more proficient, you can gradually reduce the level of support until they are able to complete the task independently.
Set small goals and celebrate small victories: It is good to be aware of long-term goals. However, sometimes these can feel distant and overwhelming. Focusing on smaller objectives that are components of larger goals can often feel much more manageable. For example, if you are working towards an academic degree, you can think about graduation and your future career to give you motivation, but also make sure to focus on just completing the homework assignment right in front of you. And if the homework seems too hard, don’t worry about the whole assignment, instead just focus on the first question. Take things one step at a time, and no matter how small the steps are, it will keep you moving forward. And make sure you recognize and celebrate these smaller accomplishments along the way- they can help keep you aware of how far you have come from where you started.
Focus on progress: Focusing on progress, and what you have learned or how you have changed since you started something, can often be far more motivating than focusing on an outcome that may seem abstract and hard to obtain. Also, long-term goals may change but when you use your goals as motivation for larger successes, even if your long-term goals change, it will still have helped you build a foundation that will benefit you and can be applied towards another endeavor. You can help your kids do this too by helping them focus their attention just a few steps beyond where they are now. For example, your children may dream of being scientists one day. You can use this larger, longer-term goal as motivation to link to smaller goals that they can focus on now, such as emphasizing the importance of doing homework and working hard in school so that they can learn new skills. Then, regardless of whether they still decide to pursue science as their ultimate career goal, they will still have learned to prioritize focus on academics and hard work, which will be an asset in whatever they ultimately decide to do.
Recognize that progress isn’t always linear: When you experience success when learning something new, celebrate it. But also, try not to feel discouraged by perceived set-backs if this success is not initially consistent. The process of learning and development can often feel like you take two steps forward and then one step back. That is okay and that is normal. Proficiency develops by practicing an action so many times that you can be successful not just once, but repeatedly and consistently, and under a wide variety of circumstances. By continuing to practice, you learn how to adapt when you need to and how to accommodate potential changes. Success at something once may demonstrate a superficial understanding of the task at hand, but true competence develops by continuing to learn and work through set-backs to the point where to a bystander, your actions look effortless.
Model it: One way to cultivate grit in your children is to model it for them. Let them see you struggle with something, but also let them see you persevere. And give language to your experience by talking it out and explaining your experience. For example, if you were struggling trying to assemble a new piece of furniture, you could say something like “I was so frustrated today when I kept trying to put that bookcase together. I kept putting the pieces together the wrong way and was struggling to figure it out. I had to take a break to calm down. But then I kept trying and eventually I figured it out. And now we have a new bookcase to help us organize our things. I’m really proud of myself for working so hard on that.”
Developing grit is essentially building a strong mental muscle that will help you manage your attention and keep your emotions balanced so that you can stay the course during challenging times. It is an acceptance of challenge and a belief that sacrifice and hard work in the short-term will be rewarded with beneficial outcomes in the long run. The challenges we face right now are plentiful and they are intense, but that doesn’t mean they need to overpower us. Ultimately, focusing on grit now, for us and our children, can help develop and reinforce resiliency for whatever else may come further down the road.
If you want to learn more about grit, I highly recommend Angela Duckworth’s Book (2016) “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance.”