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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Authentic Grit and How to Get It

It feels important to let you know that the other day I spent quite a bit of time picking burrs out of the dog’s butt. That was my reward for taking him on a walk in nature as opposed to along the sidewalks and streets of our neighborhood. 

After I picked out the burrs, I deposited them in the trashcan in the study. Later, I discovered the dog, Milo, investigating that selfsame trashcan. “Get out,” I told him. He obeyed my command with an attitude similar to one I have seen from my children when told to do something they are not that excited to do. Like empty the dishwasher or remove their socks from the kitchen counter. 
Socks and ukulele on the counter, what else?

A few hours later, I noticed his muzzle fur had a funny whorl. He gets those sometimes when he sleeps in his cushy dog bed. A few hours after that, I said, “Milo, what’s with the whorl?” And I went over to him and felt it. What did I discover there?

I know you’re all quick, Readers, so you know the answer already. Those burrs. The ones I had painstakingly removed from his butt. Yes, they were now in his muzzle. 

Life feels like that sometimes. I have to admit it. It’s not always a forward progression. Sometimes it’s circular. 

This simple anecdote should suffice to convey the tenor of my week. It was one of those weeks when thing after thing happens that makes me feel like I’m barely above water. One of those weeks that throws me off track in my personal pursuits. 

That is why grit comes in handy. 

I finished Caroline Adams Miller’s book, Getting Grit. Now I know how to build grit. "Building grit" is an oxymoron, isn’t it? After all, grit is what remains after rock has worn down. Grit is what’s left. Grit is sand. (See last week’s post.) I think we can all agree that grit is good. It helps us keep on treading water when the side view mirror needs to be replaced because someone who shall remain nameless, one of the three drivers in the family, knocked it beyond askew; when the other car goes in for regular maintenance and comes out with a definitely unnatural knocking sound that turns out to be a broken bolt in the brakes; when the dryer breaks, and so on. "So on" in this case means I forgot to mention that when we returned from the beach, we blithely drove into our garage, forgetting that there was a large luggage container on the roof of the car and damaging the garage. 

And there was more in the last week, but I was letting the dog’s muzzle whorl stand in for it all. That went well, didn't it? 

Anyway. There’s grit and there’s grit. The kind we want, Readers, is “authentic grit.” Authentic Grit is not the same as persevering at all cost. Authentic grit is “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.” Grit is positive, she says, only if it is a force for good. 

Welp. I feel cowed. That is a tall order. Especially when so often my life is about burrs in muzzles. Metaphorically and literally. Nevertheless, I persist. 


So. How to develop authentic grit? Well, developing grit depends on, as CAM says, “experimenting with” the several qualities she mentions in part two, working on each of them. These are the ingredients of what she calls the “Grit Cake.” And working with each of the ingredients, over time, will help us evolve “from a cook who masters one behavior at a time to a master chef who blends them all.”  

So, here they are:

  • Passion. As in, identify your passion, or even better, two of 'em, because they help give you energy and purpose.
  • Happiness. Work on upping that because happy people are better at maintaining the other qualities that grit requires. Also, being happy feels good.
  • Goal Setting. Challenging but not unrealistic goals, people. We've been over this.
  • Self-Regulation. Resist the marshmallow!
  • Risk-Taking. This does not have to be harrowing, but taking risks feels exhilarating. And when you survive, you get a big confidence boost. 
  • Humility. Benjamin Franklin added this to his list of virtues after a friend or two told him he was a little too full of himself. 
  • Perseverance. Goes without saying, doesn't it? Gotta keep on keeping on. 
  • Patience. Achieving goals takes time and maintaining focus and energy over time takes patience. 

Of course all of these qualities are multi-faceted. Each is a lifetime’s pursuit on its own. For example, passion. Developing passion sounds easy. But there’s passion and there’s passion. Passion can be obsessive (not so healthy) or harmonious (healthy), and managing that can take skill. And passion can be challenging to identify, if you’ve spend a lot time taking care of others’ needs at the expense of your own. Or happiness. There’s a broad subject full of complexity. For this reason, CAM suggests starting with one quality you think you most need help building and work from there. 

The good news is, focusing on these things is synonymous with living a really full and fulfilling life. Developing passion and directing it towards a goal, challenging yourself by taking risks, building happiness and self-control, and learning to play the long game are all about, as the almost 10th grader likes to say, “living your best life.” She says it ironically, but never mind. I am not being ironic. Sometimes it is important to be earnest.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Getting Grit

Yesterday I went to Pilates at the gym. When I returned home, I washed my face as usual with witch hazel on a round cotton pad. These cotton rounds are from France, by the way, which makes them extra special, and they have one side that’s a little rough. This is probably for exfoliation. I am assuming so, after much time wasted on articles on skin care over my now rather lengthy lifetime. There’s no explanation on the packaging. This is because all French people are born knowing about exfoliation. 

