Grrrrrit: The Art of Persistence

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Calvin Coolidge

As a young boy, Louis “Louie” Zamperini found himself headed down the wrong road in an early life of petty crime and alcohol. That was until his brother convinced him to start running, and running hard.  In just a few short years, Louie found himself as the fastest high school runner in the country.  In 1936, he competed as an Olympic athlete in Berlin as Hitler looked on.

But as detailed in a bestselling book Unbroken, and later brought to the big screen in the movie by the same name, Louie’s story was just beginning.  In 1943 during World War II, Louis and fellow soldiers found themselves in the middle of Pacific Ocean for 47 days as they attempted to remain alive despite being hunted by sharks, attacked by enemy planes, and left with hardly any food or fresh water in the unrelenting sun.  Finally picked up by Japanese patrol, Zamperini was subjected to brutal torture for two and a half years in three different POW camps before finally being rescued at the end of the war.  At the age of 80, Louis found himself carrying the torch in the ceremonies leading up to the Olympics in Nagano, Japan.  He died at the age of 97 in 2014.

For those who have read the story and/or seen the movie, there is one word that could easily define much of what occurs: GRIT.  Defined as courage, resolve, and strength of character, grit is characterized by the degree of persistence and determination that an individual exhibits despite many obstacles.  Although many of us are familiar with the physical manifestation of grit (e.g., the running back who keeps pounding away for a few more yards despite would be tacklers), grit can be just as much a psychological and spiritual endeavor.  The grit I am speaking of does not simply involve pushing forward blindly at all costs, but rather pursuing clear goals while overcoming challenges through a combination of hard work, persistence, and flexible decision-making.

Research has increasingly found that grit is an extremely important factor in determining many types of success and longevity, including graduation from high school and college. As noted in the Coolidge quote, those with increased grit and similar characteristics often outperform individuals who may have more natural intellectual and physical abilities.  Widely seen as a malleable characteristic that can help those from impoverished situations outperform what their upbringing would predict, evidence indicates that grit is not simply an inborn trait.  It can be taught.  And taught well.

But in order to teach our children to be gritty, we as parents must first recognize the importance in challenging our kids to extend their perceived limits in all domains. Hopefully none of us will ever end up in the situation that Zamperini did, but no doubt that all of us need grit on a daily basis.  Think of the last 24 hours.  If it was anything like mine, you had to persist in your thoughts through crying children and a noisy commute, continue running further than you wanted to because you knew it was good for you, push through paperwork even though your mood was not a productive one, and finish off work at the end of the day to meet various deadlines before persisting through the nighttime tasks.  In some ways, no matter how convenient our world appears, our life’s work (in whatever domain) is largely a measure of persistence and stick-to-itiveness.

The challenge is that many of our kids are not born with a determined temperament and certainly are growing up in an environment where convenience, not perseverance, claims the throne. Although it is important to recognize that certain personalities are not as conducive to being pushed and challenged, all children need to be taught the value of grit.  On that note, here are a few ideas to help our children be grittier:

  • Teach children to be comfortable in all types of weather. Assuming children are properly clothed, most school age (or even younger) children should be used to playing in all conditions for a reasonable amount of time.
  • Utilize walking and other natural means of transportation for short trips in all seasons. If embraced as challenge, children will learn to be proud of the effort in working through challenges and not quickly seek out warmth and ease.
  • Designate regular breaks from different privileges, especially those of an electronic nature. Children will learn to persist with other activities instead of acting bored if they are taught they can go without what they desire the most.
  • Teach children the art of pushing their limits in small, progressive ways. For children who are getting into various physical activities, such as running, teach children safe, but challenging ways to extend their endurance, such as helping them set small goals when they first complain of being tired (e.g., let’s run to the tree, or do one more lap, and then see how we feel).
  • Delay snacks and rewards until chores have been completely done; teach them how to fast from snacks for a good cause. Teaching children that they can delay satisfying their hunger for minutes and even hours if focused on a particular goal will build early stamina.
  • Teach children to persist in their chores and find value in doing a good job, even when they are tired. For example, in raking leaves, help children understand how to break the large task into small quadrants, and then find joy in the effort and outcome of a finished yard.
  • Be careful not to rescue them from all difficult situations as this does not give them the opportunity to work through challenges on their own. Even for little kids, encourage them to take calculated risks; for older kids, teach them ways to handle conflict without immediately stepping in.

These are just a few of infinite ideas. Underneath them all, though, is the premise that value is not necessarily determined by the immediate outcome or reward, but rather the development of internal strength that will serve them well in the short and long run. In many ways, it is the early underpinning of teaching intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. All of us need a little extrinsic motivation (i.e., external rewards) at times to help sustain behaviors. But when our desire for extrinsic rewards supersedes our intrinsic drive (e.g., doing something because it evokes positive feelings and/or is of clear value), costs to sustain motivation not only increase in dollars and cents, but also in terms of efficiency, organization, and follow through. No matter what conveniences or options become available, grit will always remain irreplaceable. So it’s time to roll up our sleeves, sustain our goals and drives, and even grit our teeth as we take on the challenges of the New Year.

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