HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

The Secret of Our Success

The importance of grit — and what it could mean for your future

The Secret of Our Success

Hanging on the wall of my childhood bedroom was a framed copy of a speech given by legendary football coach Vince Lombardi entitled, “What It Takes to be No. 1.” It was a gift from my father, and though my mother initially balked at the thought of her young, innocent boy being exposed to the harsh rhetoric of “head-to-head combat” and the “brute nature of men,” my dad insisted the speech stay put among the harmless team pennants that dotted the rest of my room. 

And looking back now, it is clear as to why. While on the surface Lombardi’s words seemed like gladiator-speak, beneath the tough talk was a message of discipline, of determination, of how “any man’s finest hour, his greatest fulfillment of all he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.” By placing this message above my pillow, where I could read it when I woke up and before I went to sleep, my father was instilling in me something essential, an invaluable life tool that would help me to survive and thrive, no matter what the world would one day throw at me: 

Grit. 

We all understand that doing anything worthwhile in life is challenging. And whether it’s big-picture endeavors such as building a career or a marriage, or smaller aspirations like sticking to a diet or exercise routine, we have all experienced these challenges firsthand. There are good days, there are bad days, and regardless of how much we plan or how hard we try, there are inevitable, and at times, unexpected setbacks. 

What defines us, though, is what we do once we encounter these setbacks. Do we heed the words of Coach Lombardi and keep on fighting? Or do we take the next exit ramp, slink back to our couch, and watch late-night infomercials while mainlining Blue Bell Ice Cream to fill the void of failure?   

Enter the concept of grit. Though it may go by many different names — resilience, heartiness, fortitude, dedication, willpower — no matter what you choose to call it, its central meaning remains the same. 

“It is strength in the midst of change and stressful life events,” explains Vineeth John, MD, MBA, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of residency training at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. “It is the ability to bounce back from adversity. Many things in life are not immediately available to us, so we have to continue to pursue them to reach our goals.” 

While there are numerous factors at play in the equation of achievement, experts are now discovering through research that grit — not talent, not IQ, not socioeconomic status, not even who you know — is the most accurate predictor of success. 

It turns out that it’s not about our inherent ability to learn or achieve something; it’s about our willingness to work for it. 

In any venture, be it graduating high school or growing a business, those people who possess a relentless work ethic, who show up every day armed with passion and perseverance, and who are willing to pay the price in the present to achieve their long-term goals in the future are the ones who are most likely to get to where they want to go — regardless of where they started. 

Given its significance and overall impactful nature, the good news about grit is that not only does everyone possess it, but everyone also possesses the capacity to become grittier. 

“It is not exclusive to anybody,” John says in his TEDx Houston talk. “We all have it, and we can develop it day by day, ritual by ritual. It is about action.” 

John explains that there are four components that go into building a person’s grit, which combine to form an impenetrable shield against adversity and despair. Too often, we focus on one piece of the pie, and while that may serve us well to an extent, the most effective way to maximize our grittiness — or our Grit Index — John says, is to fortify each of the flanks listed below. “When we utilize all four, we build a ring of resiliency around us, buffering us from whatever may come our way.” 

Social 

Whenever we suffer a setback, it is natural to seek out isolation, to recede into a shell and draw the blinds on the outside world. And while a little quality “Me” time is helpful every now and then, too much can often be harmful, inhibiting our progress and swallowing us in a sea of self-destructive thoughts. 

This is why a healthy support system is so critical. Friends, family and colleagues can encourage us to take that first step, pick us up when we get knocked down and inspire us when we’re in search of a spark. And, as John makes clear, it’s never too early to start putting this social foundation in place. 

“When we are brought up in an environment of connectedness, where we are aware of our core values, where we have the freedom to be authentic, and we know who we are, it becomes a powerful building block that allows us to proceed and progress further in life,” John says.

