Let’s get gritty! (Book Review: Getting Grit by Caroline Adams Miller)

Halelly Azulay reviews Getting Grit by Caroline Adams Miller

I have a confession to make.

I have a terrible case of ‘writer’s block’. Like, All. The. Time.

Which is pretty inconvenient considering I’m an author and a blogger, ya know?

In fact, writing this blog post was soooo slow coming, soooo hard for me, and I almost quit. I always almost quit. But, I almost never quit. And even when I have a stumble, I shake it off and keep moving forward.

Why? Because I’ve committed to blogging. Consistently publishing free content to help readers like you is an important goal that I feel passionate about pursuing, despite these challenges. So I push through the discomfort and just do it.

I guess you could say I’m gritty about it.

In what areas of your work and life do you feel gritty? And where could you benefit from becoming even grittier?
Here I am proudly holding my very own copy of Getting Grit by Caroline Adams Miller. (And yes, I need to wear reading glasses now. Growing older = wear-n-tear...)

Here I am proudly holding my very own copy of Getting Grit by Caroline Adams Miller. (And yes, I need to wear reading glasses now. Growing older = wear-n-tear...)

You know how they say that you become the average of the people you surround yourself with, so choose your friends carefully? Well, I’m a better person for being able to call Caroline Adams Miller a friend. A Positive Psychology expert, executive coach, and bestselling author, Caroline is a woman of many accomplishments and accolades, most recent of which is the release last week of another great book titled Getting Grit: the Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose.

[Caroline herself is personally a super-gritty role model and a prolific writer of several books along with blogs and articles. I want you to go and grab a copy of this book (and her others), and also listen to her amazing episode on my podcast.

But this blog post is not about Caroline. It's about developing this quality of grit. Because let’s face it – we all have some, and we all need more.]

Grit is so important to goal accomplishment and success that I decided to share some golden nuggets of wisdom from both the book and the podcast right here in this post, to get you started. In this blog post, I’ll share some of Caroline’s thoughts and ideas on what is grit, specifically her concept of authentic grit, why we need to cultivate more grit in our culture, the good and bad types of grit, and how to grow your grit by adding the ingredients required for grit according to Caroline’s ‘grit recipe’.

So let’s start with the why…

Stop coddling and start pushing! (or, the what and why of grit)

In her interview on episode 3 of the TalentGrow Show podcast, Caroline lamented:

“We are full of quitters in this country. Simply because we are coming off the self esteem movement, which has been a horrendous failure, because the misguided thinking was if you praise children [without cause], they’ll feel better about themselves, and if they feel better about themselves, they’ll work harder. And the truth is that hasn’t happened. We have narcissists and sociopaths. And we have playgrounds that have little plastic swings on them that have seat-belts and slides that are two-feet high and nobody can get hurt. I mean, it’s just insane! …Most people are not going to leave it all on the floor when they die. They will have lived safe lives without risk-taking, because they don’t want to go out of their comfort zone. And that’s a tragedy and I’m really working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

What do we need? More grit!

In fact, we need a specific kind of grit Caroline has called Authentic Grit. She defines this term she’s coined in her book as “the passionate pursuit of hard goals that awes and inspires others to become better people, flourish emotionally, take positive risks, and live their best lives.”

And authentic grit is something we all need to cultivate in our personal and professional lives.

Here’s Caroline on the podcast:

“[For example,] overcoming any addiction like alcoholism, that’s grit. Because it’s not just about being sober for a week, it’s about being sober for years. And anyone who watches my TEDx talk knows that one of the reasons I am fascinated by grit …is how I overcame my eating disorder and didn’t just overcome it, I stayed in recovery. I am technically one of the rare people, I shouldn’t even exist. But I… developed grit. I didn’t have it, I cultivated it. We can all cultivate it.”

[Check out Caroline’s books on her journey to recovery from bulimia and her success in sustaining this recovery for a couple of decades since.]

So, just how gritty are you?

