Finding Grit: Toughness as a Virtue


No one really likes the word “failure”. Especially not Americans.

I’ve heard it called a “tolerance for adversity” and “character building”. When a person’s

Can ski town life teach you to find your grit?

world turns on it’s ear, she often hears “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” When John got sick, my mom told me, “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

So apparently, there’s a consensus, or at least an underlying recognition, that hardship is good for you. It’s a part of life, so we might as well embrace it.

For a while there, I thought if I moved to a ski area, filling my days with adventure and excitement and a little bit of forced hardship, then I’d fill my quota. I thought if I kept adventuring real adversity wouldn’t find me. But it doesn’t work that way. At least not for very long.

In this weekend’s New York Times article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure,” Paul Tough showcases how two New York school administrators are building character in their students, by teaching them to be tough.

They call it grit.

Grit is a single-minded passion that can’t be swayed. One researcher in the article created a Grit Scale based on a questionnaire in which students rate statements from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” Not surprising, students with a higher grit rating achieved higher GPA’s.

But how do you increase your grit? Is it something we are born with or do we acquire it over time?

Grit is always there. When faced with hardship, when our lives are thrust into the fire and boiled down in a crucible, grit is what’s left after the rest has sizzled away. When climbing along a wind-blasted ridge, snow driving against your cheek, it’s grit that pushes you through. When the doctor places his hand on yours and says it’s cancer, it’s grit that lifts your gaze to his. When your lungs burn and your thighs ache and you want to quit, it’s grit that carries you across the finish line. In the very moment you need it, that is when you find it.

Grit is a mental game. When you know it’s there, you find more of it. Just by acknowledging that you have it, telling yourself “I’ve been through tough times before, I can get through this,” your grit rises up and takes action.

Grit never goes away. Knowing that you can call upon the mental toughness you honed during your last climb or the marathon you just completed or the medical emergency your loved one just survived, makes you a stronger, more confident person.

So maybe uncertainty and adventures are more than just selfish endeavors. Perhaps moving to a ski town taught me to better handle the challenges life has thrown my way. Perhaps, it’s a good thing that several years ago I decided to take a year off from my “real job” teaching English and become a ski bum for a year, and I’m fortunate that I never left.

At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

What about you? Do you think we should seek more gritty endeavors in our lives?

10 responses »

  1. I definitely think we need more adversity in our lives. Our kids do too. But then, isn’t adversity what you make of it? If a person thrives on challenge, are they drawing on grit? Or would grit be more necessary for that person to make it through a humdrum existence where the challenges come few and far between?

    I have no doubt that you have grit! I’ve read your book. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. I think the grit comes whether we look for it or not. And our responses to adversity, challenges, difficulties can make us grittier or make us crumble. That seems to be our part, to make a decision to do all that we can to push through, go forward, face the new day even when it’s really hard, or not. But I think we also need to know when we need help…from friends, experts, and God. One thing I’ve found is we’re a lot grittier than we can imagine until we’re tested. This verse comes to mind, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (1Tim. 1:7) Amen!

  3. Interesting question. Reminds me of a similar quote, which I think I’m misquoting – whatever hardship we overcome just makes us stronger – something like that. I think grit is innate and honed by experiences, hardships, challenges. And of course supportive people around us, helping us along, reminding us we can do it. I think for sure that my early passion for physical exercise/endurance helped shape my grit – like the miles on the trail circumnavigating Mt. Hood carrying a heavy backpack, with a blister the size of Texas on my right foot, on a hot day, with the group putting me in the lead so I wouldn’t be left behind. And so on. I’m sure I’ll need grit in the years to come, because, as they say, getting old ain’t for sissies. Thanks for another great post! (FYI, I just have to say, my latest blog post describes a man whose grit helped him endure horrors most of us can’t imagine.)

  4. mmmmmhhh…. I agree with you that grit is good and adversity is character building but the problem nowadays, IMVHO is that people want what I call ” controlled adversity.”
    A lot of people, not all, want the challenge of adversity but in a controlled setting.. by going on a an adventure trip…..hiking the Himalayas….rafting a river… entering a triathlon…. but they also want to return to the safety of their everyday lives and financial security. I see an American population that is scared of the current financial situation and young people( my son included) that crave for adventure but also want all the attributes of financial security and materialism.
    We have as a nation lost much of the true grit that was exhibited ( and maybe forced upon) by the “greatest generation( WW11).
    Of course this is not applicable to people who through circumstance face huge challenges due to personal sickness and or bereavement.
    I’m generalizing, but I think my generation( early 50’s) and our children have become afraid and less gritty due to the pampered lifestyles we have adopted and sought.

    • I know what you mean about “controlled” adversity. It’s pretty tame compared to earlier generations. However, if every citizen just went on a safe river rafting trip (or a hike, for chrissake!) we’d be a lot better off as a nation. Sometimes it’s merely the perception of risk that makes us dig deep and find our grit. Is there such a thing as safe risk? Depends on the definition. I recently heard one I liked when referring to adventure: hazard can be removed, but not risk. Risk, then, is the perception of hazard. If so, and people pushed themselves more, maybe we’d find world peace and everything would be rosy! Or at least some of us would be a little stronger.

  5. That phrase “god never gives us more than we can handle” gets my hackles up. It’s way too easy to hear as a polite (and sometimes not very sympathetic) “quit your whining and tighten your bootstraps”. Seems to me there are plenty of people who are given more than they can handle every day.

    But to your actual real point: when I try to teach my kids about grit, I emphasize the way I look at it, namely that it’s about carrying through when you’re scared, or tired, or not feeling like it. I want to make sure they understand that brave people feel fear, and uncertainty, and they might be quaking in their boots, but they find a way to get through anyway.

    • Great advice for you kids. Isn’t that how it is? In order to get through the really hard moments, you just have to carry on–even when you’re scared or tired or just plain over it. For me, I just get through it 15 minutes at a time.

    • “I want them to understand that brave people feel fear and uncertainty…” Bryan, this is so very true and wise. What a beautiful lesson to teach your children while young.

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