Most of us can relate to the feelings of frustration of setting a new years or other resolution and sticking to it for a while until something unexpected occurs. An illness; extra work; a change of plans, and we put the resolution on pause just for a bit and then never manage to get it started again until next year rolls up. I always thought that I needed more self-control, but new research is showing that I needed a different thing altogether.
Most people have heard the old saying from Laozi that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This statement is a fantastic analogy to all things that we wish to achieve in life, from doing well in school to achieving a childhood dream.
But what are the traits that you need to take that single step? Are they the same traits that are needed to complete a journey of a thousand miles? I always thought that it was the one trait that was required: self-control.
But a few months ago I watched a fantastic TED talk by Angela Duckworth on self-control and grit. I had never heard of grit as a character trait and I have been trying to find more about it since then.
Luckily many of Prof. Duckworth’s articles on this subject are available from her university website, where the topics are discussed in greater detail.
So what is grit exactly and how is it different from self-control?
It seems that they share many similarities, but self-control is more short term oriented while grit is more concerned with things that take years or even decades.
Self-control is more about having a good day, taking that first step. Grit is more about achieving those lifelong dreams and finishing that thousand mile journey. More specifically self control is a determinant for everyday success while grit is a determinant for extraordinary achievement.
Self-control according to Duckworth is about how to deal with a number of competing desires or objectives: for example, I want to write this post but I am tired and need to relax by watching some Youtube videos for a while. Being able to choose the task that will give less immediate pleasure but more long term benefit is self-control.
In order to provide a good definition of grit, a new goal framework, called the hierarchical goal framework, was developed that is quite common sense. It is described as such:
We have actions that we can take that will help us to complete certain goals or objectives, and we arrange them in a hierarchy. We have a few big goals (become a world champion tennis player) and in order to achieve that there are a number of smaller goals (master the forehand, master the backhand, compete in high level tournaments) and in order to achieve each of those there are a number of smaller goals (work on wrist flexibility, work on endurance, practice daily), and so on.
That definition makes sense. I have a to-do list, and each task is broken into a number of smaller tasks.
With this new framework, grit is defined as our ability to deal with setbacks on any of these goals. If one of our big goals becomes more difficult or cannot be done, what do we do? People with grit overcome these obstacles by creating alternative and achievable goals or other means. They do not give up.
If our aim is to get fit in the gym and we get an injury, people with low grit are more likely to put the goal on hold, and likely doom it, while those with grit will find ways to exercise around the injury.
As an example for Muslims, we know that we can tell ourselves not to eat that second slice of cake (self-control), or to get up before dawn for fajr prayer.
But that is a whole different ball game to fasting all of Ramadan, especially in a delightfully hot summer as all you Northern Hemisphere peeps recently had to do! That requires more that just self-control, it requires grit!
Again with praying five times a day. To put an act like that into practice over decades requires serious grit! So in a sense many of the practices of Islam are training us to get a bit grittier!
So that’s all well and good, but how do we improve our grit? How can we use this magical trait to help us achieve all our lifelong dreams? Unfortunately there don’t seem to be many answers yet. Grit is a new area of research, and a consensus on the results will likely be years if not decades away.
But one thing that the authors noted is that those whose lifelong goals aligned with their passions had higher grit in accomplishing them. So it seems the trick is to choose goals that you really really really want to achieve. That desire will help you to push through those tough times.
Another thing that comes to mind to me is to not make these things optional. Just as with fasting and salat, for most of us if we didn’t HAVE to do them we probably wouldn’t.
But we know we HAVE to fast all day in ramadan and pray five times a day and so we do it. Even when we are tired. Even when we are unwell (to an extent). Even when we are busy.
So don’t make these things an option. If you want to learn a language, spend 15 minutes a day on it, every day, rain or shine or snow or anything else. Don’t let the thought of “I can’t do this today” even enter in your head. If we can do that, then hopefully we can all start progressing towards our lifelong goals, and finish that thousand mile journey, God willing!