Caroline says “…The first thing I’d want people to get in touch with is “what is your grit score?” …Because some people think out they’re not gritty when in fact they are. I’ve taught positive psychology and coaching for six years at the University of Texas School of Management, and I’ve always assigned taking the grit scale in the fifth week of the course (which I now teach privately by the way, the same course). But people are quite often surprised to have high grit scores. (And you can take it on my website if you want to do the authentic grit challenge.) But you know, people sometimes take for granted what they've done, and they realize they have cultivated it in one part of their lives and they know how to be that [kind of] person, they just need to transfer those skills into a new arena. So you may possess grit but you just haven’t applied it to a certain area of life.”

And being successful does not necessarily mean you’re gritty

By the way, Caroline remarks, “being successful does not mean being gritty. Because there are lots of very successful people walking around who have never gone out of their comfort zone. They’re just that talented, they get lucky in some situations, just in the right place at the right time, but they’ve never really taken risks. They’ve just been able to basically just keep doing one thing after the next, and maybe you hit the stock market boom or the real estate boom and you’re just in the right place at the right time. You have money in the bank but you aren’t gritty.

“Guess what? A lot of those people, they know it, and it bothers them. And some of those people find their way to me, and I’ll say to them, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” And there’s this long silence on the phone and they’ll say, “I’ve never really done anything that hard. But the thing is, I know I’m capable of more and it’s really bothering me.” And at that point they’re so used to being successful and being praised for being successful that they have to get comfortable with the idea that they might fail at something.”

What’s the worst that could happen? And is that worse than the regret you’ll feel if you didn’t try?

Caroline continues: “And so you have to prepare for that possibility and walk people through what is the worst thing that could happen if you took this risk? Really? What’s the downside? And so the question I love to ask people that solicits some of these answers is what are the risks you haven’t taken that you know you will regret not taking if you’re looking back on your life one day? And everyone has an immediate answer to that. I’ve never had a pause or a long silence, ever. I get pauses and long silences to some questions, but never to this one.”

[What about you?]

Say no to mediocrity!

Caroline and I definitely share this concern: our culture is dangerously accepting of mediocrity. I’ve written about this idea that we must say NO to mediocrity. We have become a culture that breeds mediocrity by celebrating ‘participation’ and shunning displays of excellence, afraid to recognize and reward genuine excellence.

Caroline wrote about this too in her new book: “When they aren’t derided, sometimes people who have achieved excellence are just ignored or marginalized. In 2016, one Texas public high school district refused to let graduating seniors wear the insignia of the National Honor Society to avoid “alienating” other students…”

By the way, this reminds me of an excellent and funny satirical comic video by the profoundly insightful JP Sears. Check it out:

My favorite quote from it (at minute 1:12): “You don’t want to express your natural gifts and brilliance, because most people don’t express theirs. You actually hurt people when you shine, because it reminds them that they don’t allow themself [sic] to shine, and they’d certainly disapprove of you for that.”

Oy vey.

[Now remember: satire means the OPPOSITE is true…]

Not all grit is good (so watch out for the bad grit)

But be careful – not all grit is created equal. According to Caroline, there are positive and helpful types of grit, but some that are negative and destructive. Here’s a quick review of the different types of grit (about which you can read more in Caroline’s book, Getting Grit, of course):

Good grit

  • Mt. Rushmore grit. Lit up by a cause you feel passionate about and that reflects universally admired values like fairness, justice, and love, you work tirelessly to accomplish something significant and historic. You must overcome significant obstacles – even risk your life – but you never back down because of fear, despair, or loss, and you change the course of history. Examples include the presidents enshrined in Mt. Rushmore along with Jesus of Nazareth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Malala Yousafzai.
  • Mr. Olympus grit. “Athletic figures who have risen to extraordinary heights, and in so doing, raised the standards of others to play bigger, outside their physical comfort zone, and to push their bodies and minds to a level that is truly awesome.” Examples include Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, and Afghani runner Tahmina Kohistani.
  • Celebrity grit. People who are “in the public eye making a difference in the lives of others, and not because they set out to do so, but because their personal stories exemplify authentic grit.” Examples include J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Dick Van Dyke and Spanx founder Sara Blakely.
  • Ordinary grit. “The largest group of people with authentic grit: the unsung heroes who wake up every day and strive to succeed at goals that require persistence and dedication, but that also lack obvious external rewards or attention and acclaim from others.” Examples are everywhere!

