If you passionately pursue hard goals that cause you to take risks, go out of your comfort zone and inspire others, you will learn grit, live your best life and serve as a great role model for others.
That’s according to Caroline Miller, an expert in positive psychology and bestselling author who has pioneered ways for people to learn and nurture grit.
Miller outlines how “to bake the grit cake,” in her captivating new book Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance and Purpose.
A critical ingredient of grit is living with ikigai, a Japanese word that translates to “passion,”or “that which I wake up for,” Miller says. People living with ikigai have a purpose that pulls them forward and also leads them to give back to their community.
Communities where people lead the longest, best lives have one thing in common, according to National Geographic magazine: Those people wake up every morning knowing they have a purpose. They live with ikigai.
“It was never about giving to themselves, Miller says. “People living Ikigai are giving to others.”
Steer Clear of Stupid Grit
Miller distinguishes between authentic grit and stupid, bad or faux grit. Stupid grit is continuing to pursue hard goals that no longer make sense because circumstances have changed.
“It’s important to know when it’s in your best interests to stop driving toward a goal, Miller says.
A mountaineer heading for the summit of Mount Everest without heeding the advice of other climbers, Sherpas and expedition leaders who warn an avalanche or blizzard is coming has stupid grit.
“They are drunk on the summit and don’t listen to other people,” Miller says. “That’s the time when that behavior hurts you or those around you.”
Entrepreneurs who don’t know when to stop throwing good money after bad have stupid grit, as does an anorexic who doesn’t know when to stop losing weight, or an athlete who doesn’t know when to stop playing through pain.
Professional tennis player Serena Williams has created her own safeguard against stupid grit. Williams knows she lacks a “control, alt, delete button,” so she enlists a team to tell her when it’s time to quit, Miller says.
Avoid False or Faux Grit
Having false or faux grit involves taking short cuts or faking results to appear to accomplish hard things. Academia is suffering an epidemic of people fabricating research, Miller notes, adding that cheating in triathlons is on the rise. Canadian triathlete Julie Miller was exposed two years ago as skipping a loop of the run to “win” the Ironman Canada.
“Faux grit is whenever you have to cross a hard finish line, but you faked the results,” Miller says.
Grit Comes in Many Flavors
Miller outlines other flavors of grit: Mount Olympus grit is required when people push their bodies to do extraordinary things, such as winning at the Olympics or perhaps being a refugee who survived the worst of circumstances. Celebrity grit involves well known people like Oprah Winfrey who use grit and drive to achieve success and then became a gritty role model. Actor Dick Van Dyke uses grit to model sobriety. Mount Rushmore grit is personified by people who have stood at the turning point of history with a passion for making things right, such as civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Miller says these people changed history “because of how they stood up against the pressure, the dark nights of the soul, the failures with dignity and class, and because of that they got followers.”
Cultivating Ordinary Grit
But most people won’t become an Olympic athlete or a civil rights leader. The most common kind is ordinary grit. This might be people who quietly work two or three jobs, or those go back to college in their sixties without calling attention to themselves. Miller cites Iraqi veteran Kevin Downs who had his arms and legs blown off when a Humvee exploded. When he returned to high school in Tennessee, where he had been a three-sport athlete, “he wanted to feel that he had purpose again” so he asked to cut the grass for the football team, Miller says. “The football coach said the kids stopped whining when they saw Kevin Downs cutting the grass.”
Ordinary grit is not asking for special treatment or short cuts. Because of the way in which they do hard things, people with ordinary grit make other people better by being in their orbit, she says.
“In an era of people falling into the Grand Canyon taking selfies, it’s the people with ordinary grit who are going to change us for the better. It’s up to all of us to cultivate it in ourselves.”
Key Ingredients for Grit: Passion and Purpose
People with authentic grit wake up each day thinking about “what they have left undone,” Miller says. “They don’t have interests – they have passions.”
“You have to have something that completely lights you up that is your goal, not your parents’ goal, not your school’s goal, not your church’s goal. It’s something you will get up and pursue in the absence of a trophy and people knowing you are doing it.”
Miller says she started rowing at age 48 to build grit.
“I realized that I hadn’t done anything I could fail at for a long time,” she says. “It was humbling to be in boats that got last place.”
She says she wakes up each morning and asks herself what her purpose is.
“I don’t waste time and I don’t spend time around people who sap my energy and take me away from what I believe I am here to do. I don’t quit. I try to be positive and optimistic. If you are not doing it, your kids don’t have a chance of doing it.”