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Strengthening Persistence, part 2: How to Build Grit

I saw a quote recently that said something like, “If it takes 100 strikes to break a rock, the first 99 weren’t wasted.” This has been a really powerful mindset reminder for me recently, and I’d like to talk about why.

Many of the things that I do to take care of myself on a regular basis have no visible results from doing them once. Going to the gym once? Not going to meaningfully change my physical condition. Meditating once? Not going to meaningfully change my stress level. Reaching out to a friend once? Not going to meaningfully improve our relationship.

Instead, what’s going to make a meaningful change in my life is to do those things consistently, over and over, for a period of months or years. Going to the gym 4 times a week for a year? I’ll be in much better shape. Meditating every day for a year? I’ll be much calmer and more able to deal with life’s challenges. Reaching out to a friend every day or two for a year? Our relationship will be much closer.

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth popularized the term “grit” to mean “passion and persistence for long-term meaningful goals.” All of the things above (meditating, exercise, reaching out) are connected to long-term and meaningful goals—becoming more peaceful, becoming healthier, developing better friendships. At least, those goals are meaningful to me. Since different people are different, they may not be meaningful to you, and that’s okay.

But, here’s the bummer. For many things, although the first few times are new and exciting and interesting, after doing them a dozen or a couple dozen times, we get bored. We don’t get good as fast as we want. We don’t get the results as fast as we want. We can’t do new things, or achieve our goals as fast as we want. And, it’s really easy to give up when we hit that point.

So, how can we avoid giving up? Grit. Duckworth defines the four characteristics necessary to build grit as interest, practice, purpose, and hope. In my experience, these are all intertwined and inter-related; each one makes it a little bit easier to do the others, and thus there’s a sort of virtuous cycle that comes from having or learning them. And, to the point of this entry, all of them can be learned.


I’ve wanted to learn how to read Japanese since I was a kid. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t start studying until after grad school, at which point I had a job that allowed me to take night classes and start to study. Around that time, the Harry Potter books were really popular, and I thought it would be cool if I could learn to read them in Japanese. They’re written for kids—how hard can they be? (Famous last words.)

So, after my first year of Japanese study, I found someone who I could trade tutoring with. We would get together, I’d tutor him in English for an hour, and then (so I thought) he’d tutor me in Japanese by helping me work through Harry Potter. What I discovered very quickly is that one year of language study isn’t even remotely close to enough to be able to read Harry Potter. We spent literally the first two hours on the first paragraph of the book, and although by the end of that I knew what the English translation of that paragraph would be, I still didn’t understand the Japanese at all.

But, the interest hadn’t faded. And, even though life got busy, and I had to put the studying down for about a decade, I picked it back up a few years ago. And, the interest made it easier to practice.


I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been meditating regularly for a long time, and have experienced plenty of benefits from it. (There’s plenty of research out there documenting this.) But, it also turns out that meditation is great training for grit.

Meditation is hard, friends. When you first start at it, you will almost certainly suck. I’ve been doing it consistently for decades, and I’ve gotten all the way to “not very good”.

But, that’s kind of the point. By doing something in service of a long-term goal, and then continuing to do it over and over, I can build grit. Even though it’s difficult and I can see that I’m not succeeding in the ways I think I should, it still builds grit—or maybe I should say because it’s difficult and I’m not succeeding in the way I think I should.

And, even if I don’t succeed perfectly (‘cause I won’t), this is still a great growth opportunity. One of the things that I recently found was confirmed by research was the idea of focusing our self-talk around effort, not innate qualities or results. If I think that the only thing that counts is the results I get, then every time something doesn’t succeed, I must be a failure. If I think that results are driven by talent and only talent, then a lack of success must be because I’m not good enough.

However, if I adopt a growth mindset, and drive my self-talk around the effort I’m putting in (regardless of what results I happened to get this time), it makes it much easier to continue to put in the effort. I know that the weights don’t care why I lift them, so continuing to put in the effort will almost certainly result in getting results—although maybe not in the timeframe I’m hoping for.


When the results aren’t coming in the timeframe I want, one of the things that can be helpful is to remind myself of the purpose; what’s the reason I’m doing these things in the first place? Studying Japanese was and is hard. I certainly did not get the results that I wanted in anywhere close to the timeframe I was hoping for.

But, it was a childhood dream, and reminding myself of that dream made it easier to keep picking it up along the way. And, I’m happy to report that even with the false starts I’ve had, I was able to read the first Harry Potter book start to finish in Japanese, and keep going to the point where I can read most of the website of the Japanese equivalent of the BBC. It took me about 10 years of focused study to get there, but reminding myself of the purpose made it easier.


Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart has a great section on hope which shaped much of my thinking on this. She describes hope as the combination of goals, pathways, and agency: I have somewhere I want to go, I can see a way or ways to get there, and I believe in my own ability to follow the path.

But, most importantly to this discussion, hope isn’t really an emotion the way most people think about emotions. Rather, it’s a way of thinking—a mindset. And, like all mindsets, it can be learned. By intentionally setting goals, evaluating the paths to those goals (possibly with help), and strengthening our self-confidence, we can become more hopeful.

As we continue to develop our interests, our ability to practice, our sense of purpose, and our hope, our ability to be gritty—to tolerate setbacks, to continue in the face of adversity, and thus to achieve meaningful goals—will improve. And, by definition, achieving meaningful goals is meaningful. If having more meaning in your life sounds good to you, give it a try!

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