How to Strengthen Your Perseverance and Grit

Linda Graham, MFT examines the role of “grit” in resilience and offers an exercise to strengthen perseverance to maximize your growth mindset.  

Both a friend and a client told me about this delightful 6-minute TED talk by psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth about the importance of grit – which she defines as passion and perseverance – in achieving success.  Citing her research among West Point cadets, participants in the National Spelling Bee, sales personnel, and teachers in inner city schools, she found that determination and hard work were far better predictors of resilience and success than either talent or I.Q. Among 1,000 at risk students in the Chicago public schools, she found that her measures of grit were more effective in predicting success than family income, standardized test scores, or how safe the students felt at school.

Dr. Duckworth cites the previous research of Carol Dweck at Stanford University about the role of a “growth mindset” in resilience and success:  the beliefs that our innate abilities to learn can change with persistent effort and that failure is never a permanent condition.  And that when students learn about how the brain grows in response to challenge, they are more likely to persevere even in the face of failure or being wrong.

The difference between try and triumph is a little “umph.” – author unknown

Exercise to Strengthen Perseverance and Grit (from Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, chapter 5.)

  • Create a cue to remind yourself of your intention. Sometimes the hardest part of a practice is remembering to do the practice.  Even the title of Ram Dass’s classic book Be Here Now is actually Remember: Be Here Now.
    • Put a post-it note on your computer reminding you to notice events in the day to be grateful for;
    • Shift gears by counting to three before you answer the phone or the doorbell to give yourself time to become present, able to respond to the person on the line or at the door with a more open frame of mind;
    • Use plugging in the coffee maker or turning the key in the car’s ignition as a cue to remember your intention for the day.
  • Set an intention to implement a practice that will re-wire your brain in a way that feels important to you
    • to cultivate an attitude you want more of in your life, like gratitude;
    • to see circumstances from a new perspective, in a new light, not responding automatically with pre-conceived notions;
    • to respond to an ongoing stressor with a new behavior; breaking the cascade of automatic reactions and deliberately choosing something new.
  • Identify behaviors that help manifest that intention and experiment with implementing them.
    • Express your appreciation to your partner for five generous things they did that day;
    • Put yourself in the shoes of the person on the phone or at the door; see the interaction between the two of you from their point of view;
    • As you encounter disappointments, mistakes, dysfunction throughout the day, ask “What’s right with this wrong?” as part of framing a skillful response to the stressor.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat the behavior for a week, then two, then a month.  You can experiment with expanding the behaviors as you learn what works to manifest your intention:
    • express your appreciation to your child, and your sister-in-law, and your co-workers, and the grocery store clerk, for any generous behaviors on their part;
    • acknowledge the sincere motivation of your brother George when he surprised you by weeding your backyard for your birthday, even though he unknowingly pulled up all the daffodils along with the weeds;
    • the Chinese written character for the word crises is two characters – danger and opportunity.  Find an opportunity in at least three “crises” this month.
  • Notice what changes in your brain as you persevere in your practice.  I once had a client who, after practicing for weeks to stay more open-minded rather than cursing when she watched the evening news, told me she had bounded down the stairs in excitement one day, saying, “I’m growing new neurons!”  The courage to persevere in re-wiring our brains toward the 5 C’s of coping is supported when we see that our intentional re-wiring is working; we see ourselves getting “over the hump” into behaviors that are new or different from before. We see that we are learning, changing, growing, and we keep going.

The greatest oak was once a little nut that held its ground. – Author Unknown