How can we develop “grit” during this pandemic? Psychologist Angela Duckworth tells us how

In the May 5th episode of the online show, “Harvard Business Review Quarantined” hosts Adi Ignatius (editor) and Joshua Macht (publisher), aimed to address how entrepreneurs can cope with the Covid-19 crisis. They interviewed psychologist Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania) on the topic of “how to find your grit in a crisis” like the 2020 pandemic.

Duckworth is best known for her 2013 TED Talk, “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance.” It received 20 million views and was followed by a bestselling book of the same name (published in 2016). Duckworth also runs the non-profit organization, “Character Lab,” that researches practices that develop human character.

Duckworth commented at the outset of the show that some people fault themselves for having sensory responses to stressful experiences in pandemic times. (For instance, we may find that our heart rates are elevated, our sleep disrupted and that we are hyper-aware of apparent threats surrounding us, etc.).  She contended that these physiological responses are part of how we experience our surroundings or reality, and therefore part of how we respond to adversity. As such, they are part of our resilience and we should not criticize or pathologize ourselves for feeling them.

However, she argued that we should be conscious of our feelings: “If you don’t learn something in this crisis, then you weren’t paying attention.” And we only double our emotional work when we criticize ourselves having adverse feelings. Citing Victor Frankl’s famous holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, she said that human responses to adversity become opportunities to develop resilience and character.

Duckworth further contended that “some things look like they’re a failure, but aren’t,” saying that we measure our lives in terms of goals, which are nothing more than “desired future states.” Human goals are not sacrosanct but hierarchical, like a pyramid, so we can (and often need to) disengage from the smaller ones that do not serve a higher level or purpose.

So it’s not a failure of resilience to develop survival strategies to cope in crisis times. For instance, she mentions that she slept in on the day of the interview; and that we shouldn’t flog ourselves mentally for failing to take a morning jog, and the like.

When she was a first year graduate student in psychology, Duckworth developed what she called a “grit-scale.” She found that in order to endure a crisis, we must have a larger experience or activity that helps us get through it–a “through-line” to what interests us. For that reason, since Covid-19 self-isolation, people have slowed down to bake bread, cook meals from scratch, do crafts and puzzles, play board games and learn new skills.

Grit itself, she argues, is not about masochism or self-punishment, but about being committed to an activity we find valuable and enjoyable. Grit must be held in tandem with “self-compassion,” “forgiveness,” and a “balance” between work and leisure. Grit is not only resilience or a love of what we do, she said. Instead, it’s the attitude of “I’ll show you!” that some of us feel, when we meet opposition to work that matters to us. Grit is a fiery, passion-filled response that we motivates us, when we face adversity. And yet, of course, we cannot consciously will grit into being.

Duckworth says that a gritty entrepreneur has a well-aligned (pyramid-like) hierarchy of clearly defined goals,  a clear mission and vision and key performance indicators (KPIs). We have to “keep batting” at the “half-filled helium balloon” that is our motivation, in order to progress up the pyramid. And we need to find constant reminders of what our goals are, in order to keep striving to meet them.

She cautioned listeners about burnout, which arises from expending “too much effort” and receiving “too little return” for it; we must reduce our efforts and increase our satisfaction, if we are to continue sustainably. Duckworth commended the recent response of an American mother on Twitter, who wrote that she refused to spend six hours a day online, teaching her grade one child mathematics. That was a low-level, unsustainable goal, whereas the woman might reach a potentially higher-level goal  by encouraging her child to participate in activities that develop character.

And in crisis times, Duckworth recommends giving ourselves “a break”: Do not reach for a top level goal that cannot reasonably be met, during Covid-19 days. Instead, direct our work to pursuits that interest us and toward reasonable levels of achievement: In time, those gains will lead us to our highest goals. This is what she means by the “hierarchy of goals,” by which true “grit” can come about.

And now it’s your turn: Do you agree with Duckworth’s definition of “grit?” Please share your thoughts on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.