On Grit and Resilience

A while back, a nagging thought lodged itself in the back of my mind. It’s an idea that I’ve been desperately, futilely trying to ignore. It’s a reality that has actually had a positive impact on many of my recent decisions, but once voiced, will force me to make drastically different choices moving forward. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s terrifying.

Skills vs. Interests

You see I’ve always been curious. I’ve always found it easy to be captivated by just about anything. I can always get pulled in by a shiny object, I even find the dull ones compelling. And through that tendency I’ve cultivated several interests over the years. You’d think that’s a good thing and to some extent it is, but in truth, until recently years, I never gave any of them the attention they deserved. I never did what was needed to turn my interests into skills.

Now this isn’t a death sentence. That ability to turn my thoughts to just about anything has advantages, but it brings with it a limitation. While I have no lack of ideas, I lack the skills to execute on them. I never did what was needed to stick something out, really learn what I’m doing and be able to make something with my own two hands. And while to some extent, it will always be in my nature (and perhaps my best interest) to be a generalist, I know I need to start digging deeper into the things I care about and cultivate the skills needed to turn more ideas into action.

So why am I bringing this up? Why now? Because Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin just had to go and talk about grit. They just had to put a fine point on that nagging idea I’d been successfully managing to ignore.

Surviving vs. Thriving

I’ve always been resilient. I’ve managed to persevere through a fair amount of my crap. I’ve done a good job of getting by, but surviving and thriving are two very different things. Thriving takes grit. In the episode, Dan and Merlin mention that grit seems to be intangible. I’m not sure I agree or perhaps I’m just finally starting to get a feeling for what my own breed of grit needs to look like. I need to move beyond the stage of interest and excitement. I need to suffer and struggle through the boring parts of learning actual skills. I have to understand the way I naturally persevere well enough to wield it and then channel that energy into honing a tangible skill.

For each of us, this will look different. Some will have no problem with the work, but lack vision. Others like myself can often see the path, but haven’t cultivated what it takes to walk it. Many will have to tackle completely unrelated challenges. And it’s in intentionally overcoming whatever your own personal shortcoming happens to be that you’ll find your grit.

Strength vs. Weakness

You’ll always need to balance where you excel with the ways that you don’t, but when facing a difficult challenge you often have to start by actively developing what’s lacking, because inevitably it will catch up with you.. In the case of my own grit, I have to stop allowing myself to be interested in anything and start learning more about a few things. I have to take advantage of what comes naturally, but continue to find ways to overcome what doesn’t. I have to accept that I can’t allow myself get pulled in by everything and continue to aggressively narrow my focus. There’s just way too many things that I really want to do and there are too many skills I lack to actually do any of them well.

This scares the crap out of me. I’m afraid to choose, I’m afraid to start, I’m afraid of the boredom, I’m afraid of failure, I’m afraid of what I’ll miss out on, but I also know that what I’m really terrified of is not getting to the place where I can make something I’m proud of, something that lasts. Perseverance alone will never be enough to get me where I want to go. I can’t afford to just be resilient anymore, I need to thrive. So it’s time to be a little less interested in order to get a lot more skilled. It’s time to dig a hell of a lot deeper and find my grit.

latest episode of Back to Work, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.Note: I know Dan and Merlin also talk more about grit in the

6 Responses to On Grit and Resilience

  1. I like this and I hope you’re going to pick something that is going to be worth the “grit”. I’ve recently read some research on grit and they basically said that grit is one of the top characteristics of high achievers. Sort of makes sense but the bigger idea is that you don’t have to know bits and pieces of a million things.

    It’s better to focus on a couple things intensively and master those. You’ll derive a lot more benefits. For example, learn one programming language and become a superstar in it. Look at the people in the Mac community who make awesome scripts.

    The challenge is finding something that is worth it. When you have a million options, it becomes quite difficult :)

    • This is the same issue I have; Choosing something to focus on. The problem used to be that you were pretty locked as far as what crafts you could even afford to learn because education was a limited and privileged resource. Now we live in a time where education is abundant and cheap for those who would like to learn a skill. The finite resources are now time and attention, both of which are increasingly becoming scattered and fractured because of our access to a limitless stream of information.

      How do we train ourselves to embrace our gritty side and really dig in? and if it’s a matter of missed opportunities how do we train ourselves to spot these opportunities and act? I also think it’s more important than ever to value our time away from the screen and to always be gut checking ourselves. “Is this getting me closer to the peak of the mountain or have I wondered off the trail?”

      Thanks for posting this Mike. It’s honest and Grit is something I think will increasingly be talked about.

      • Part of it is also accepting that opportunities need to be missed. The hard part isn’t seeing the opportunities, it’s seen an opportunity at the expense of others that may seem significantly more tempting in the short term.

        The question I’m really asking is, isn’t learning to climb mountains the precursor to being able to climb the right one? And if the right one never comes, wouldn’t I have rather spent my time climbing really interesting ones, regardless of their shortcomings?

        Agree that this topic isn’t going away any time soon. Certainly not for me.

    • Yeah, but I think that’s where I keep getting myself hung up (this may need a follow up post). I’ve waited so long for “the right thing” or “a right thing” that I never really accomplish “something”. I want to make intelligent choices, but I also think at some point you have to accept that there may be no right thing. Or that you may need to do a lot of somethings to get to the point where you can even see what that right thing is.

  2. I left the latest B2W episode with the following nugget: You gotta have A LOT of pain or A LOT of desire to start and complete something. It also helps if you grew up surrounded by opportunities to strengthen your grit.

    I knew this already. At this point, all I really want to know is: How does Merlin make money?

    • I don’t know, I think we all have plenty of small opportunities that we overlook the importance of. Can’t really tell you that when I look back it’s one major thing I didn’t complete, just a death by small cuts. I think it’s way more about identifying the opportunities to strengthen your grit rather than hoping to be surrounded by them or having them tossed at you. It’s like that West Wing bit about the man who lived next to the river: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Dj0nUT8brI There are plenty of opportunities to find that grit that we just let pass us by.

      As for Merlin, I’d imagine these podcasts help.

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