07 October 2013

Grit is the willingness to do whatever is needed to achieve long-term goals. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania has been researching how grit correlates with activities like reaching the final rounds of the U.S. National Spelling Bee, or surviving the grueling first summer of training at West Point. She has found that being gritty is a better predictor of success than high IQ or SAT scores.

So, how do we become grittier? Is it even possible? Yes, it’s possible. How do I know this? I don’t, but I’m putting my money on the two techniques that I have used in my grittiest moments: outsourcing the decision to get started, and crafting an epic narrative.

Outsourcing the decision to get started

Angela Duckworth says that self-control and grit are correlated, but that gritty people can lack self-control, and vice versa. I’m not entirely convinced. I think that self-control—the ability to momentarily resist temptation—is a pre-requisite to becoming gritty; since you need to get started before you can sustain your efforts over months or years. The easiest way to get started is by not having to make the decision to do so.

Overcoming temptation, resistance, procrastination, or whatever you want to call it requires playing tricks on your brain. Being rational is of little use. You can short-circuit the part of your brain that weighs the pros and cons of doing uncomfortable work by making sure that taking the easy way out is no longer easy.

If you are in charge of driving 3 other people to the gym, you are less likely to stay home and skipping your workout. If you don’t have junk food laying around the house, you are less likely to drive all the way to the grocery store to satisfy a craving. If you use an app to block your access to time-wasting websites, you are less likely to spend the next hour browsing around the news feeds.

Next time you know you will be tempted to avoid doing something, arrange it so there will be a price to pay for doing so. Eventually, your brain gets so used to this thought pattern that holding off temptation no longer requires a huge amount of effort.

Crafting an epic narrative

We can cajole our brains into finishing a report before a looming deadline, or into practicing a speech before we’re due on stage, but we need a different bag of tricks when the goal lacks a clear deadline.

You won’t have a heart attack if you don’t lose 30 pounds before the end of the year, nobody is going to kill you if you don’t write a novel in the next three months, and you will not be publicly shamed if you don’t publish a Nature paper before your next Thesis Committee meeting. You know this because your brain knows this. But you can still jolt your brain into action by coming up with an epic narrative.

Stories shape the way we live our life. This is exhilarating and scary. Exhilarating because the right stories will help us get through whatever hurdles we face. Scary because, often, other people are choosing the stories for us.

Sometime in the past, you might have snuggled up with the belief that you are not good at math, or that you will never be extroverted, no matter what you do. These are not Truths, they are Stories. You could have just as easily embraced the notion that you are awesome at math when it is better explained, or that your fear of being judged would go away if you practiced approaching interesting strangers.

I am still researching why some stories connect with our brain better than others, so if you have any strong opinions, tell me. So far, I believe that good stories must be written down (to make them concrete), shared with others (to make you accountable), and revisited (to make them relevant).

Invest time crafting a story that will prevent rainy days, tiredness, and lack of inspiration from sabotaging your ultimate goal.