True grit

Take control of the stress in your life

In my last column, I wrote about the important contribution positive emotions can have on individual wellbeing, satisfaction and performance in an individual’s personal and professional lives. In this column, I explore another emotion, resiliency or “grit” and discuss why it is important as we confront the turbulent times that seem to so often characterize our lives these days.

About 50 years ago, medical researchers Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe published findings based on studying medical patients to see if exposure to various life events predicted illness.  They created a scale based on “life change units” (i.e., the stressors in one’s life) and found that the higher a person’s score, the more likely he or she was to become ill in the near future. This study remains very relevant today because our world is increasingly complex and stressful. As we all know, stress is a 21st century epidemic. Stress is a major cause of both emotional and physical health problems. 

What can we do to take control of our lives in the face of ever-increasing stress, uncertainty and adversity? Researcher and author Paul Stoltz (author of “Grit: The New Science of What it Takes to Persevere, Flourish, Succeed”) suggests the best place to start is by looking inside ourselves to determine how “gritty” we are in order to develop an adaptive mechanism for confronting the challenges we face. Stoltz defines grit as, “our capacity to dig deep and do whatever it takes – even sacrifice, struggle and suffer – to achieve our most worthy goals in the best ways.” According to Stoltz, the four building blocks of GRIT are:

  • Growth
    Our propensity to seek and consider new ideas, additional alternatives, different approaches and fresh perspectives.
  • Resilience
    Our capacity to respond constructively and ideally make good use of all kinds of adversity.
  • Instinct
    Our gut-level capacity to pursue the right goals in the best and smartest ways.
  • Tenacity
    The degree to which we persist, commit to, stick with and relentlessly go after whatever we choose to achieve.

Stoltz’s basic message is that rather than act passively and let life dictate the choices we make (i.e., playing defense), the better way is an assertive approach in which we take the initiative to make good things happen through effort and perseverance (i.e., playing offense). Rather than getting mired down in a self-defeating loop of feeling sorry for oneself (i.e., “I am bad, dumb, weak, etc.”), Stoltz suggests we need to reframe our capabilities in a positive direction (i.e., “I am good, smart, strong, etc.”). To do so, he suggests we ask the following kinds of questions:

  • Where can I go to get what I need to solve this?
  • How can I respond better or faster?
  • How can I approach this situation smarter or better?
  • How can I unleash another, upgraded best effort toward this goal?

Ultimately, to become gritty, Stoltz suggests we spend time building and developing our capabilities relative to four essential capacities:

  • Emotional
    Our ability to commit and to remain strong, determined, engaged and unwavering in pursuit of our goals.
  • Mental
    Our ability to focus intently, even struggle over long periods of time, in pursuit of our goals.
  • Physical
    Our ability to dig deep, suffer, endure, withstand pain, and persevere in pursuit of our goals.
  • Spiritual
    Our ability to suffer well, to maintain our faith and belief, to remain centered and clear, and to transcend any frustration in pursuit of our goals.

Stoltz’s research suggests that by developing these capacities, we can realize improvement in such areas as: goal magnitude, goal fulfillment, job level, growth mindset, mental agility, effort, engagement and persistence.

Ultimately, by following Stoltz’s GRIT model, we might just come to see that former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden (my all-time leadership hero) was absolutely correct when he observed, “Adversity is your asset!”

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Dr. Daniel A. Schroeder is President/CEO of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC). ODC serves regional and national clients from its offices in suburban Milwaukee. Additionally, he teaches in the Organizational Behavior and Leadership (bachelor’s) and Organization Development (master’s) programs at Edgewood College (Madison, WI), programs that he founded and for which he served as Program Director.

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