Saturday, August 8, 2015

Grit: Discovering Our Mental Toughness

While ascending the never-ending sequence of climbs in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains last month, I wasn’t thinking about grit. I was purely determined to pedal my way to the crest of each hill and be that much closer to my destination: the next college on our itinerary. Cycling with six college guidance counselor colleagues in Virginia, I spent the week traveling from school to school on a bike fully loaded with the clothes and supplies I would need for the week. We college-bound road warriors biked 360 miles in six days, but one day in particular truly tested our stamina as we cycled 81 miles and climbed nearly 7,000 feet.  I will not lie. When we arrived at our Lynchburg College destination just before sunset, I was done, sure I would not have been able to complete one more rotation of my pedals if my life depended on it. In retrospect, I see that grit got me there. It allowed me to keep going, even when I was exhausted, parched and had no idea what ascents might lie ahead.
Merriam-Webster defines grit as mental toughness and courage, but I also like the Wikipedia definition: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Time horizon matters, as grit demands the drive to follow through even when the rewards are not easily within our sight or grasp.
As we begin another application season, I often ask students about their motivation. I want to know the things that excite them, their aspirations and goals, and how they hope to achieve them.  Where does college fit into these plans? Though I firmly believe that 17 year olds need not have everything figured out, I am curious about what inspires them to persevere, even when the path isn’t clear or the challenges seem insurmountable.  How and when are they mentally tough because they are driven by something that requires focus and effort, even when rewards don’t come easy, contrary to the short-term pleasure of immediate gratification?
While some people are naturally driven, I don’t believe one is necessarily born with grit. It develops over time as we find a purpose or an interest that engages us to persevere over the long-term.  Some kids find their passion early, whether it is discovering an artistic talent, a natural athletic ability or an academic curiosity.  But having an interest is only the start.  What keeps us going, drives us to delve more deeply and fuels our desire to set and work towards a challenging goal is an understanding for how grit feeds our soul. Rarely does this happen when the goal is within our grasp and comes too easily.  More often we develop grit and find our motivation when we take a risk, push ourselves, occasionally fall short but regain our mental and physical toughness to overcome the inevitable obstacles.  Only then can we see the true rewards from the toughness, courage and perseverance that got us there.  
Though I have enjoyed cycling on and off since the age of six, my infatuation with biking was kindled through a discovery of my love for colleges. It had been 30 years since I last owned a road bike, but I was determined to reacquaint myself with the sport and get myself into cycling shape to join and keep up with a group of counselor cyclists who found a way to combine these seemingly unrelated interests.  What I discovered on that hot July day somewhere around mile 70 when I was thirsty, weary and battling possible defeat at the sight of each new hill is that it wasn’t just about getting to the next college; it was about getting to the top of the mountain without giving up.