TL;DR: Be gritty with the things that are important to you and the story of your life. However, you can’t be gritty at everything, so you need to find a balance between being “gritty” and being “quitty” – ie, quitting the things that aren’t right for you.
I consider myself to be a fairly gritty person. I’ve been able to achieve a thing or two in life, and that’s by being persistent and sticking at things, even when they were challenging at times.
Having said that, I’ve also quit on a few occasions. In fact, one of the things I’m proudest of in relation to my professional career is that I’ve been prepared to quit roles early, when I knew there wasn’t a good fit between myself and the role or organisation I was working for.
The secret sauce for all of us is finding the right combination of being gritty and quitty. Let me explain, with reference to three books.
I really enjoyed Eric Barker’s book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. You may have read some of his stuff on his popular (but spartan) blog.
One of the best aspects of Barker’s book is that in each chapter he takes two seemingly opposed sets of ideas, and marries them together.
For example, one chapter talks about self-confidence. When is it adaptive, and when does it hurt to have too much confidence?
In one of my favourite chapters, Barker asks “Do quitters never win and winners never quit?”. He concludes that in order to succeed you need to have grit – and know when to quit.
You need to be gritty and quitty.
The term “Grit” was popularised by Angela Duckworth in her book of the same name. Duckworth explains, convincingly and at length, that “The highly accomplished [are] paragons of perseverance”. She describes successful people as those who don’t give up, even through boredom, pain, and frustration. She states that “a high level of performance is, in fact, an accretion of mundane acts”. Duckworth acknowledges that success involves luck, but in most cases it also consists of a lot of grit, which incorporates perseverance.
I liked Duckworth’s book a lot. But as a prescription for how to live life, it was missing something. The idea of being gritty in all things in life seemed exhausting. It was a good read, but Grit didn’t have an enormous impact on me. The book missed something important.
Last year I read Range by David Epstein. Epstein pointed to Duckworth’s example of West Point’s seven-week training program named “Beast Barracks”, or “Beast”. Duckworth suggests that the many cadets who drop out of this program don’t have the requisite “grit”. Epstein points out that although this may be part of the reason, for many cadets, it’s also a good filter to let them know that being at West Point isn’t for them.
(Epstein didn’t dismantle Duckworth’s argument for grit in the same way he took apart Malcolm Gladwell’s emphasis on the 10,000 rule when Epstein wrote The Sports Gene (talking about Gladwell’s book Outliers). But in each case, he was pretty surgical. Fun fact: Epstein and Gladwell are now good friends.)
Grit for grit’s sake is kind of pointless. Knowing when to walk away is also an important characteristic. But more on that soon.
When it comes to grit, Barker talks about how to find it.
He talks about how grit is often associated with meaning.
Quoting Viktor Frankl’s Mans’ Search for Meaning, Barker notes that “the people who kept going [in the horrors of Auschwitz] were the ones who had meaning in their lives”. In Frankl’s words, the person who “knows the ‘why’ for [their] existence… will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
“Meaning keeps us going when stark reality says ‘quit’. Very often our stories are stronger than we are, and if they’re meaningful ones, they can carry us through tough times.”
But he also quotes W. C. Fields:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… then give up. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”
“Grit can’t exist without quit”
Our time is limited. No matter how rich or advantaged you are, you only have 24 hours in the day and 168 hours in a week.
If we spend our time on one thing, we can’t spend it doing other things.
We have to make trade-offs when it comes to money. But we can make more money.
Time is different. We can’t make more time.
How we spend our time (and our energy, emotional and otherwise) matters.
There are only so many things we can be gritty at.
In Barker’s words: “Grit can’t exist without quit.”
In Grit, Duckworth says that “In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors – including grit – don’t matter as much as they really do.” She even titles a chapter based on the premise that “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice”.
Admittedly, Duckworth notes that “talent – how fast we improve in skill – absolutely matters”.
But one of the secrets in life is to find the things that are worth focusing on. The things in which we have talent.
The key is to find the things that we like, and that like us.
If you’re going to focus on something, you have to let other things go
Barker puts it well, so I’ll just quote him:
- “Once you’ve found something you’re passionate about, quitting secondary things can be an advantage, because it frees up time to do that number-one thing. Whenever you wish you had more time, more money, etc, strategic quitting is the answer. And if you’re busy, this may be the only answer.”
- “by not quitting unproductive things ASAP we are missing the opportunity to do more of what matters or try more things that might”.
- “If you quit the stuff you know isn’t working for you, you free up time for things that might. We’re bombarded by stories of persistence leading to success, but we don’t hear as much about the benefits of quitting.”
- “Everything we do in life is a trade-off. Choosing to do one thing means not doing something else.”
- “Walter Mischel [who introduced the world to the “marshmallow test”, or the value of delayed gratification] credits his success to a Yiddish word his grandmother taught him: sitzfleisch. It means ‘buttocks’. As in ‘Put your butt in that chair and work on what’s important.”
Work hard. But work hard on what’s important.
If you don’t know what’s important, then working out what’s important is perhaps your main question in life.
On this point, Barker suggests a clue: meaning.
What is meaningful to you?
“Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things. Meaning is part of our operating system.”
“Meaning, for the human mind, comes in the form of the stories we tell ourselves about the world.”
What do you want your story to be about?
My guess is that you want to have exhibited some grit. That you worked hard at something that was meaningful to you. My guess is that you want to have worked hard on things that are important not just to you, but to something greater than yourself.
But please, don’t major in minor things. Work out what’s important to you. Think about what you want your story to be.
Quit when you know things aren’t right for you. Be quitty.
When you know what’s important, be gritty.