Success takes grit, but what does grit take?
The mindset you need for resilience and how girls struggle more in cultivating it
We’ve all got some idea of what kind of life we want to live, and we are constantly striving to achieve it. You’ve probably heard that to succeed, you will need motivation and perseverance. The research on this and the feedback from conventionally successful folk is pretty hard to dispute, but Grit by Angela Duckworth does a nice job of distilling it into something actionable.
One thing that I am not sure if we talk enough about is the components of grit. It’s not just a trait that you can instantly manifest by setting a motivational laptop background, having an aesthetic productivity setup and repeating affirmations to yourself every morning like an MLM girlboss. There is one ingredient to grit that is closer to my heart (and that I periodically grapple with), and that is the mindset of confidence. To capture it in one statement:
“I can do it if I try, and if I fail along the way, I’ll be able to deal with it.”
(“it” could refer to learning a skill, taking up a position, virtually any decision that you are considering.)
Having faith in your ability to stick to this mindset takes you through so many of the obstacles in becoming a person with grit, passion, resilience, some of which I’d like to share thoughts on.
Starting is the hardest part
Habituation is biological; we feel most comfortable operating within the sphere of what we know + our locus of control. That is why when it comes to picking up something new, beginners often struggle with a huge amount of inertia, be it from the fear of failure, overwhelming nature of the subject or from the resistance to a new disruption in routine.
By nature, humans are very afraid to fail and are much more averse to loss than they are sensitive to the probability of success. That’s why we’re afraid to take the first step into a cold pool, something totally foreign, where the downside is something they have not experienced. The unknown is also where imagination runs wildest; just thinking of all the potential problems or failures that might be ahead can be paralysing enough to deter you from starting.
It’s also a matter of setting the scene — we prefer to start things on a good note, make sure we have everything before we start, or wait till the time is right to start, because we think this gives us more confidence that the chances of things going bad are lower. Theoretically, if you have the capital and resources to do so, it could work… until you have to consider time-sensitive opportunities. In the last year I’ve learnt over and over that there’s no “perfect” time to start — you can’t bend the environment to your will, and if you keep on waiting for the optimal conditions, they will never come.
Want to get into personal finance? Don’t get too hung up on which robo-advisor or broker to put your money to, just take the power of compounding and run with it. Want to lose weight? Shelling out $50 for spin classes every month is not the only way to achieve that, you can go for a run too. Want to learn to cook? You don’t need an entire spice rack, just staples like salt and pepper. You get the point — you only need to basics to start. The confidence that you can bounce back doesn’t come from the tools, it comes from the experience you rack up as you’re using them, because the most learning happens along the way.
Personally, I have nearly held myself back from trying for certain school and career opportunities because I thought I was underqualified for the role and wasn’t sure if I could pass the skill assessments (in other words, a fear of failure and rejection, and doubt in my ability to overcome obstacles). In one instance, to further justify my decision to not apply, I had even convinced myself that I would not have time to commit anyway and I could try again next year when I have the skillset. What if a year passes, and I still have not reached the standard I set for myself when I said I would come back next year — what would my excuse be then? Would I still even have the opportunity to try? What made me bite the bullet and apply anyway was when my friends asked a Magic 8 Ball if I should apply and it said yes. Stupid as it sounds, I ended up passing all the assessments and getting the role…
I feel a pang of shame when I look back on how naturally these thoughts came to me, especially when I think all the other opportunities I may have dismissed and forgotten about. Personally, I try to keep myself in check by asking myself what’s the worst that can happen if I don’t make it, and by telling myself this: “If you don’t try the answer will always be no”.
Sticking through it is the next hardest
So you started walking across the desert, but you’re running out of water and there’s no oasis in sight. What happens now? Back to my own story — I passed the skill assessments, but that doesn’t mean I’m automatically proficient and don’t have to play catch-up, or that things will get easier from here. Progression isn’t linear; there will be a lot of things I have never encountered before and correspondingly, a lot of setbacks.
A type of encouragement I’ve heard floating around a lot is to have the mindset that “I can do it”. This way of thinking gives us a sense of pride or validation, in that we originally have a certain level of competency in us to pick things up quickly and navigate problems. But this is actually somewhat dangerous. If you expect yourself to get things done right the first time, it could actually work against you. Rarely do things go according to plan. When the assumption that you have it in you is challenged, it does a number on one’s self-esteem. That is why there are people out there who feel demoralised and give up when they hit a plateau or obstacle (for example, when trying to learn a sport or instrument). They want to be automatically good at what they try to do, else they would rather not try at all.
So we have to go beyond merely telling ourselves “I can do it”. I propose an alternative: “I can do it, if I try”. (Yes, this has something vaguely to do with the growth mindset.) You can see that the difference here is an awareness that you are starting off completely clueless and might not get it right the first few rounds, but you still hold the belief that if you keep at it, things will get clearer. In other words, a reassurance that “I might be bad at this now, but I can do it eventually”. It’s under this confidence in your ability to continue learning that persistence starts to flourish.
Do girls struggle with grit more than boys?
That’s my two cents on the ingredients in cultivating grit: confidence in your ability to learn and to bounce back. But I also wonder, does the different upbringing across genders make it harder to girls to build resilience?
Are girls more afraid of failure and of being wrong, and thus less willing to try new things that they aren’t sure they might be do well in? On the other hand, is it that boys are raised to take risks, play rough, and thus rise to new challenges even if they might not be fully qualified?
This TED Talk by Reshma Saujani (founder of Girls Who Code) suggests that women are socialized to be perfect, to get things right, and are afraid of asking questions, fearing the backlash that comes if they do not know. If they are taught to be comfortable with their imperfection, they can be taught to be courageous, which makes a contributing point towards equality.
“Instead of showing the progress she made, she’d rather show nothing at all… Perfection or bust.”
Thinking back to my own experiences, they fit in well with the anecdotes the speaker shared and my own feelings growing up. For the ladies: do you empathise? And for the boys: do you feel any sort of pressure from the expectation to be risk-seeking, or does it come naturally? If you’ve read till this point and have some thoughts, please share them!