I have been making gifts for people since I was very young.
I’m not sure what the first gift was, but I recall crocheting slippers, baby booties, thread snowflakes and sachets, and various other small items over the years. I loved to crochet, I loved giving the gifts, and I, if I’m honest, I loved being complimented for the time, thoughtfulness, and workmanship that went into the items.
You know what I didn’t love? Finishing projects.
Normally, not finishing a project doesn’t impact anything much. But I think there was one point when I needed to make something for someone, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have any alternate gift to give.
Despite this mild pressure, I abandoned the project. Later, when I wanted to start another project, my mom asked me if I’d finished the project that was in progress. I said no. She said I should finish what I’d started. I thought that was ridiculous–after all, why not start something new and shiny? My mom–who was not steeped in the numerous memes about fiber-related UFOs–thought it would probably be good for me to learn to finish a project. She insisted that I finish one thing before starting another. I think I probably argued with her and likely cried a little, but I do remember that at at least one point, she sat down to work on her own project when I was working on mine in solidarity (and probably also to make sure I actually followed through).
I think it says something interesting that I don’t remember which project this was, but that I do remember being pushed to finish it. I don’t know how my mom feels about that whole incident, but I know that I am grateful that she insisted, because that was a formative experience that helped me learn to stick with things, even when they’re hard.
And this is the background for Rule #6 of my Ten Rules for 2023: Be Gritty.
Why I Wrote This Rule
I don’t recall when I first heard about the concept of “grit” as a personality trait, but I stumbled across it a few years ago and then read Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance a couple of years ago. If you haven’t read the book, you can get the gist of her theory and research in her TED Talk from 2009:
Here is Duckworth’s definition of grit from her website:
Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals….
[G]rit is about having what some researchers call an “ultimate concern”–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal….
Talent and luck matter to success. But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter as least as much, if not more.
I wrote Rule #6 because I thought I could use a reminder that I need to be more tenacious with my goals. I looked ahead at 2023 and thought, “I have all these hard things I want to do, and I know I’m not always good at following through, so maybe I need to remember that I need to be gritty.”
And then, 2023 turned out to be kind of a ridiculous year as far as routines and schedules and basically anything resembling normalcy.
(Which I’ve discussed already, ad nauseum, so I’m not going there again.)
But as I thought about this blog post, I did realize that I’ve learned a few things about grit this year and about my own level of grit.
Grit Isn’t a Standalone Trait
Some of the research around grit suggests that it’s more predictive of success than things like talent or intelligence. That makes sense to me, in a way. I think that when you are intelligent or especially talented at something, it’s easy to excel without trying super hard. When you get to a level where things are competitive, you may be more likely to drop out than someone who already had to try super hard to make it that far.
However, I do think that the opposite is true as well. You can’t only have passion and perseverance to achieve something. Simone Biles certainly has passion and perseverance, but I promise you that if I’d been as passionate and perseverant as she has been in gymnastics, I still would have a snowball’s chance of ever achieving the success she’s achieved. She is clearly gifted and probably also blessed with a genetic lottery that makes her great.
Yes, passion and perseverance are important, but they may not be enough to overcome the lack of other necessary traits. I think the key is to aim your grit where it will count the most–and then be willing to move on if you can’t achieve what you’d like to achieve in that area.
Success Requires Rest
I took private piano lessons for seven years. Whenever my teacher starting planning a recital, she would select music that stretched our technical skills. I remember one Rachmaninoff piece that required me to stretch more than a little. There was one particular section in that piece that I practiced over and over until my hands ached, trying to get through it without hitting a wrong note or throw off the rhythm of the whole piece.
I finally got to the point where I basically had it–I could get through it, but not every time. About a week before the recital, I managed to play it through for my teacher, and we celebrated, and then she said, “now, put it away. Don’t play it again until the recital.”
I needed to rest, she told me. My brain and my fingers knew the piece, but I needed some time to just not worry about the whole thing.
This concept of resting before a big performance is not uncommon. Runners will cross-train or walk or have a couple of easy runs before a race. Singers may take a vocal rest before a performance. Public speakers will put away their planned presentation for a couple of days before getting on stage, perhaps only reviewing notes right before walking on.
Researchers have found that our brains use rest time to replay the skills we’ve practiced while we’re doing other things. In essence, it’s setting down a permanent record in the long-term memory and preparing to access it later when we need it. If we don’t give it the time to write that record, we never get out of the initial stage.
There’s a similar phenomenon at play with our bodies when it comes to exercise, I think. Consider weight lifting. When you lift, you create tiny tears in your muscle. The repair process is where you build strength to lift the same or more the next time, so you have to give your body the time to go through the repair process. This is why you don’t work the same muscle group every day. If you did, your body would struggle to repair and build that muscle, and it would take longer to gain strength (and may even do damage to your muscle).
So as much as I hated it, I rested (mostly) before that recital.
And when it was time to perform?
I’m Grittier Than I Thought
The biggest revelation to me over the last couple of weeks is that I’m already grittier than I thought I was.
I started considering the things I’ve been focused on the most over the course of my life.
I started getting healthy again in January 2017, and even though I’ve gained some weight back from my lowest point, I’m still in better shape than I was back then. I’ve mostly stuck with the good habits I pushed myself to learn that year.
I’ve been married for over 30 years. I don’t care how in love you are with someone–staying married that long requires two people who are at least equally gritty. I’ve raised four kids to adulthood, and while they are all still finding their own paths, they are all (mostly) aimed in the right general directions. There were a lot of days that I felt like giving up on parenting, and I didn’t, and that definitely required grit.
As for writing… I know I’ve wandered on and off the general path, but overall, I’ve been determined to finish The Taurin Chronicles since 2009. I think those times when I haven’t worked on it have actually made me more determined to finish it. The same goes for commercial writing–even when I’ve taken breaks from freelancing, I’ve never entirely shut off that spigot, and I am right now aiming with renewed grit toward finding more clients and getting more work.
So I guess maybe I’m saying that it doesn’t matter quite so much if I don’t read 50 books this year or learn to drive my husband’s pickup or get myself back under a nine-minute mile.
Because in the places that matter the most, I’m pushing forward with passion and perseverance.
That, my friends, is grit.