That last statement was a generalization and a stereotyping and it was BAD because stereotyping people is BAD. The stereotype is that all French people know more about beauty and style than everyone else, which you know, because it’s a stereotype. But it was also funny. And it’s a thing we tend to do: group people by identifying characteristics. So that’s a thing that’s problematic. (I’m with you, Tina, even if I cringed a little at your recent “sheetcaking” rant.) 

Anyway, as I was wiping witch hazel across my face with the exfoliating side, I noticed that the exfoliation seemed much deeper, stronger, and more pronounced than usual. It felt pretty good, and as if it might actually leave me with younger, glowier skin (always a plus). After a moment, I leaned into the mirror and rubbed my fingers over my face. I discovered it was covered in sand. I had grit.

Because I was at the beach, Readers. And so was my yoga mat. Not that it got much use. Or any, come to think of it. But it was there, and it was often covered in sand because it was at the bottom of the pile of beach chairs and boogie boards and towels in the back of the car. So when I finally unrolled my mat at the gym yesterday, I realized I had brought a little bit of the beach home with me. I had gotten grit. 

Did you miss me? I missed you, I promise. However, I was too busy boogie boarding and reapplying sunscreen (young and glowy, remember that’s the goal) and often shivering since the weather wasn’t as warm as it could have been to write. 

Wow, I was wondering how that sandy face thing related to this topic and here it is. Grit. I got it. So much of it. All over my face and body. I was just covered in grit, which seems like a good segue-way. I have been reading up on grit. 

Right off, I must ‘fess up that I haven’t worked on my book in two weeks. And when I get away from my writing, I begin to question if I can ever get back to it. This leads me into doubt about my project, doubt about my ability, and also doubt about my willpower, as well as into frustration with myself for letting time expand so freely. 

Anyway. Grit. Perhaps I don’t have as much as I thought, I thought, and I sat down to read Getting Grit by Caroline Adams Miller, which is exactly as advertised, a book about taking Angela Duckworth’s research on grit and success to the masses and helping us get more of it. It’s well-written and well-organized, and she works in the research and terminology in an organic way, so the reader learns new terms and what they mean in context and it all slides down nice and easy. 

There I am reading along her outline of her program to help readers develop grit and I am thinking I do have a lot of grit. I do need to finish the book, though, because apparently there is good grit (authentic) and not-so good grit. Knowing me, I have the not-so-good kind. I haven’t gotten to what that is yet, but if it has anything to do with a persistence in self-flagellation and a floundering in the quicksand of self-criticism and self-doubt, then, yep, I’ve got it. 

I had this little moment while reading about Caroline’s coaching. This little voice in my head whispered, “When the student is ready….” and the joke Anne Lamott tells about the guy whose plane crashes in the dessert and he prays to God to save him. Then a guy with a camel comes by and asks if he needs help and the pilot dude says, “No, I’m waiting for God.” and another person comes by and offers help. Same answer. Until somehow the guy is in communication with God herself and complains, “I prayed and prayed but you never answered my prayers.” And God says, “What are you talking about? I sent you the guy with the camel and the other guy. “

So I’m thinking, maybe Caroline Adams Miller is my guy with a camel. So that’s good. And guess what? There’s another quiz! Everyone likes a quiz. 

Caroline Adams Miller recommends the Values in Action Character Strength Assessment (VIA).* So I go to the website and I take the quiz which has 120 questions. I get my assessment, which lists about 20 qualities and highlights your top 5. I get mine, and they are as follows:



love of learning



That’s 6, not 5, but zest and perseverance were tied. As were fairness, humor, and love of learning. So why didn’t they give me a top 8? But whatever?

I have to admit this list disappointed me. I mean, creativity was near the bottom, which seems crazy. Also, spirituality was absolute lowest, and yet I meditate daily. Furthermore, I liked Caroline’s strengths better. She mentions them in the book. Love, creativity, zest, bravery, and wisdom. I liked those. And I like to think I have some wisdom. At least a little. 

So I obsessed about that for a little while. Then I inspected my results again. I saw that wisdom was not even listed on the chart of the quiz I took. It wasn’t one of the qualities. Was that because the test is slightly different than the one Caroline took? Or am I so lacking in wisdom it wasn’t even in my top 20????

