What We Need in Hard Times

The Unexpected Way Setting Hard Goals Makes Us Happier

We have heard a lot about grit the past few years, and I admit I had little interest in the discussion. The word reminds me of sand in my teeth, and makes me think of setting my jaw and forging ahead through come what may. I’ve had to do my share of getting through very difficult circumstances and didn’t want to hear that it was good for me

I still don’t like the word, but the hard truth is that we need that determination and resilience now—and as we work for our future goals individually and collectively. In her book, Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance and Purpose, Caroline Adams Miller outlines a definition of grit that encompasses sustained work and meaning. She also lays out practical ways anyone can develop more of it.

I spoke with Miller about good and bad grit, how our culture is making us less gritty, and where we go wrong in our pursuit of happiness.

Most of your research and writing has been about setting and achieving goals, so what made you decide to dig into grit?

I was speaking to someone who’s read all my books and she mentioned that every book I’d written had grit as its theme. I realized it was true. My book, Creating Your Best Life, which came out in early 2009, was the first book to connect the science of happiness with the science of success. I wrote a chapter on grit because one of the findings in positive psychology is that the happiest people among us wake up every day to hard goals. To achieve those, you have to have grit.

You draw a distinction between authentic grit, which is what we want, and types of grit that don’t serve us.

I started with Andrea Duckworth’s definition of grit as a passion and persistence in pursuit of long-term goals. But as I thought about it, that can apply to bad people doing harmful things as well. Authentic grit is when passion and persistence are applied to positive outcomes–those that help individuals but also inspire and influence others in a positive way.

I looked back through history and found that major figures at the turning points in history had this grit. They stood up for something they believed in. They were people who got lit up by something and stayed with it. When I talk about grit I am looking at this special quality, it is not just passion and perseverance.

Those people didn’t necessarily have grit in all areas. They save their energy for what matters most to them. It may be passion for a cause, or passion that sustains you to get through hard times. You won’t achieve hard goals without it.

How does that compare with bad grit?

There are a couple of forms of bad grit. There’s what I call “selfie grit,” in which humility has disappeared and people just want attention. They may accomplish something in life but not any hard goals, and they don’t inspire others or change the world for the better. Humility is a key to being an authentically gritty person.

There’s also false, or faux grit, in which we see people faking their results or pretending to have accomplished things. We have become a society that is rewarding people for accomplishing nothing. I have millennial children who played sports, and as they were growing up I was appalled to see how everyone got a trophy, that the idea of working to achieve something was getting lost in our effort to protect everyone’s self-esteem. Children learn that everything comes easy, that everyone deserves an A, and they don’t know how to sustain their focus.

Another form of bad grit is stupid grit, when you pursue an idea or a product past its expiration date. We see this with entrepreneurs who don’t have a board of advisors, who don’t seek advice or don’t take it. It’s like summit-fever. In business, stupid grit causes a lot of challenges. It causes people to throw good money after bad. Single-mindedness is not always a bad thing, but there is a time to pull back. Anyone who is creating something does become obsessed, but it’s crucial not to pursue goals in a silo. You have to have humility and surround yourself with people to advise you and you have to listen to them.

How do you respond to people who don’t see a reason to pursue hard things, who prefer an easy life?

Goal-setting theory has really established that the happiest people are the ones who actually go out of their comfort zones because that’s where the meaningful life is. The meaningful life is not living small or just living inside your comfort zone where nothing’s hard.  The biggest regret of people in hospice care is that they didn’t live the life they wanted to live. They took too few risks. They played it safe.

A pleasant life is not the meaningful life or the engaged life. It’s just a pleasant life. You want to find out that thing or you will regret not pursuing because the research on risk and regrets finds that people regret more the things they didn’t go after than the things they went after that didn’t work out.

Do you find gender differences when it comes to grit?

Every person I have interviewed that has this special form of grit said a woman had been a role model. A woman who is a success has to be a hundred times better than a man. I think storytelling is essential here. It is through the legacy of storytelling that women become role models for others.

Tell us your own story of grit

I wrote my first book in mid-20s when I overcame bulimia. It was in the 1980s, and I don’t think many people remember now but most people did not recover from eating disorders then. Karen Carpenter became the poster child for people with eating disorders. I became bulimic when I was 15. I was an athlete, and I went to Harvard. I was high performing but I hit bottom. Later I realized I had the intelligence and success but I hadn’t had grit. I just did everything I was supposed to do.

I started going after hard goals. I got better, and I wrote my first book because I didn’t know anybody else who survived. And then I became a coach to help other people to set the right goals and achieve them.

How can develop grit in our own lives?

There are several key qualities gritty people have. You have to be patient with the process and understand that it will take time. You have to learn to delay gratification. I advise people to create longer-term goals and reward themselves along on the way as they achieve smaller goals. Being able to master short-term goals is possible for everyone. It is an acquired behavior. Hard work over a long period of time often yields the best results.

Curiosity and wanting to find things out is another strength of happy people because it is not all about them. And that’s related to humility. Being able to ask questions and knowing that you don’t know. You don’t have to be the star of every conversation. People who have this social humility find that other people are more willing to partner with them.

As I mentioned, you have to learn to take appropriate risks, and get out of your comfort zone. The biggest rewards are attached to the biggest risks. Always ask yourself, why not? And if the answer is just that you might fail, really look at that. You have to be willing to fail. Ask yourself if you will regret not taking the chance.

Gritty people also have hope. You have to remain optimistic and see setbacks as setbacks, not failures. It helps people to surround themselves with people who are also optimistic as well. This is particularly important for women. Too many women have frenemies. When things go right in someone’s life, the only right way to respond is with enthusiasm and curiosity. If your friends do that, it shows they are really on your side. Having frenemies can really harm you and keep you from achieving goals.