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The Modern Abuse of “Grit”

Merriam Webster defines “Grit” in relation to the human trait as “firmness of mind or spirit:  unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”  

There has been a flurry of research in the last decade stating that the only consistent set of variables leading to success is grit and talent. Talent makes sense, but this term “grit” seems so illusory; are we witnessing a modern abuse of the term grit?

I want to add to Webster’s definition. Our definition of grit is a state of mind or a transitional state – but a transitional state to what? In achieving one’s goal, whatever it may be. The path to achieving this goal may be clouded with uncertainty, hardship and danger; a goal that is not easily achieved is a goal that can easily be let go. Perhaps the right way to view it is to see Grit is a trait, maybe the trait of a leader.  

The Over Use of the Term “Grit” in Action

I regularly hear the term “grit” used while visiting my children’s school, as if they’ve added a new course that will teach my kids this

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wunderkind trait so they and all their classmates will lead lives of greatness.

Grit is not a special little pill each kid can take to change the fact that grades should be distributed on a bell curve. When I pull up internet searches for “grit” and “success,” I get links to TED talks about “grit.” After investing over 5 minutes in one talk, I get to the statement that “we don’t know how ‘grit’ is achieved.” That was anticlimactic; there is no silver bullet to give us all grit.

What Do We Know About Grit Already?

And so I begin my journey asking some questions about grit.

  • Can we test for grit in people? I will venture a “No” here; when I reviewed the proposed testing, all the questions are about self-image. According to “Self-Serving Bias,” (a bias that has been clinically proven) we will overrate our direct participation in successes and underrate our direct participation in failures (and blame outside factors for the latter.)
  • Is there a curriculum that teaches grit? I will again say “No,” given that my review of statewide (New Jersey since I live there) shows testing results are all over the place. In fact, my children’s school proposes a program that purports to instill grit , but it is only structured to show grit (a lab), not teach it. This reminds me of my engineering days where the Independent Variable is a teachable “grit,” which should yield a consistent dependent variable of educational success – or grades. Yet the bell curve seems to remain in full effect.
  • Can we observe grit? My answer is a hearty “Yes.” But we typically confuse performance with grit. We usually see the result under the spotlight. For example, Odell Beckham Jr. had an outstanding catch against the Cowboys in November 2014. But the true grit that enabled him to make that catch was practicing one handed catches day after day, over and over.
  • Grit appears when people choose to become better. These are our performers – our sports icons – our CEOs – our inventors:
    1. Edison trying thousands of different filaments but only needed one
    2. The someday-to-be-Olympian who practices daily to complete that illusory move
    3. The musician who practices to become both faster and more defined in their playing
    4. The young analyst who slogs away to get the model to work
    5. The team of coders, who during a sprint, keep beating a problem into submission

It is clear these people achieve due to an aspiration or want of their outcome.

Another Form of Grit

After reading Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer, it became to me there is another form of grit: grit due to circumstance. These are our survivors – our heroes – our warriors.  They reacted to life when it changed or tried to beat them down.  

To understand survival, I read two books on the topic: Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales and The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley.  The consistent theme in these books is that survivors make the decision to survive and own their outcome (whether they truly understood their circumstances is moot).

  1. A child overcoming a learning disorder or besting a bully
  2. A person overcoming an abusive relationship
  3. A friend overcoming a drug dependency
  4. A coworker overcoming the outsourcing of their role

What is clear is that these people survive due to their decision to survive.    

One source of grit is clear to me: It can be achieved in the pursuit of an aspiration. It is the decision to overcome a circumstance. At its foundation, grit also contains the element of determination and desire.  

Grit, or the firmness of spirit or unyielding courage, will come when obstacles to the object of desire are moved or circumvented, or when each attempt to stand up is thwarted but you continue trying and finally succeed. I still hold firm to the belief that it not something that can be taught in a classroom, because it is NOT something that can be given.


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Ed Pierce

To quote Michael Clayton “I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor.” and that’s what I am good at. I just function well when the proverbial dung hits the fan and that may not be learned but the silver lining of my self-diagnosed ADD. When crisis hits, I feel my neural engine come to life and hum. And it’s not just cleaning up messes, it’s more about building the right team on large projects. The projects I’ve successfully led were, on the surface, messy but with the right team, we “chunked it out” and moved the ball down the field 3 yards at a time. And in being relentlessly curious, I try to never assume a solution and always love to figure things out but taking them apart and putting them back together. This has regulated me to be generalist in life but that’s my journey. If you’re like me, LinkIn with me – and if you’re not like me, LinkIn with me. My LinkedIn handle is edwarddpierce – I will close with words by grand master Geddy, Neil and Alex “All of us get lost in the darkness; Dreamers learn to steer by the stars”

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