We all want to be better than we are today.
And that often requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, even when you don’t feel like it. It requires getting back up and trying again and again when you fail. It requires sticking with a path long enough to see it through.
In short, becoming a better man requires grit.
The concept of grit has become well-known in recent years, due to the efforts of psychologist Angela Duckworth, who has spent her career trying to figure out what makes people gritty and how they can intentionally foster and nurture this quality in their own lives. In her book on the subject, she defines grit as “the intersection of passion and perseverance.”
So develop a combination of enthusiasm and determination, and you’re on your way to living a life of flinty resolve, right?
Well, in his book The Art of the Impossible, peak performance expert Steven Kotler argues that while this equation is a good start, grit is actually more multifaceted than that. Through years of studying and interviewing the world’s highest-level athletes, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, etc., Kotler has found that grit can helpfully be broken down into six different types, each of which must be trained independently, and mastered thoroughly.
Below we highlight these six types of grit and offer brass tacks actions you can take to develop them yourself.
1. The Grit to Persevere
This is the grit we’re all familiar with. This is the Duckworth type of grit. The grit to persevere is the ability to persist in a task or big goal, for extended periods, whether conditions are fair or foul.
According to Kotler, the grit to persevere is made up of three psychological sub-traits: 1) willpower, 2) mindset, and 3) passion:
Willpower equates to self-control, and it’s easy to see why developing this quality would be necessary in developing the grit of perseverance. Willpower allows us to direct our thoughts, emotions, and attention in intentional ways. We use our willpower to stay focused on the task at hand, delay gratification, stifle impulses (saying no to dessert; resisting the urge to hit the snooze button), and push ourselves further than we’re otherwise inclined to go (running an extra mile; working an extra hour).
We’ve written extensively about willpower, and I highly recommend you check those articles out. But below are a few suggestions on how to increase your quantity of this quality:
Do your most difficult tasks first. While scientific research has been mixed as to whether willpower is a finite resource, everyone knows from lived experience that it decidedly is. The more we exercise self-control for one task, the less we have for others. So to ensure you have the willpower to accomplish your most important, most difficult tasks, tackle them at the start of your day when your proverbial willpower meter is full.
Limit your choices. When you make a choice, you use a bit of willpower. So structure your life so you have to make fewer decisions. Create habits; set up systems; follow routines; automate little things so you have more energy for big ones.
Do hard things. Willpower is sort of like a muscle. Just like a muscle, it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Doing hard things increases your capacity for doing hard things. What’s more, willpower is strengthened not only by tackling big goals but also by doing anything that gets your brain out of its comfort zone — using your left hand instead of your right (if you’re a righty), working on your posture throughout the day, and trying to stop swearing have all been shown to increase the overall stamina of your willpower.
Mindset is about whether we think our actions will result in improvement or not. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s famous research has shown that two types of mindsets exist: fixed mindset and growth mindset.
People with a fixed mindset believe that talent is innate and no amount of effort will help someone get better.
People with a growth mindset believe that talents and abilities can be developed through hard work and feedback.
Gritty people tend to have a growth mindset; they keep persisting in a task or goal because they believe that their efforts affect the outcome.
To develop your growth mindset, Kotler recommends listing out all the skills you have right now, big or small. Can you touch-type? Cook a mean omelet? Code?
After you’ve got your list, look over its entries and deconstruct each skill. How did you learn that skill? How bad were you when you first started? How long did it take for you to get decent at it?
Write down your answers. Contemplate the universals underlying your personal learning process. Recognize that you do have the capacity to grow; you did it before and you can do it again.
Willpower/self-control/discipline isn’t enough for grit. If you’re always hanging on to something white-knuckled, if all your efforts feel like a grind, you’re not going to stick with something.
You need animating juice in an endeavor. You need a level of easy, intrinsic motivation. You need passion.
