We’re told if we can only be a little grittier, a little tougher, we can keep our promises to ourselves, go to the gym more, finish the book, and generally be a better version of ourselves. “Stick-to-it-iveness” can be an excellent predictor of achievement and success for some people. Just look at Michael Phelps, Shaun White, or Lindsey Vonn. Hours upon hours of quiet toil at their sport. And then they win.
Must be the grit, right? Who *wouldn’t* expect these superstars to have grit? But willpower alone is demanding and exhausting. Willpower will likely wane over time and can be harmful to our emotional and physical well-being.
Stress, anxiety and loneliness are increasing globally, and in those circumstances, emphasizing grit can have a negative effect. When you tell someone who is stressed-out to simply work harder, and lean in to their work, you’re telling them to rely on their internal willpower. And when that gives out, they often wind up telling themselves that they aren’t good enough. That’s where a good dose of self-compassion comes in.
David DeStano has been studying the intersection of grit (self-focus) and gratitude (social-focus) for years and has discovered there are some powerful side effects when you combine the two. Grit is your own perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Gratitude is appreciation and thankfulness for others. When you combine the two, you get individual excellence plus generosity and collaboration.
Gratitude is not only an emotion experienced in the past, it’s an emotion that guides future action. The reason you go over to your friends house on a rainy Sunday at 8am to help move their furniture into a truck is because you care for them. Over the years your friend has made numerous gestures of kindness and generosity. You feel grateful. And the reason you want to help is to maintain the strength of your relationships.
In a series of DeStano’s studies, he found that when you feel a sense of gratitude towards someone, you don’t just want to help them in return, you want to help just about anyone – even complete strangers.
In one amusing study, he and his colleagues took a group of graduate students and divided them in pairs. Each pair had to go into a quiet computer room and perform a difficult and tedious task on a computer. It was an awful task that took half an hour.
The two of them were left alone to chat and get to know each other while they performed the task. However, one of the two people in the room was a confederate, secretly an agent for the researchers.
While they both worked on the task, the confederate would finish first. As they were leaving, the computer of the research subject would crash and go blank, ruining all of their work. The confederate would then offer to help “fix” the computer, claiming they had some IT expertise. After working on the computer for several minutes, the confederate would strike a secret set of keys and *surprisingly* reset the computer, saving all of the long and arduous work.
The research subject is grateful of course. And later, when the confederate asks for help on a separate school-related project, the person primed for gratitude was more likely to be helpful, and help for a longer period of time. That’s no surprise.
The surprise came when the researchers introduced complete strangers who then asked for help on a school project. In that circumstance, research subjects primed to be grateful were almost twice as likely to help a complete stranger, and spend more time helping them.
In DeStano’s work, he has discovered that a sense of gratitude is linked to achieving longer term goals because gratitude is a social emotion. It’s a feeling that comes from experiencing, or thinking about, others in our lives. And when we reflect on our gratitude toward others, we reinforce our commitment to them and want to strengthen those bonds.
That sense of community and gratitude then strengthens our own resolve to persevere toward our own goals. It’s a reinforcing cycle.
Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.
Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.