Then, what was this judgment thing I was doing? As in, judging my results? As in, assuming some results are “better” than others. What was that about? 

I’ll tell you what: In the book, Caroline Adams Miller mentions that several character traits “among the ones that I know will be important for grit are self-regulation, sense of purpose, hope, zest, humility, and bravery.” And I have one of them in my top five. ONE. And one of those top qualities she lists isn’t even on my LIST.

So the LIST must be different from hers. And I didn’t have ACCESS to that one. Which meant I could spend some time on the Interwebs searching for the same list she had, or I could go and work on my book. And which do you think I did? 

Neither, Readers. Instead, I take the test again. This time I manage my answers so as to score much higher in creativity, but still no wisdom (not there) and no sense of purpose (not there) and no humility, bravery, nor self-regulation. 

Things were not looking so good for my grit level at this point, which was in contrast to the Duckworth Grit Scale, by the way, on which I scored pretty high. Go figure. 

I was not finished with this character survey stuff. So, after some additional moments of research, I discovered that UPenn, home of Positive Psychology, has a website with TONS of quizzes.** There’s a place to register and you can take bazillions. I found a different version of the VIA. It was longer, with 240 questions rather than 120. That seemed promising, so I took it.

According to the UPENN Authentic Happiness quiz, my top character strengths are as follows:

Fairness, equity, and justice 

Curiosity and interest in the world 

Forgiveness and mercy 

Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness 

Kindness and generosity 

So, what to say? I liked this test better. It was longer, and the answers were more discursive. However, these traits were not so different from the results of the other quiz. Zest was missing, and that was one of the qualities that appealed. Still no wisdom, bravery, or self-regulation and those other things that are key to grit, but they are not bad. 

Let us remember that this quiz is about strengths, so none of the characteristics is bad. I realize I am talking to myself here, but it seems like a good thing to remember. Sort of a straighting of the cap to remind myself this is not about finding out I am lacking important qualities. It’s about assessing my strengths and then using them productively. To grow my dang grit. That’s the message from Caroline Adams Miller’s book: you can increase your grit and she will tell you how. And I will tell you how after I finish the book. I got a little side-tracked. At least I demonstrated a couple of my character strengths in pursuit of identifying them. And I am happy to offer you, Readers, a couple of places for you to assess —or obsess—over your top five character strengths. 

Remember to exfoliate. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Center Yourself

Readers, I have to admit I'm a little shakey. Lots of logistics wobbling me. Packing for vacation, the logistics of picking up the rising 10th grader from camp, then meeting the college student outside Boston, then journeying to our beach rental. All that kind of thing on top of the general, you know, situation with our Commander in Chief. It seems like a good day to reiterate one of the planks of my scaffolding of success: centering

As in, remember what’s in your control and what’s not. As in, pack your bathing suits and stop refreshing Twitter to see if a bomb has gone off. As in, center yourself within your Stephen Covey circle of influence and work from there. 

Don’t buy it? Well, if you don’t take my word for it - “it” being “the importance of having some kind of centering practice”— take Joseph Campbell’s. This is from an interview with Bill Moyers about the universal myth he derived based on his study of world religions. This universal myth he called the monomyth, because he found it embedded in religions everywhere. From this myth he extrapolated his famous description of the The Hero’s Journey. That is the monomyth. Here’s the passage: 

BILL MOYERS: In all of these journeys of mythology, there’s a place everyone wishes to find. What is it? The Buddhists talk of nirvana; Jesus talks of peace. There’s a place of rest and repose. Is that typical of the hero’s journey, that there’s a place to find?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s a place in yourself of rest. Now this I know a little bit about from athletics. The athlete who is in championship form has a quiet place in himself. And it’s out of that that his action comes. If he’s all in the action field, he’s not performing properly. There’s a center out of which you act. And Jean, my wife, a dancer, tells me that in dance this is true, too, there’s the center that has to be known and held. There it’s quite physically recognized by the person. But unless this center has been found, you’re torn apart, tension comes. Now, the Buddha’s word is nirvana; nirvana is a psychological slate of mind. It’s not a place, like heaven, it’s not something that’s not here; it is here, in the middle of the turmoil, what’s called samsara, the whirlpool of life conditions. That nirvana is what, is the condition that comes when you are not compelled by desire or by fear, or by social commitments, when you hold your center and act out of there.

If Joseph Campbell says centering is important, then it is. See, the thing about The Hero's Journey, is that it's an analogy for the human journey, affectionately known as LIFE. So, how to do it? For me, it’s meditation. For you it could be something else. Deep breathing. Prayer. Running. Taking a walk. Baking. Baking's good.  

Recently I was talking to a friend who meditates sometimes. He said he hadn’t been meditating recently because where his meditation class met moved due to building renovations. After he said that, he paused. Then he said, “You know? That’s not the real reason. I could find the class. I probably should find the class.” The real reason, he said, was that after going there for a while he began to recognize people. Specifically, he saw coworkers. Specifically, a couple coworkers with whom he had conflicts. I could see how that would be weird. But, he said, the thing was that after meditation one day, he talked to one of those people and they worked things out. He thought that because he had it in his mind that she meditated, and she had it in hers that he did, too, they were able to de-escalate and resolve the conflict. 

He paused again and then said, “I guess that means it works.” 

Maybe it does. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Grit, Grittier 2

So, Readers, are we clear on what grit is? I’ve heard from a lot of people—meaning at least three—who want to know how to get grit. Well, before we try to accumulate it, we’d better define it. 

Grit is what you think it is: tenacity. But this new definition of grit adds the element of passion. So grit is perseverance in pursuit of something of intrinsic interest to you over a long period. That last bit about persevering for a long time is key. It’s not that you have to be single-minded or workaholic in this pursuit; however, your interest must remain over months, years, even a lifetime. That’s grit. 

Now, why is it important? “This book has been about the power of grit to help you achieve your potential,” says Duckworth in her conclusion. That’s why. I want to achieve my potential. I sure do. And I don’t think I have, yet. And there are a lot of people out there who want to, who haven’t yet. 

Next, we need to know that grit grows. It's not a fixed entity. Duckworth says so. Grit grows in two ways, “inside out” and “outside in.” Duckworth draws her conclusions from anecdotal evidence, interviews of people who “epitomize the qualities of passion and perseverance.” So take it for what it’s worth. She concludes there are four aids in developing grit inside-out. 

Interest - She interchanges this term with passion, and she seems to mean intrinsic motivation.

Practice - This is a form of perseverance that involves “challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery.” This sounds a lot like Carol Dweck’s growth mindset at work. The growth mindset is one that believes improvement by practice is possible. And it's about goal-setting. I've talked about this before. A healthy goal is one that is challenging by not too hard, something that makes you push yourself to achieve.

Purpose—Having a sense that what you’re doing is “both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others.” Now, I struggle with this one. I think many artists might. How useful or important to others is any creative work? It takes an internal mastery of self-doubt to see that creative endeavors have utility beyond the expression of one individual’s ideas. For me, self-doubt often overshadows that knowledge. It’s easier to be part of a sanctioned socially useful structure, such as teaching or public service, than to feel like you’re “ringing your own bell” by writing a novel, or, just as an example, a book about your struggles to find success. However, when self-doubt doesn't blot out everything else, I can see that others may find my thoughts useful. Perhaps as a cautionary tale. Perhaps as comfort. Smallest perhaps: as inspiration. 

Hope—This is another kind of perseverance, the ability to keep going “even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts.” So many things have been written about hope. It's a thing with feathers. It's eternally springy. It's a paradox (ever waiting, ever expecting, sadly never actually attaining). It's optimism. 

Duckworth calls these internal grit growers assets. She owns her debt to Carol Dweck in the book, and she builds on it here by telling us that these internal assets are not fixed. Like intelligence, compassion, and maturity, they are qualities that can develop over time. 

What about the outside-in approach to growing grit? (“Growing grit”—What an annoying phrase). I hear you asking, Readers. Well, in short, it’s about developing those aforementioned assets within a gritty culture and with the help of others. 

I’m liking this, because it aligns with what I’ve discovered about success, that it depends in part on input from like-minded others. Coaches, parents, and peers all help nurture, inspire, and challenge us in these areas. 

Does constant growth and effort seem exhausting? Do you think you would rather take a nap? Would you prefer to watch all nine seasons of The Office on Netflix? Well, take heart, because according to Duckworth, gritty people have more life satisfaction. So it’s worth it to develop those assets. And remember, persisting with passion—a.k.a. being gritty—does not preclude bouts of binge-watching TV. Not that Duckworth says so, but I extrapolate from the evidence.

Now, how exactly to grow grit? How do you really build those assets? Tune in next time, when I talk about Caroline Adams Miller’s book Getting Grit, in which she takes all this info to the next stage and talks specifically about how to become gritty.