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Got Grit?

Willpower, Grit, Marshmallows, and Cookies

We’ve all started projects or goals roaring with confidence and enthusiasm to only–a week or two later–hit a wall, peter out, and slide back into our old behaviors and habits.

At the same time we also know that one of the key predictors of success in any venture, and in life, is the ability to stick with shit, come hell or high water, and follow through to the end. As Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” He should have added “…every damn day.”

That’s just what you have to do. Show up and do the work of creating life worthy of your potential, on your own terms.

Day in. Day out.

No one else can show up to your life for you, after all. You can’t call in sick to yourself pretending you have the flu when you’re really just hungover, either. I’ve tried.

The ability to do what needs a’doin, to follow through on your commitments to yourself EVEN when you don’t feel like it, is willpower. AKA, “Stick-with-itness,” aka, “Grit.” Whatever you call it, ultimate success lives and dies by it.

The experts (I’m always suspicious of that term) have done exhaustive research on willpower and why some people seem to have more of it than others. Here’s the gist of what those experts say:

We have a finite supply of willpower each day, so it’s important to use yours it wisely. To measure it out.

If, for example, you have a goal to avoid eating carbs today, AND to run three miles before work, AND work a ten hours shift, AND work on your manuscript for three hours after you get home from work … you’ll likely run out of willpower long before you get to that manuscript.

So the argument goes.

A key piece of evidence invariably trotted out to support this hypothesis is the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Which, basically, measured the ability of young children to resist eating marshmallows.

If that doesn’t blind you with science, there are corroborating studies involving cookies and radishes.

Okay. If you can tell that I’m none too impressed, you win a marshmallow. And a cookie. But not a radish.

A kid’s ability or inability to resist marshmallows tells me nothing useful about grit. Not only do I want lessons in grown up grit, but I want them from the those who are exceptionally gritty. The outliers. Because it’s the outliers in almost everything that reveal what we are capable of. That’s the whole damn point. How much willpower COULD I muster as a human being. Not how much willpower might I have, on average, based on a random sample of those who, like me, are easily distracted by cookies.

Soldiers and vets are worthy studies in grit.

So were the pioneers.

Entrepreneurs who work twelve hours a day, six days a week are pretty gritty, by modern standards. And my standards, for that matter.

Prettymuch every parent of a teething baby, from what I can tell, has some superhuman level grit.

Come to think of it, nearly everyone seems to exhibit exceptional grit from time to time. But only when and where and to the degree that those times involve something very important to them.

Something worthy of willpower, you might say.

The fact that we all have these super-grit periods proves that there isn’t some magic marshmallow finite supply of willpower to draw from each day. Willpower doesn’t stop until we do. If you’re still awake, you still got some willpower.

So, no, we surely DO have it in us to avoid carbs all day, AND run three miles before work, AND have a ten hours shift, AND work on that manuscript for three hours after work.

I’m not saying we will, or even that we should. Just that we’re bullshitting ourselves when we say we can’t. And if someone put a gun to your head and demanded you did all these things and more, you’d prove me right.

So here’s what I think: The real issue isn’t one of a deficit of willpower so much as an excess of comfort.

We’re pampered.

We’re coddled.

We have what some shrinks might call, “Low Frustration Tolerance” (more honestly called, “Short-term Hedonism”).

In short, we’re grown ups who can no more resist cookies than toddlers can resist marshmallows.

By pointing this out I’m not playing a neo-Spartan, either. I love modern civilization and all its creature comforts. But, because I’ve exhausted my willpower to formulate another complete sentence . . .

Just sayin.’

Maybe we could exercise our delayed gratification muscles a bit more.

Maybe we could experiment with sticking with our project a wee bit longer this time.

Maybe we could write one more paragraph tonight.

Maybe we could walk an additional block tomorrow.

Maybe we can NOT let ourselves off the hook so easy so often.

Maybe we can treat that big goal like a a teething baby soldier pioneer who is starting her own business. Or something like that.

As something Important.

Something worthy of willpower.

Human beings are a gritty bunch. We just need to use it. 

So what say we put down those cookies, and get to it?

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