Growth, Grit, and Going for the Gold
Let’s talk about grit for a moment. I don’t mean grits, those delicious little morsels of cornmeal or hominy-based porridge (that is another blog post entirely), or the type of grit comprised of tiny pieces of stone or sand. I’m talking about grit, as in: the point where fortitude and focus coincide; the marriage of phenomenal willpower and clear-cut objectives; the resolve and resilience to continually follow-through and reach one’s goals…grit!
For many, the concept of grit conjures images of Navy Seals, Ironman triathletes, Michael Jordan battling the flu yet still dropping 38 points in under 45 minutes to help the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. What does not typically spring to mind is an eleven-year-old girl passing her math test or practicing three measures of music repeatedly. But quite often, it is the champions of these unassuming daily battles who display more courage, perseverance, and motivation than they are given credit for.
Researcher Angela Duckworth is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on grit. Her TED talk on the subject is inspiring, thought-provoking, and definitely worth six minutes of your time. But even she admits, if there is one thing we know for sure about grit, it is that we really do not know nearly enough about how to encourage and foster it in our children. While science has not yet been able to provide us with a tremendous amount of insight into exactly how to cultivate grit, there are a number of studies that help pinpoint the characteristics and factors attributed to those who show extreme resilience and steadfastness in overcoming adversity and difficult challenges.
One thing nearly all undeniably gritty individuals have in common is a clearly identified long-term goal that they are resolutely pursuing. Goals can be a very powerful motivating force, but this can also present a problem when trying to instill a sense of gritty determination in our children. How can we encourage the pursuit of long-term goals when it seems so many young people don’t have a solid understanding of who they are or what they want to accomplish in life? One minute my teenager is convinced they want to be a psychologist, and the next thing I know they are practicing their drawing skills to pursue a career as a tattoo artist. I’ll admit, sometimes I don’t even know exactly who or what I want to be when I grow up. (I’m still reeling from the fact that I am no longer a Toys R Us kid.)
In all seriousness, even adults struggle with setting and reaching both short-term and long-term goals. Conversely, some of us are so driven and focused on doing more, achieving more, and being more that our blind persistence can be more detrimental than beneficial. The “all or nothing” mindset, the desire to have it all, do it all, and be it all quite often leads to burnout in adults (especially parents); imagine what it does to our children. So, perhaps the answer to helping our children succeed at whatever endeavors they pursue lies in not attempting to make them grittier, but rather in helping them realize the value in nurturing a growth mindset.
I doubt anyone would question the overwhelming amount of grit it takes to be an Olympic athlete, let alone one of the most record-breaking, accomplished, decorated gymnasts of all times, a gymnast who has literally done things no other gymnast has ever done. But recently, when Simone Biles made the difficult choice to prioritize her mental health and withdraw from the 2021 Summer Olympics, there were many individuals who simply could not criticize her quickly or loudly enough. Thankfully, there were equally as many (if not more) people who applauded the athlete for doing what was best for her personally.
I vividly remember being overwhelmingly inspired while watching American Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug push through a severe ankle injury to continue to perform one final vault exercise in the 1996 Summer Olympics. Years later, driven by a similar sense of perseverance, fortitude, and an uncontrollable need to prove my doubters wrong, I suffered a fractured coccyx during an international distance triathlon but mustered through to complete the course. This hardcore, gritty-girl mentality not only put an end to my triathlon career, but has resulted in life-long, daily pain, something I would certainly never wish on my own child, or anyone else’s child for that matter.
Now, re-watching that video of then-18-year-old Ms. Strug elicits totally different feelings. As a former competitive athlete, I admire her resolve. As the mother of a teenager, I am mortified. Keri Strug was never able to compete again. Her "victory" essentially wrecked any future career as an athlete that she might have had. Yes, I want my child to succeed. I absolutely want them to realize exceptional, phenomenal accomplishments. Of course, I hope my child finds their passion and thrives in their chosen pursuits (be it as a tattoo artist, psychologist, or anything else that brings them joy). I also hope they understand that it is ok to take a break. They should prioritize their physical and mental health above all else. And they are exceptional, whether they win any awards and receive special recognition for their accomplishments or not. Especially since these are lessons I learned quite late in life, myself.
That is why I would encourage everyone to teach their children the importance of cultivating a growth mindset as opposed to instilling the need to simply be gritty. In short, a growth mindset is the belief that talent, abilities, and characteristics can progress through a number of factors such as: hard work, help from others, making good decisions, and continually putting forth efforts to improve oneself in all aspects of life. To me, Keri Strug exemplifies grit, whereas Simone Biles personifies a growth mindset. Both young ladies won gold and the hearts of viewers around the world. The biggest difference is one athlete was pushed to the brink by her coaches while the other was encouraged and supported by her team to do what was best for her. Naturally, we all want the best for our children and we are certainly their most ardent coaches. So, let’s help them go for the gold in regards to their growth mindset. That way, even if they fall short of their goals, they have the wherewithal to know they are still winners!