It is also never too late, either. Regardless of our upbringing, the opportunity to construct a rock-solid support system remains, whatever our goals may be. For an entrepreneur, it may be joining an association of like-minded business people. For an aspiring golfer, it may be seeking out a teaching professional from whom to take instruction. For those with alcohol addiction, it will most likely be Alcoholics Anonymous, which John points to as the perfect illustration of just how valuable and even life-saving a support system can effectively be. 

However we choose to go about strengthening our social component, though, one thing is clear: The more people we have around whom we can trust during tough times, the more likely we are to keep ourselves moving forward — and the pint of Blue Bell locked away in the freezer. 

Physical 

Being gritty is about taking action. It’s about getting up out of your chair, getting the blood flowing and getting in motion. And there’s nothing that embodies that type of dynamic, fire-in-the-belly approach than physical activity. 

The benefits of exercise have well been established; the endorphin production in our brains alone, John says, can positively change our response to depression. And when we’re feeling defeated, or when things aren’t going our way, the simple act of getting in the gym or heading out for a run is the perfect way to clear our minds and hit the reset button. A strong, healthy lifestyle breeds confidence, and that physical endurance we build through consistent activity ultimately translates into emotional endurance, as well, providing us with the energy to put in the blood, sweat and tears that are required to get the job done. 

And, as an added bonus, when we commit to improve physically, we are not only working out the muscles in our legs, arms and shoulders, we are also working out our metaphorical “grit muscle” by dedicating ourselves to a long-term goal, and then following through on that goal, day after day after day. 

Psychological 

If you were to create a Mt. Rushmore for the grittiest movie characters of all time, Rocky Balboa would be a shoe-in selection. Always playing the role of the underdog, the man fought battles in the ring, and his grit and determination carried him to multiple title belts through four heart-stopping sequels (Let’s just pretend the final installment, “Rocky Balboa”, never happened…). 

This enduring resiliency was never more apparent than in “Rocky IV,” when Balboa set out to avenge Apollo Creed’s death against the indestructible Russian champion, Ivan Drago. As if he were heeding John’s advice, Balboa built up his Grit Index by assembling a support system (Paulie, Duke, and Adrian), and readied himself physically by chopping down trees, scaling mountains, and outracing his KGB security detail. 

But what ultimately enabled him to (spoiler alert!) knock Drago out was the psychological edge he carried throughout his mission. With an iron will and an undying belief in himself, he was going to keep punching until the mission was complete. 

This is grit personified. It is an attitude, a mindset that says there’s always enough in the tank for one more round. 

It is also the common thread that runs through the grittiest of the grittiest, who foster this mentality with an unyieldingly positive outlook towards life, towards what they are working to accomplish, and most importantly, towards themselves. They love the grind, and they embrace the process. And when they fall, they recognize that failure is only temporary, quickly reframing any setbacks into growth opportunities. What can I improve? How can I do this better? They learn. They adapt. They move on. 

If you don’t feel like going 15 rounds with a towering foe, have no fear — John notes that cognitive therapy with a practitioner you trust is an ideal forum in which to develop and hone this optimistic, eye-of-the-tiger mindset — while also allowing you to add another all-important pillar to your support system.  

Spiritual 

While its particular contents may be different for every person, there is arguably no more all-encompassing pillar of John’s ring of resiliency than the spiritual component. Religion, meditation, yoga, a belief in a higher power, even Vince Lombardi — no matter where we seek our spiritual center, it inevitably incorporates each of the other three aspects, from uniting us with a caring community, to nurturing a hopeful approach to life, to a physical action that can be taken in times of distress. It gives us peace of mind, and it rejuvenates our spirit. 

Most importantly, though, spirituality connects us with something that is bigger than ourselves. It insists that we take the time to step back and panoramically assess our lives from every possible angle — where we are, where we’ve been and where we want to go — which is crucial when we encounter adversity. 

“Finding spiritual accord within ourselves gives us the ability to see things from a much broader perspective,” John explains. “We can recognize that what might be happening to us is just a blip on our journey, a minor detour, and that nothing is the end of it all. There is always a solution, and there are always possibilities. We just have to keep pushing forward.”