Let’s talk about Rudy. Yes, the 5’6” Notre Dame football player from the movie, Rudy.
The guy quite simply worked harder than anybody else on the team. He busted his ass in practice everyday for what must have seemed like an eternity. He got made fun of, he got hit harder than he knew was possible, and he the coaches let him know that he would never play in a game.
And yet, Rudy showed up day in and day out. Not only did he show up, but he played as hard as he could every time he got the chance to walk between the lines.
One day, with :15 seconds to go in the last game of his career, Rudy got the opportunity to play three plays. On the final play of the game, Rudy sacked the opposing quarterback and was carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders as the crowd cheered his name.
Any sane person would know that it’s just a scene from a movie until they found out it’s based on a true story of a guy who just wouldn’t give up. Now he’s down in history as one of two players to ever be carried off the field by his teammates in Notre Dame football history.
The moral I take away from Rudy’s story has everything to do with some intriguing academic research on grit.
To succeed in anything, you have to have grit in three different stages. In the first stage, the grit to get good (or even better, great) at something is the battle you face. The second stage is all about leveraging your skills and experience gained in getting good to build a body of work. Having the grit to hear no until you hear yes in response to your body of work makes up the third stage.
Each stage is a crucial step in the process of reaching your goals, and each will require equally hard work with varying levels of emotional challenge along the way.
Have the Grit to Become
Grit is all about taking a long-term view to the things you care about. In this stage of the process, it’s all about caring enough to get good, or great, at a skill, developing expertise, and building the connections necessary to continue to be good over time.
Your skills are those things that nobody else can take away from you. They are irreplaceable in the world and give you a kind of currency in the world of work, which Cal Newport refers to as career capital. Typically, we think of building skills in a kind of T-shape. The middle of the T is where we go in-depth on a core skillset, around which we’ll build a variety of expertise. That variety of expertise makes up the top part of the T, or the breadth of connection, experience, and expertise.
At Living for Monday, our core skillset is (and will continue to be) built around content creation. Whether blog posts, podcast episodes, courses, or events, our core activities revolve around creating great content. Now, to execute, we’ll also need to be pretty good at things like UX and UI design, video and audio editing, presentation skills, $0 budget marketing, and community building. All of these skills will serve to augment our core skill of producing great content creation.
The key for us will be our ability and willingness to stick with it as our ability reaches the level of our taste. I love Ira Glass’ (host of This American Life) quote on this:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass (quote sourced from GoodReads.com)
Have the Grit to Build a Body of Work
Along the way (it has to be along the way, because you never stop learning, growing, and getting better), you have to leverage the skills, experience, and connections you’re building into a body of work. Without something to show your process of getting good, you might as well not be getting good at all. If you’re just good in your own head, you’re hiding from the real work.
Yeah, you might suck as a writer, but you should still publish that blog post today. Yeah, you might not have any idea how to create a website, but the sooner you create one, the sooner you can get better.
I was looking up some academic research today and noticed a trend amongst the way research is produced over time. At first, a newly minted Phd is just listed as a co-author, usually with the professor they studied under. Over time, they move up on the author list until eventually they’re the lead author on a study and well-respected for their own work.
It’s probably annoying to publish that first paper and have your name listed everywhere at “Et al.” But unless you start by being recognized as a nobody, you’ll never get to be the lead author on a paper.
Once you’ve committed yourself to being
good great, you know that every project, piece of art, or work that you put into the world is just a step on the path. It puts so much less pressure on each piece because you know it makes up one big puzzle. Yeah, you might get laughed off stage now, but when someone checks out your body of work 5 years from now and you’re still in the game, you’ll get the last laugh. And they’ll get to see just how good you got along the way. It’s that process of closing the gap by producing a body of work that impresses people.
Have the grit to build a body of work.
Have the Grit to Hear No Until You Hear Yes
This stage is all about hearing the feedback and criticism while still maintaining your belief in your ability to get through the dip, close the gap between taste/ability, and become great at whatever it is you want to do.
The reality is that before you’re great, people are going to let you know that you’re just not that good. They’ll play to the imposter syndrome we all face every day, and you’ll want to listen to them. You might even want to quit. When you think you want to quit, read this:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
– Theodore Roosevelt
You have to ask yourself: is the person dishing this criticism even worth listening to? Are they great at something? Have they built their own body of work and subjected it to the criticism of others? If not, do I care? Do they matter? (Not do they matter as a human being, but do they matter as a critic.)
Perhaps the greatest key to this is knowing who you’re trying to please with your body of work. Do you have an audience? A customer base? A mom or dad? A boss? A mentor, mastermind group, or peer group? Who matters when it comes to your work? Who is it for? Those are the people you are getting better for (unless you’re just getting better for the sheer personal pleasure of reaching your potential, which is also valid and worthy of effort).
Listen for why the people that matter say what they say — notice I say why they say what they say, not “what they say.” The cliche here goes back to Henry Ford talking about horses and cars. ‘If I had listened to them, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.” Or Steve Jobs, “If I listened to customers, they would say they want a smaller Discman.” Or whatever.
It doesn’t matter what resonates with you, the point is to listen for why people are giving you the feedback they’re giving. What are they experiencing in that moment which has caused them to give feedback? How can you address the “why” in a way that tests your hypotheses until you truly please the people that matter?
Remember, it’s always about the work. If you’re doing work in a way that reflects your values, and people criticize “you,” the person, ignore them. They have problems you can’t deal with. Hearing “no” in it’s many forms is terrifying, but when it’s about the work, that means you can improve and go back for more.
Have the grit to hear no until you hear yes.
It’s a Cycle
This is iterative. It never stops. You’ll work on becoming great at something, you produce a body of work along the way, you listen for why people that matter say what they say about the work (it’s always about the work). You incorporate why the people that matter say what they say into your mindset and approach as you continue getting better. You keep producing ever better work that closes the gap between taste and ability.
Somewhere along the way, you get good enough that you can make a living doing the thing you care most about (which coincidentally, is a feeling that usually comes from getting good). But it all starts with grit. The grit to become great. The grit to produce a body of work. The grit to hear no until you hear yes.
If you don’t care enough to follow this path doing what you’re doing, why are you doing it? And can you live with yourself if you settle for cruise control without ever becoming great at anything? That’s a question you can answer for yourself, but for me it’s an unequivocal and resounding, “No.” I want to be great. So I do the work. I try my best to show grit. I hope you will too.
Comments? Where has grit landed you in the past? How does grit play into your current pursuits?