Bad grit

  • Faux grit. “A quality seen among those who pretend to themselves or others that they have achieved difficult things, but who have taken shortcuts or faked those accomplishments to obtain admiration.” Examples include Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who faked his narratives of bravery, Hilary Clinton’s story of dodging bullets on the tarmac in Bosnia, and Lance Armstrong lying about his use of illegal performance enhancing drugs.
  • Stubborn grit. “The obstinate pursuit of a long-term goal that presents more negatives than positives because circumstances have changed.” An example is what mountaineers call “summit fever”, which is the irrational state of pushing to the top of a mountain even when it clearly defies good judgment, like when there’s ominous weather conditions, and then becoming stranded or even dying. It’s “persistence to pursue an ambitious goal after it no longer makes sense.”
  • Selfie grit. “A variant of faux grit and suborn grit… [it’s] the relentless glorification of one’s pursuit of difficult goals, including triumph over challenging obstacles, real or imagined.” Examples include Robert O’Neill who sought glory for shooting Osama Bin Laden and football player Johnny Manziel, who was too publicly boastful of his accomplishments which ended up getting him cut from the team and dropped by his agents.
  • Bad bunker grit. According to Caroline, “to build authentic grit, we can’t hide in a bunker of our own making.” Don’t insulate yourself from opposing ideas and criticism, or you’ll end up in an echo chamber, insulated from new ideas and cautions that could save you a lot of grief, or more. “That sort of insulation can turn our passion into a self-feeding obsession.” An example is Hitler, who was “notoriously self-absorbed, narcissistic, and intolerant of opposing viewpoints, so he surrounded himself with people who told him what he wanted to hear.”
    [I’ve written about a similar but milder version called “CEO disease” when leaders fail to nurture naysayers.]

The 8 key ingredients of the authentic grit recipe

Now that you understand what authentic grit is and why it’s important to cultivate it, here is a summary of Part 2 of Caroline’s book, Getting Grit, wherein she gives lots of examples and exercises to help you grow your authentic grit muscle. It’s like a recipe that requires us to work on all these elements, not pick and choose.

  1. Build passion to fuel purpose. Find your harmonious (rather than obsessive) passion (or two, actually) that you would like to pursue with grit. Caroline says that “passion drives purpose”. To help you find your passion and purpose, she suggests several questions to ask yourself, such as “How do you like to spend your free time?” and “If you could be a superhero, what superpower would you want to have, and what would you do with it to make your life and the world better?”. Be sure to check out the book for all the other helpful questions.
  2. Optimize your flourishing. According to Caroline, “any goal-setting of any kind has to pay attention to this fundamental fact: we greatly improve our odds of achieving goals, especially hard goals that require grit, if we start by first boosting ourselves up to be our happiest, best selves.” Amen to that! Caroline suggest using Prof. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model to pump up happiness: amplify Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievements.

    [Here are four more tips that can help you be happier.]
  3. Set hard goals. Here’s Caroline: “People with authentic grit are renowned for setting hard---some would say unrealistic---goals.” But she specifies that what constitutes ‘hard’ is very personal and contextual. “It’s the fact that you have to push yourself hard to overcome your own circumstances that matters when you are setting and pursuing your own gritty goals.” So, eyes on your own paper please! [Check out the way to set goals described by Caroline on my podcast that I’ve summarized in this blog post about the Value-Creator Mindset.]