While Duckworth separates passion and perseverance into two separate dynamics, Kotler argues that passion is part of perseverance; it plays an essential role in determining how motivated you will be to keep going. “Passion doesn’t make us gritty,” he says, “Passion makes us able to tolerate all the negative emotions produced by grit.”
While passion is a word that gets thrown around a lot, what it actually is remains pretty nebulous in most people’s minds. Kotler offered a great, graspable definition in our podcast interview with him: “Passion is what follows curiosity. Passion is nothing more than the intersection of multiple curiosities, plus plying at that intersection and producing a series of wins.”
Curiosity generates a neurobiological cocktail of norepinephrine and dopamine which lends you natural drive and excitement. It gives you, Kotler says, “focus for free.” When you’re working on something that genuinely interests you, you don’t have to flagellate yourself forward; you’re intrinsically into it. When you’ve got passion, it can be hard to stop working.
So when you’re picking goals to go after, and the path to take to get to those goals, pick things you inherently want to do. Stuff you like. There’s more than one way to lose weight, exercise, structure a routine, have a career, and so on; find the route that suits you, and your unique personality and interests, best. As writer David Epstein puts it, “What looks like grit, is often fit.”
How do you figure out what practices and types of work you’re passionate about? It’s a long-term process. You have to experiment with different things. Try new activities. You’re bound to find something that lights a fire in you.
2. The Grit to Control Your Thoughts
The biggest critic we typically have in any great endeavor is the critic living in our minds. That little voice in your head will tell you to give up when you face a setback. It will tell you that your efforts are pointless and you could spend your time doing something else. When we listen to those negative thoughts, our stress levels increase, bringing on more negative thoughts. It’s a vicious cycle that we have to break if we want to be successful.
Kotler recommends three ways to develop the grit to control your thoughts:
Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Our thoughts become our reality, so we want them to be expansive and growth-oriented. We’ve got a complete guide to shutting down the negative voice in your head here. Once you quiet that negative voice, you’ll want to replace it with a positive one, and part of how you do that is to:
Cultivate gratitude. While the standard way to develop a more thankful mindset is to keep a gratitude journal, I’ve found a practice that I think is superior: the Japanese art of Naikan.
Practice mindfulness meditation. Through a daily practice of meditation, you learn to be aware of your thoughts, but not reactive or judgemental about them. You come to see that there’s a gap between the moment you have a thought and the moment your brain attaches an emotion to that thought. In that gap, you can decide how you want to respond.
3. The Grit to Master Fear
“If you’re interested in impossible, then you’re interested in challenge, and if you’re interested in challenge, you’re going to be scared,” Kotler writes.
Thus to do great things, we must develop the grit to master fear.
According to Kotler, all top performers feel fear. It’s what they do with it that separates them from the rest of us. Properly harnessed, fear can be a source of energy, something that heightens our abilities and attention — another form of “focus for free.” It can also be an existential arrow, pointing us towards things that may seem scary, but will unlock our fullest potential.
Learning to harness fear in this way really comes down to exposure: regularly force yourself to take risks, building up your tolerance over time; notice how fear manifests in your body without freaking out about it; learn to welcome the energy-producing, excitement-generating feeling, and even relish it.
For more insights on how to use fear as fuel, check out our interview with fear expert Patrick Sweeney:
4. The Grit to Be Your Best When You’re at Your Worst
When Kotler interviewed chess champion, martial artist, and learning guru Josh Waitzkin about grit, he told Kotler, “The grit that matters most is learning to be your best when you’re at your worst. This is really the difference between elite-level performers and everyone else.”
The way you develop this kind of grit is to train in practice under circumstances that are more difficult than the ones you’re likely to face in actuality. By doing so, you gain the ability to keep your head if things do get that bad, while also developing a sense of self-assurance that elevates your performance in not-as-strenuous circumstances. As Kotler told me, “So much of peak performance is about confidence at a really subtle level. A lot of the grit skills is not just about the grit that you’re building up, the ability to persist, but it’s the confidence that you get from the grit that may even be the bigger deal.”
