A recent Brain Pickings article introduced me to the ideas of psychologist Angela Duckworth, who studies the psychology of achievement.
Duckworth: “In particular I’m interested in two qualities: self-control and grit. Because these collectively determine how much effort people put toward their pursuits. Grit is about really sustaining your commitments over the very long term.”
Her idea of “grit” deeply resonated with me, as I’ve noticed a similar quality in the achievement my own work and life goals. Formerly, I referred to this ambiguous quality necessary to sustain my commitment to projects as “stamina”.
For example, while it’s easy to want to write a novel, I have to have the stamina to sustain the project over a long period of time. This requires that each day, I make the decision to sit down and work on my novel.
Duckworth makes a careful distinction between the motivation for a pursuit (ie. the desire to write the novel), and the willpower to do it (ie. the act of sitting down to do it each day.)
We’ve all met those dreamers––who are always coming up with the next great thing they’re motivated to achieve––but who never actually sit down to do it, and thus never actually achieve anything.
Motivation is the necessary prerequisite to achievement; but grit and self-control (volition) enable us to achieve. In fact, Duckworth’s research shows that “grit” is a more reliable predictor or success than IQ.
While there’s many places we could go with this information, the purpose of my simplified recap has been to highlight the reality of that every day input and willpower.
As artists, we are all dreamers. But we must also sit down to make the dream a reality. Moment to moment. Day to day. So, think of this next time you’re worrying about your projects, wondering what to do or where your going, how to deal with all the problems, etc.: one of the most important decisions you can make is simply to sit down and work at it. That’s grit.
But I have one objection: why call it “grit”? While I admit, I’ve referred to a similar trait as “stamina,” I’m starting to think these words are faulty. Both grit and stamina suggest a bull-headed approach. A “grit-your-teeth and get through it” mentality.
While it’s true, as Duckworth emphasizes, this willpower factor is hard. What if we could make it less hard simply by the way we framed it. For example, I’ll look at my exercise routine.
When I go to the gym, I can look at it in one of two ways:
1. I need to run because it is good for me.
I this vein of thinking, I am running because I know I will get some abstract benefit. I may not like running, but I’m going to grit my teeth and get through it because I know I should.
2. When I run, I feel good.
In this mode, I’m thinking of how good I feel when I run. How good my body and mind feel.
When I think the second way, I’m much more likely to go to the gym. In this mindset, I’m not thinking about long-term abstract achievement, even though that may be part of my initial motivation. Instead, I’m thinking about right now, at this moment, how running is good––and that enables me to make the decision at this moment, to go to the gym. It enables my willpower. And I don’t have to grit my teeth to do it.
In fact, all my life I’ve tended to think of the gym in the first way. I never liked exercise. I found it incredibly hard and even boring. When I exercised, I literally was gritting my teeth just to get through it. But over time I’ve managed to alter my mindset to focus on the second way of thinking. I focus on that good feeling I get after running.
Over the past months I’ve somehow become a runner without meaning to. I often run four or five miles, when my goal was simply to feel that good feeling I get when I run. I ENJOY running. It’s hard work, really hard work. But it feels good.
I can reframe other activities with similar mindsets. Instead of being scared of writing, for example, and pushing through anyway, I can remind myself of the pleasure I get from writing.
Instead of saying to myself, “You have to write right now, so push through,” I might say, “Today, I’m giving you permission to enjoy writing.” Not only will I write more in the second way of thinking, I’ll produce better quality work.
In fact, most activities have some innate pleasure or reward that I could focus on in order to enable my willpower. Even cleaning the house feels good. So do I really need to grit my teeth through cleaning the house? Not if I can frame it the right way.