    In addition, it’s important to set up accountability to help you stick to your goals – it could be a coach, an accountability buddy, a mastermind group, or a mentor, for example, or even some kind of an external reinforcement – my suggestion is using an app like StickK where you pledge money to be donated to a charity you despise if you fail to follow through on your commitment.
  4. Self-regulate. According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, “the IQ of the 21st century is the ability to focus.” Caroline explains that “when you can learn to delay gratification – and it is a learnable skill – it results in a cascade of positive outcomes” such as more success on goals, greater confidence, more friends, and greater well-being. So as you pursue those hard goals, you’ll need to have strong willpower and improve your ability to self-regulate to stay the course in the face of distraction and challenges.

    Caroline suggests several exercises. Perhaps you’d benefit from working in a public place to evoke the “audience effect” – you have more self-control when others are watching. Or, try the “five whys” exercise to shed light on something you’re doing that is getting in your way of goal accomplishment and identify the underlying issue.

  5. Take risks. As Caroline explains, people with authentic grit take risks because they believe in their own ability to figure things out. It’s not that they don’t experience fear, but they don’t fear failure – they’re willing to risk failure but they “don’t allow themselves to visualize or accept the idea that they will fail.” According to goal-setting theory co-founder Gary Latham, research shows that the main reason so many people avoid risks and hard goals is that they are afraid of disappointing themselves if they don’t succeed. Hey: nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?!

    My favorite idea from Caroline on how to break out of that fear is this question: Instead of asking yourself “Why?”, ask “Why not?”! She also suggests that you start with small risks, and avoid sharing your goals with negative people who will try to discourage you instead of cheer you on.

  6. Be humble. Yes, you can be bold in your goals and humble at the same time. Caroline suggests that you need to solicit and stay open to others’ input to help you make better decisions and avoid getting to those ‘bad grit’ characteristics described above. This trait was called “reflectiveness” by Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria – “the ability to be thoughtful, take in critical feedback, be honest with oneself and others, and go past superficial analyses” to gain clarity, make good decisions, gain others’ respect, and model good leadership.

    But beware of overusing humility, especially if you’re a woman, says Caroline, or you might lose respect and be pushed around by others, as well as sometimes it could lead to helplessness and accepting mediocrity. Finally, don’t be fake humble – we see through your humblebrags! Some of Caroline’s suggestions for developing humility include taking a break from posting selfies for a week, seeking critical feedback, and tooting someone else’s horn.

  7. Persevere. According to grit researcher and author Angela Duckworth (as quoted in Caroline’s book), “High-grit people hate hard work as much as those who don’t have high grit. High-grit people simply accept hard work as the price they must pay to get where they want to go, and so they find ways to do it.” That means you have to learn effective ways to overcome procrastination, feed your mind positive messages instead of negative self-talk, and even sometimes act “as if” [which was described nicely by a colleague of both Caroline’s and mine, Shannon Polly, in her own episode on my podcast (starts at 17:53)].

    There are lots of cool exercises Caroline shares for developing perseverance. Two I loved are creating an avatar to be your mascot or vicarious role model self, and writing down “three hard things” you did at the end of each day and the strengths you used to do them.

  8. Cultivate patience. Sometimes impatience can cause us to quit prematurely or get frustrated when things don’t go as well or quickly as we’d like. To be truly gritty and achieve those hard goals, you must develop the ability to be patient and have a long-term perspective. Don’t seek instant gratification, because it won’t happen. Some suggested strategies for building patience include playing chess, planting a garden, and practicing gratitude.

Sum up

  • Grit is important. We should aspire to cultivate more of what Caroline Adams Miller calls Authentic Grit. It will not only help us individually, it will inspire and lift others as well!
  • Success does not equal grit, and not all grit is created equal – there are good and bad kinds of grit. Be careful.
  • There are specific behaviors that can help you cultivate your authentic grit and lots of exercises to help you do that. It requires work but it’s very worthwhile.
  • Anyone can cultivate grit. And everyone can benefit from this, directly and vicariously as a culture.

SO let’s get gritty!

Your turn:

How gritty are you? What specifically are you going to work on to get even grittier? Write in the comments below, I’d love to know!

Now, go send this article to people who could also benefit from it and let’s all get gritty!

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