Getting what you want takes mental toughness

By By Lesley Rotchford
James Michelfelder

Picture yourself out for a run with a big hill looming before you. You could turn around and skip it. After all, you've already logged plenty of miles. Or you could channel your strength and energy and take that mother on. If you choose to charge over the hill, chances are you've got grit-the tenacity and stamina to work hard in pursuit of a goal, despite obstacles or setbacks. While talent and skills are important for getting ahead, grit is actually the biggest predictor of how successful you'll ultimately be, research shows. "When it comes to achieving the goals that matter most, grit trumps talent, smarts, privilege, and luck," says leading researcher Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., the author of Grit: The New Science of What It Takes to Persevere, Flourish, Succeed. "Anything worth accomplishing in life is tough. Without grit, you'll never get there."

Being gritty means that you're going after the things you want, obstacles be damned. So it makes sense that fit people are grittier than the average person, according to research. "People who work out regularly usually have more energy and discipline and more experience with pain and sacrifice, and they put more effort into their goals," Stoltz explains.

Study after study shows that grit is a powerful force. Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has analyzed the trait in different populations using a questionnaire she developed called the Grit Scale. She found that gritty West Point cadets were more likely than their peers to complete their first summer training, that gritty sales representatives were more likely to stay at their jobs than their colleagues whose grittiness scores were lower, and that gritty high school juniors were more likely to graduate the following year than other students. "Grit is what predicts achievement in challenging situations," Duckworth says.

What Grit Does for You

The great news is that grit is something you can develop over time. While your genetic makeup does play a role in how gritty you eventually become, so does the way your parents raised you, Duckworth says. If you watched your mom study for her MBA after work every night for two years, or you cheered your dad as he competed in 100-mile bike races on weekends, you probably adopted their determination and perseverance. (Turns out, there's a lot of science behind who's naturally motivated and who isn't.)

Gritty people want to excel, so they tend to immerse themselves in the goals they're trying to achieve. They know that to be successful at something, whether it's skiing or interior design, requires a lot of time, hard work, and passion. "People with grit tend to have one career path and one hobby because there's just not enough time to practice other things to the point of doing them extremely well," Duckworth explains. Instead of multitasking, they put their full energy into a few things they really want to accomplish. And they're healthier for it. According to a new study from Wellington College and Research Schools International, students who have a lot of grit report getting more sleep and eating a healthier diet than those who are less gritty. "One possible explanation is that maintaining a healthy lifestyle enables people to sustain their effort over the long term," says study author Christina Hinton, an adjunct lecturer on education at Harvard.

How to Grow Your Grit

Whatever your starting point, you can build more grit anytime. "When properly exercised and trained, grit can be strengthened just like a muscle," Stoltz says. Try these six key strategies to help fortify yours.

1. Find a goal that you're truly passionate about.

Do you love to swim and bike? Then think about training for a triathlon. If your heart is in it, your grit will intensify, and you'll be much more likely to succeed. Or choose a goal that gives you a sense of purpose-becoming a yoga instructor or launching a healthy eating blog, for instance. That can be especially motivating, because you see the effect your work has on other people. "Getting positive feedback is incredibly inspiring," says K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida State University and a coauthor of Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. (Still can't grow your grit? Here are 5 reasons your motivation may be missing.)

2. Be clear about What you want.

To attain a goal, it needs to be long-term, specific, and challenging enough that you can work for it and measure your improvement over time. For example, if your goal is good health, "aim for something precise like 'I want to be in the top 10 percent in overall health for my age group,'" Stoltz advises. That gives you something concrete to strive for, which builds grit.

3. Surround yourself with gritty people.

"We spontaneously model the behaviors of those around us," Duckworth says. "When you join a team, you gravitate to its culture." If you want to become a distance runner but have a hard time getting your miles in, join a training group that meets at 6:30 a.m. every day to pound the pavement. The members' work ethic will rub off on you.

4. Give yourself permission to fail.

Failure typically sends your confidence and morale plummeting. But here's the thing about truly gritty people: They aren't discouraged when they come up short. In fact, "they're not only undaunted by adversity, but they a real so fueled by it," Stoltz says. Failure becomes their motivation. Take Michael Jordan, who tried out for the varsity basketball team his sophomore year of high school but was placed on the junior varsity team instead, only to go on to become the greatest NBA player ever. Or writer J. K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter manuscript was reportedly rejected by 12 publishers before it became a huge best seller. Not giving up led them to greatness.

OK, so how can you learn to embrace failure? Keep telling yourself that ability is not a fixed quantity, Ericsson says, and that with practice and dedication, you can evolve and eventually become excellent at doing something you once found difficult. Science has proved that this is true: When British researchers scanned the brains of people training to become London cab drivers and then did so again four years later, they found that an area called the posterior hippocampus had grown significantly larger in the cabbies than in a control group. "Spending years memorizing streets had enlarged the section of the brain linked to memory," Ericsson explains. "This shows that the brain adapts to practice." (Still not convinced? Here's more reasons why having a workout buddy is better for your fitness.)

5. See setbacks as opportunities.

Gritty people appreciate the work they put in on the way to reaching a goal, not just attaining the milestone itself, says sport psychologist Gloria Petruzzelli, Ph.D. For them, setbacks become chances to learn something and are simply part of the process of mastering a skill. To help cultivate grit when things go wrong, ask yourself, "What am I finding out about myself in this moment?" and "How can I use this situation to shape myself for the better?" Petruzzelli suggests.

6. Define yourself as someone who doesn't give up.

If you're inclined to blow off Spinning class after a hectic day at work, remind yourself that you're the kind of person who honors her commitments, end of story. Or if you're tempted to throw in the towel on your long-term goal of becoming 10 percent healthier, tell yourself, "I am someone who sticks with things, period," Petruzzelli advises. Thinking of yourself as a gritty powerhouse will help you believe-and achieve.

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