Navy SEALs, for example, may never be pushed as hard on their actual missions as they are during BUD/S, but by going through that crucible, they know that should the SHTF, they can continue to operate at a high level.
When Kotler prepares to give a speech, he always does “one run-though from hell. I pick a time when I haven’t gotten enough sleep, have already worked for ten hours, and put in a heavy training session at the gym. After all that, I take my dogs into the backcountry, hike up a mountain, and give my speech along the way. If I can sound coherent scrambling up cliffs, I can sound coherent under any conditions.”
Even when I’m feeling tired, unmotivated, or sick-but-not-that-sick, I still try to get my workouts in. By showing myself that I can still train at my best when I’m feeling, if not my literal worst, then off my game, I gain greater confidence for my “normal” workouts and for competitive meets. Another example of building this kind of grit in terms of physical fitness, would be doing your training runs for a marathon in the heat of the afternoon, even though your race will be in the cool of the morning; knowing you can run under even tougher conditions, will give you a psychological boost going into the event.
5. The Grit to Train Your Weaknesses
In general, we belong to the “Work on your strengths, instead of your weaknesses” school of personal development. When you magnify your strengths, they overwhelm and compensate for your weaknesses, mitigating their potential detriment and significance. Rather than spending your energy pulling out noxious plants from your life, spend more time tending to flowers that will simply choke the weeds off with their growth.
But if you really want to take something to the next level, your weaknesses do have to be directly addressed.
When Kotler interviewed top performers, he discovered that they all worked on their flaws; they were only as good as the weakest link in their chain of skills and abilities.
But training your weaknesses is really hard: First, it’s hard to figure out what our weaknesses are because we’re biased to overlook our own inadequacies. It hurts to see that we’re not very good at something, so we try to ignore our shortcomings.
Second, even when we recognize our weaknesses, as they tend to be, as Kotler puts its, “the stuff we like the least,” we’re not very motivated to work on them. Passion won’t help here; you’ll have to white-knuckle the effort.
To get a better idea of what your weaknesses are, ask your friends and colleagues: “What do you think are my three biggest weaknesses?”
Since each individual has their own bias about you, Kotler recommends asking multiple people from different domains in your life. Then look over these lists, find a common theme among them, and pick that weakness as the one to start working on.
Sticking with this weakness-work will require managing your expectations. Kotler notes that many people have unrealistic expectations about training their shortcomings. It won’t just take a week or two. It may take months or years. As Kotler advises, “Learn to love slow progress.”
6. The Grit to Recover
At first blush, recovering might not seem related to grit. Taking it easy? How is that hard?
But think about your own life, and the things you love to do. If you love your job, it can be really difficult to take a vacation. If you love running, taking a break for even a few weeks to let an injury heal can feel devastating.
Especially among driven, top-performer-types — who thrive on action, being in the thick of things, pushing themselves, getting things done — taking time off to recover can create restlessness and anxiety. Breaks can feel like a waste of time.
But constantly running full-steam ahead is what ends up being the biggest time-waster of all: without recovery, your momentum and motivation will start to flag and the quality of your work will decline; get seriously burnt-out, and you may run into emotional/psychological issues and physical maladies and injuries that prevent you from ever reaching your goals.
While it can be truly difficult to prioritize recovery, taking the time to regularly sharpen the saw in the short-term will keep you in the game in the long-term.
The best kind of recovery, Kotler says, is active recovery. Passive vegging out doesn’t truly rejuvenate you. Instead, look to activities that engage your mind, body, and senses: taking walks, sitting in the sauna, soaking in a hot tub, meditating, pursuing a relaxing-but-engaging hobby, and so on. Experiment to find what recharges your personal batteries.
A universal type of recovery that everyone needs, though, is sleep; have the determination to make getting a good night’s rest sacrosanct, and you’ll arise each morning ready to train the five other types of grit, and put them to use in forging ahead on your highest aspirations.
For more tips on unlocking peak performance, listen to my podcast with Steven Kotler: