Are you keeping your nose to the grindstone?
Most people know the value of hard work, so it isn’t surprising that when achievement-oriented people are dissatisfied with their performance they usually ask themselves, “Could I be working harder? “The answer, of course, is usually “Yes.” There’s always another hour to carve out of sleeping time, family time, eating time or some other time to grind out a little more work. Moreover, in spite of the shift to performance-based evaluation systems, most organizations tacitly (or openly) recognize and reward you for keeping your nose to the grindstone. Grinding it out may not actually help you hit your targets, but managers, colleagues and even customers are generally more sympathetic when they can see that you knocked yourself out trying.
Grit = Perseverance + Passion x Purpose
Given a choice, though, most of us would rather not grind it out too often because it gets to be, well, a grind. But is there an alternative? In 2005, Psychology Today had recently run a feature on a concept called grit – perseverance in the face of ongoing obstacles. Where I grew up in the Midwestern USA, we had an earthy magazine called “Grit” and the concept resonated so well for me that I wrote the first draft of this essay so I could include it in an action research program on productivity and wellness. According to Psychology Today, people with grit were more successful than the rest of us. I figured some of my clients might find the grit concept to be a useful framing device for people trying to claim more ownership of their work and work experience.
Saying that perseverance is a key ingredient of success is hardly revolutionary. On the other hand, perseverance alone does not seem to guarantee success. A lot of people grind it out for years, but grinding does not guarantee success. Sometimes hard work seems to just grind you down mentally and physically, and research shows that excessive grinding can actually have a negative impact on performance over time. Perseverance channeled through grinding doesn’t seem to be recipe for sustainable success.
It’s easier to be gritty when you have a clear sense of purpose.
Whether you are able to convert your perseverance into results may depend upon how you access and channel it. True grit flows from a commitment to something more important than the grindstone itself. What do we know about the factors that help people get more return on their investments in grit?
Gritty people have real passion for their goals because they set goals that are worthy of their passion. They set goals that are meaningful enough to bring out their passion on an ongoing basis, and this seems to ameliorate the sense that working toward them is a grind. They may get tired or even feel like giving up on the goal for a while, but then they get an urge to try again. The goal is so compelling that it comes back to haunt them in a positive way.
Gritty people are self-driven. They take initiative to move toward their goals now, rather than waiting for the perfect time to start. In the midst of the demands and distractions of life and work, they create time (even if it is only a little time) to take actions (even if they can only take small actions) to get closer to that goal. Self-driven is the positive twin of self-disciplined, which connotes the ability to resist temptation. The ability to resist bad things is useful, but it doesn’t seem to stoke the fire like striving for good things does.
Gritty people don’t give up on the future, even when prospects look grim. Their capacity to continue trying does not come from a rosy belief that success will come easily or quickly. Rather, it comes from a belief that they will eventually find a pathway if they can just keep searching long enough. This sort of pragmatic perseverance is an attribute shared by the Level 5 leader CEOs Jim Collins described in his management classic Good to Great.
Gritty people know when to keep their nose to the grindstone and when to pull their eyes up to scan the horizon for opportunities. Their commitment to their goals drives gritty people to constantly look for a new angle or a better way to get to those goals. Their commitment is to their destination, rather than to a specific way of getting there. When things get tough, they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. However, they are willing to throw out the bathwater, soap, shampoo, scrub brush, rubber ducky and even the bathtub if that is what it takes to get the baby clean.
Grind dictates that you keep your head down and keep doing the same thing until you get it right. Grit dictates that you pull your head up and keep trying different approaches that get you closer to your goal.
Gritty people do not grind it out so much as they just plain refuse to give up. Grinding is something they do while they search for the right opportunities, and they frequently raise their heads to look around for those opportunities. They know that when their noses are down, their eyes are down too, and when their eyes are down, they might be missing some new development that could bring them closer to the place they are really trying to get to.
Do you feel gritty?
After one of those days when you feel like you knocked yourself out, but you’r not sure you made any headway, consider the possibility that you may have succumbed to the grind when what you really need is grit. Ask yourself:
– Do my objectives mean something to me? Are they big enough to keep my attention and pull me along even when I stumble? Do they pop into my mind even when I have forgotten them in the course of the daily grind?
– Do I own my work or do I feel as though it is forced upon me? Could I reframe my goals and actions to make even the grind aspects of my current situation more meaningful?
– Do I regularly set aside time to focus on and take a few actions that will bring me closer to realizing the goals I really care about? Do I support this by grinding as necessary on other things that keep me going while I look for ways to reach my goal?
– Do I believe my important goals are possible, even if they seem like a pipedream to others? Do I have a way to remind myself that I am getting closer to those goals, even when they still seem to be a million miles away?
– Do I pull my head up from the grindstone periodically to scan for opportunities that pop up along the way? When I recognize a new opportunity, am I flexible enough to give up an old idea or approach so I can find out more about this new opportunity?
If your answers are negative, you may find some clues as to what you could do to get out of the grind. If your answers are positive, your grit may keep you going even when the going gets tough. What’s more, if Collins is right about Level 5 Leadership, you may be enabling those around you to reach new heights as well.
Sources and Resources:
Psychology Today, Nov/Dec 2005
Good to Great, Jim Collins, Harper Business 2001
More recent additions:
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth 2016
Angela Duckworth has emerged as the leading champion of grit as a trait that can be developed. Duckworth also delivered a popular TED talk on grit which can be found at: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance?language=en
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein 2019
In Range, Epstein considers the importance of balancing grit with range – the pursuit of excellence in multiple domains. Epstein shares many examples of highly successful people who achieved their success through a willingness to revise course as new conditions revealed new opportunities. These individuals showed grit in many fields rather than in a single field. In this sense, they serve as great role models of the difference between grit and grind.
No Stupid Questions (39) at www.freakonomics.com – In this episode, Duckworth discusses how she sees the intersection of grit and range, linking them to strategies of exploitation versus exploration.
Freakonomics Radio (458): How to manage your goal hierarchy on www.freakomics.com – Duckworth and Steve Levitt explore how to decide whether the goal one is pursuing is important enough to merit a gritty approach.
© Dana Cogan 2005, 2009 and 2020-23, all rights reserved.