The English are famous for their stiff upper lips and for putting phrases like “Keep Calm and Carry On” on tourist T-shirts. It’s a refined way of saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In America we tend to express the same sentiments through the frontier virtue of ‘grit.’ Even our favorite T-shirt-worthy phrase, “The American Dream,” implies that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to as long we keep our heads down, one eye on the prize, the other eye on the bottom line, our nose to the grindstone, our shoulder to the plow, and so on.
Grit embodies, but is not the same as, resilience, ambition, and self-control. University of Pennsylvania psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth defines it as passion and sustained persistence in trying to achieve a goal over the very long haul, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. Resilience is about overcoming adversity; ambition, at some level suggests a desire for wealth, fame and/or power; self-control can help you resist temptations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re persistently pursuing a long-term goal. Grit is a special case that, according to Duckworth’s research, is an important predictor of long-term success.
Teachers who are gritty stay in the profession for longer and are more effective than those who aren’t. Students who are gritty are more likely to graduate. Men who are gritty stay in marriages longer (a finding that, interestingly, doesn’t apply to women).
While the passion part of grit is important, it’s only healthy when you are managing the passion, rather than letting it manage you. Passion that becomes an obsession to the point of obscuring other important life activities is not going to help you thrive. You can persevere—working like a dog at a project or task, and possibly even deriving a sense of accomplishment from it—but if all that effort and determination is not in service of your life’s goals, then it’s just not serving you.
While Duckworth’s work accounts for the importance of values alignment, popular usage equates grit with a never-say-die attitude, and those who fail to press on no matter what get labeled weak, lazy, or even cowardly. But emotional agility leaves room for the considered decision to quit something that is no longer helping you. And that can be a very good thing.
How many lives have been wasted by sons doggedly following in their fathers’ footsteps, or pursuing a father’s dreams, even though those steps and those dreams led in directions that held no intrinsic appeal to the dutiful son? And don’t get me started on all the daughters who suppressed their own desires to keep the home fires burning and the old folks comfortable because that was simply the gritty way to do things. How many political decisions have resulted from misdirected grit? During the Vietnam War, president Johnson’s cowboy grit, expressed as his refusal to “be the first American president to lose a war,” made him press on, even though he admitted privately as early as 1965 that the war was unwinnable. Dylann Roof, the shooter responsible for the 2015 massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina, was quoted as saying that he almost didn’t carry out his plan for the mass murder because the people of the congregation were so nice. But in the end he did because he had “to go through with his mission.” That’s an egregious and profoundly sad case of ‘grit’ gone awry.
For the rest of us, hanging on to unrealistic or harmful goals, often driven by unexamined emotions, is the worst kind of rigidity, leading to all sorts of misery and missed opportunities. Many people invest years pursuing unsatisfying or unrealistic choices because they’re afraid to admit their error or that their values have evolved, and by the time reality forces them to change course, other ships have sailed. It may be, alas, that the novel you’ve been laboring on just doesn’t work and needs to be set aside for other pursuits. It may be that even though you got the lead in all your high school musicals, you’re still not Broadway material. Or perhaps you’ve realized you’re in the wrong romantic relationship, but you’re reluctant to break it off because you’ve already invested years of your life in it.
Maybe your ambition wasn’t unrealistic—maybe you’ve just chosen a very tough row to hoe. Perhaps you actually made it into the ballet company, or got the glamorous job in investment banking you always wanted. But after a while, the thrill has faded, and the life you’re living remains really, really brutal. Meanwhile, waiting too long to face up to the cold hard facts can cost you plenty as the doors to other opportunities continue to close. Sometimes the truly courageous thing is to say, “I just can’t do this to myself anymore.”
We should be gritty, yes, but not stupid. The most agile and adaptive response to an unattainable goal is goal adjustment, which entails both disengaging from the unattainable goal and then re-engaging in an alternative.
These are tough, often scary decisions to make, and it’s easy to feel like a quitter if you’re hooked on the idea that ‘grit’ is a quality to be valued above all others. But there’s no shame—in fact there’s actually a lot of virtue—in making a logical, heartfelt choice. Instead of looking at these transitions as giving up, look at them as moving on. You’re letting yourself evolve and grow along with your circumstances, choosing a new path that is full of possibility. That decision is filled with grace and dignity.
So how do you know when to grit or when to quit? How do you act with that grace and dignity?
In some careers—sports, modeling—the answer is more clear because those fields put such premium on youth. But what if you’re a musician who gets gigs but can’t quite make a living? Or an academic who has to make do with adjunct teaching positions? Or maybe you have the job of your dreams, for now, but everywhere you look you see cutbacks because your entire industry is in decline? What if you’re an entrepreneur who’s just shut down her third start-up? Or what if we’re not talking about a job? What if your ‘grit or quit’ decision is about a friendship that’s really just getting you down?
There are plenty of stories about people who stuck with it, whatever ‘it’ is, and finally broke through, but there are plenty more about people who persevered all the way to a very dead end.