Monday, November 16, 2015

What is grit?

cat on tiger
Possibly the grittiest cat I know. In every sense!

Am I really cut out for my job? It’s the question you might ask yourself during your studies (especially the exam period!), at the end (or in the middle) or a gruelling day, week or month, when things go wrong, or you feel unsure.

But is it the right question to ask? Psychologist Emily Scanlan gave a brilliant presentation to students and mentors involved in the veterinary science mentoring program on the weekend, and suggested it the question could be rephrased: do I have the right values?

Values such as perseverance, kindness, patience, attention to detail, gentleness, courage and curiosity are more important than the “right” personality.

Being resilient, she argued, is about knowing that something or an aspect of something might make you uncomfortable, but choosing to do it anyway. Lots of us have chosen challenging occupations – because they hold some meaning for us, because we do want to be challenged regularly – but we can forget that being challenged means getting out of our comfort zone, i.e. being uncomfortable. One is easily lulled into a state where one intellectually loves the idea of being challenged, but practically loathes or even avoids it. 

Then there are others who actively push themselves out of their comfort zone, like a former colleague of mine who deliberately books holidays involving the most uncomfortable modes of transport available so that she can be awake and present every moment. She values existing out of her everyday life and insists time passes more slowly in discomfort!

In positive psychology the ability to “feel the fear and do it anyway” is often referred to as “grit”. It was foreshadowed in virtue ethics (attributed to Aristotle), with persistence and tenacity considered virtuous traits. Essentially, someone with grit can sustain motivation longer term, without the reassurance of regular or constant positive feedback. The goals they set have intrinsic value – they are valuable in and of themselves, regardless of recognition or achievement.

You can read a bit more about the concept of grit here. Although the psychologist William James did not use the term in his writing, he could have been discussing grit when he discussed “the psychology of the second wind”, and referred to working mothers as “the humble heroines of family life” (there’s a great discussion about this on Brain Pickings which you can read here).

You can even test your grit on Duckworth & Quinn’s validated short grit scale (note to self: develop more grit)(apparently, grit is something we can build on and develop).