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How a Goldfish Can Help You Build Grit

Grit. Since Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk – and book – came out specifying grit as the one characteristic that emerged as a significant predictor of success, and people have been wondering, “How do we get grit? Is it something you’re born with or an acquired skill? Is there a pill for it? How can we hack grit?”

First, let’s mention Angela Lee’s definition of grit. “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Well, at least marathonists understand something about grit. As for the rest of us…

The good news is, grit is an acquired skill. The bad news is it’s acquired through facing adversity. By definition.

So according to my Google research, here are a few things that could help build grit (and my commentary to each one in italics).

-Being in love with the process and not the result. Intrinsic motivation for a certain activity – feeling joy for its mere pursuit – instead of some extrinsic motivation like the size of paycheck or the social accolades connected to this activity.

That’s quite unfortunate to hear because if you’ve been in the school system for so long, then you probably have been conditioned to design your life around extrinsic motivation; good grades, the chance to get into a good college, better grades, better job placement than your peers. So a lot of people don’t even know what intrinsic motivation looks like even if it came and punched them in the face. So let’s say you haven’t been intrinsically motivated to do something for so long and don’t know what your passion is, what else is there…

– Develop an interest. Find something you’re mildly interested about – something that you increasingly think about – and go down the rabbit hole. The operative term here is ‘develop’ which means, you have to do something about it, and not just mull over it in your head.

This is the part where most people who are miserable about their current life choices fail. They think there might be something out there for them, but they just don’t have the time, patience, money, to experiment anymore. There’s also the sunk-cost excuse. “I’ve given ten years of my life investing in this career path.”

But how miserable are you on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being extremely happy and 10 being extremely miserable? If you’re above 7, then ask yourself, what’s the alternative? It’s either being miserable in your position for the rest of your life, hoping that things will change sometime in the future or doing something to change that.

Again, the operative word here is doing something by experimenting.

Oh and experimenting does not mean ‘quit your job to follow your passion’. Even the research backs it up (thank God), as this Wired magazine puts it;

Researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng published a landmark study called “Should I Quit My Day Job?: A Hybrid Path to Entrepreneurship.” It tracked a nationally representative group of thousands of US entrepreneurs over 15 years and showed that those who started companies while keeping their day 
jobs were 33 per cent less likely to fail than the ones who went all in.

-Last but not least, which is the point that I alluded to in the title; Have the attention span of a goldfish when faced with disappointment.

Before I explain, let me tell you a little story…

My friend and I went to a seafood restaurant for our birthday last year. Because we were born six days apart, we usually go for lunch on the average of our dates (yes, being a geeky engineer can make you do that). The restaurant had a fish tank, and my friend commented how mean it was for them to cook the fish right in front of their friends.

“Are you sure? With a fish’s attention span, they’d forget so soon.”

“Exactly why it’s worse. They won’t even become jaded about it. Every time they see a friend being cooked, they’ll be traumatized all over again.”

That got me thinking, that having the attention span of a goldfish could be a good thing if it’s your strategy of facing rejections. Think about it, every time you get rejected, give it the whole ten seconds of your attention, and then move onto the next writing project.

In a previous post titled, “How to stop ruminating,” I mentioned how continuously doing things could help you stop ruminating. When you’re continuously focusing on the next post, the next project, the next client, you really don’t have that much time to digest all the possible reasons that contributed to your being rejected — especially since a lot of those reasons are way beyond your control and have nothing to do with you. Maybe the literary agent you pitched woke up and discovered his cat had peed all over his favorite shoes, or the editor who was supposed to read your work was continuously interrupted by his divorce lawyer, or the publishing house you were hoping to publish with discovered its CFO had embezzled money and was on his way to the Caribbeans.

Truth of the matter is, the only thing you can do after every rejection is to learn from any mistakes you made, and resolve to do better next time.

So how are you building grit in your life? Let me know in the comments section below or on twitter; @ahechoes.

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Published inPersonal DevelopmentProductivity
  • Hanan AlDarmaki

    What works for me is habit. I love this motto: Nulla dies sine linea. “No day without a line”. The hardest part is building habits and maintaining them (especially after vacations). Every once in a while, I have to make myself to do something, no matter how small; even if it’s literally just a line. For me, that’s what perseverance comes down to; it doesn’t have to be grand.