The Psychology of Grit

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on June 04, 2021 # Lifestyle

Wheelchair on trackGrit is one of our most beloved and celebrated virtues of character. Grit is deeply ingrained in our national mythology, from George Washington to John Wayne. I’m a big promoter of grit myself. I am constantly saying to people who have recently become paralyzed or otherwise traumatized: “You have more grit than you think you do.” Grit equals passion, perseverance, resilience, stick-to-itiveness, and courage. It’s the opposite of giving up, throwing in the towel. How many fathers tell their Little Leaguers: “Just stick to it, son, and keep the bat level. You’ll learn to hit home runs in no time.” It’s a mantra preached to their children by most upwardly mobile Americans. It was certainly firmly implanted in my head by a single mother raising four children on her own. Grit is very good to call upon in problematic situations like becoming paralyzed. Just look at Christopher Reeve, a paragon of grit.

On the other hand, if we set out on a course of action and it isn’t going well, grit impels us to double down and push ahead. In his #1 New York Times best-selling book, “Think Again,” psychologist Adam Grant calls this pattern “escalation of commitment.” Entrepreneurs spend investor money on doomed projects, he notes, and politicians send soldiers to unwinnable wars like the one in Afghanistan. No one likes to say, “That’s it. Time to reconsider or quit.” It’s damn near un-American, not to mention a big blow to the ego.

Within this escalation of commitment lies the dark side of grit. Doubling down and ever striving is not always the smart choice. Grant reports that gritty people are more likely to overplay their hands in roulette, and gritty mountaineers are more likely to die on expeditions. In the famous Hemingway short story, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Macomber runs from a charging lion and is deemed by all a coward. No one applauds him for his discretion. He lacks grit.

Adam Grant tells the story of an out-of-control Montana mountain fire raging up a steep hill in 1949. Most of the firefighters on-site, a gritty bunch hauling their equipment on their backs, tried to outrun the fire to the top of the hill. That’s what they were taught to do. Twelve of them were sadly engulfed by flames and passed away.

The foreman of the group did not run. He did something strange and unprecedented. He dashed up the hill a short distance and started lighting the grass on fire with matches. The others thought he was crazy and kept frantically scooting up the incline. He was doing something never attempted at that time. He burnt through an area of grass, put a wet handkerchief over his face, and lay face down on the burnt-out patch. He had built an “escape fire.” The big fire blew right past this barren area with no fuel, and the foreman survived.

Grit is good but, to quote Grant, “there’s a fine line between heroic persistence and foolish stubbornness.” It takes more sense and probably more courage to, say, quit trying to be an actor in Hollywood than keep showing up for auditions and being repeatedly rejected. Few gritty would-be actors would make that choice. It is a business of constant rejection, they are constantly told, and all it takes is one successful audition. They were “born to be an actor,” they’ll proclaim. They have adopted a mental process psychologists call “identity foreclosure.” They have closed their minds to alternative pursuits. It’s “act or die” when it really is “act or do something else that might turn out to be even more fulfilling.”

Some people dream too small – they resign themselves to running the family hardware business. Some dream too big or get stuck on a dream. They may be failing and not dare admit that to themselves. They may even succeed at it, hell-bent and gritty as the Duke, only to find themselves unfulfilled and unhappy.

As I have mentioned before, paralysis actually woke me up from a Hollywood dream at which I was clearly failing at the time. I was writing “entertainment” specials and award shows and I hated it – and knew I hated it – but I was too cathected to making it big to see that reality. If I had not been marginalized by virtue of becoming disabled, I’d probably kept hustling for such mediocre writing gigs – and hating myself all the more for missing out on the big Hollywood jackpot. I was just working to work, waiting for the day they slipped a note under my door saying, “Your services are no longer needed – take your pension and leave.”

If I had summoned the grit and determination required to stay that course to nowhere, you wouldn’t be reading, for what it’s worth, this blog or any of the other books or blogs I’ve written in the last two decades. I can tell you, it’s worth a lot to me.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.