Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Grit is a muscle, train it (eriktrautman.com)
95 points by eriktrautman 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

Years ago, I saw an interview with someone who was or had been in Special Forces in the military. He talked about how hard training was and that he got through training by telling himself he was just going to stay until lunch. After lunch, he would mentally commit to the next hour or two or to making it to dinner.

This completely changed my concept of such people and became a cornerstone for getting me through a lot of challenges in the last roughly decade.

People who do hard things aren't simply awesome at everything or blessed to come from the right family, have the right education etc. Some of them are getting through hard things by managing their emotions and psychology with some of the same tricks used by political prisoners being subjected to torture and trying to not break.

Great anecdote. I try to apply this philosophy to endurance training like running (just get to the next mile marker), swimming (just do the next lap) or biking (just do another minute) but it's really hard. I'm awed by the special forces guys (or the author of the post) who apply that kind of thinking to long periods of time.

It does seem to me though that for creative thinking or solving really tough engineering problems that rest and laziness can actually be productive. So I don't know how to reconcile that with "training my grit muscle". It seems both are important.

Often while running, the hard periods are only transient and if you just handle the signals (pushing harder, or adjusting things down a bit) you end up reaching another period where things are alright again.

I need to get running again

I'm not so sure. After 10 marathons, the last 6 miles always suck. Maybe if I adjusted down to just walking...

Peak performance is a great book on finding that balance. Recommend

I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and every day for 6 months had to tell myself "Just one more peak" or "Just make it to the next shelter", and once I made it to that peak or shelter, would stop for water and a snack and then keep hiking, again telling myself "Just one more". Do that about a thousand times and before you know it, you're in Maine!

I don't know how to fool myself like that. Whenever I say to myself "just one more", there's a voice that tells me "cut the crap, it's a trick, after that there'll again be just one more, and just one more, and just one more". The problem is, that voice is actually right. If it's really just one more, what difference would it make if I stop already? And if it isn't just one more, then why obey a liar?

I have an incurable medical condition. I am not trying to trick myself into accomplishing some goal. Instead, I spend a lot of time trying to motivate myself to do the unpleasant things that work because not doing them leads to worse things.

For me, the value of the interview with the Special Forces guy was to help me stop feeling like a victim being picked on by life and singled out for torture. Getting well is very hard. It is supposed to be impossible. But other people doing hard things also find it torturous.

That plus the awareness of what conventional treatment leads to has gotten me through 5.7 years of homelessness, being crapped on incessantly on the internet by classist assholes who also think I am a lunatic fabricating my story, developing an online income with damn little help because of said classist assholes being unwilling to help me figure it out, etc.

I got off the street in September. I am applying for my dream job and made it past the first cut. Friday, I submitted the essay they want for the next step. I have enough money to get through the weekend. I am failing to do freelance writing and I slept 12 hours last night, so I am facing the possibility of eating at the local soup kitchen come Monday, a thing I have not done in 2.5 years and don't want to ever do again.

My week has been a huge headfuck and I am grumpy and aggravated, but staying the course and doing what makes sense because it makes sense, nevermind the swirl of emotions and headfuckery that life continues to throw at me.

So, if you look at the two paths ahead of you and one is "Put my blinders on and just focus on this next hill" and the other is "Go to hell, go straight to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200" it gets vastly easier to think "This hike will suck, but then I get a break and a snack and will feel okay for an hour and maybe the pouring rain will stop and the next leg of the journey will suck less."

Fair enough. When giving up sucks more—instantly—than pushing through, it's a whole different story. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Rooting for you.

I hope your dream job opportunity is with an oufit where someone who can make every dollar count has an unfair advantage, and they realize it and recognize the added value your grit can contribute alongside those who are high-performers in other ways.

If I had a company in your area or one with a remote working aspect I would not have hesitated to get you on board over a week ago just to try you out by leveraging your abilities which I am very confident could lead to better returns compared to the average operator who has had a lifetime of financial stability.

So it probably doesn't make as much difference as you think what kind of business you want to seek mutual opportunity with. Every one actually needs more of this kind of ability.

The vast majority of other workers have never been very good at maximizing the use of resources or even more rarely making something out of nothing.

All businesses as well as nonprofits actually need a boost in this regard, too bad so many of them are more concerned with culture fit.

Therefore if this doesn't come through, be prepared to focus also on completely different kinds of dream employers where it's obvious you could contribute value.

When you need to come back from losing everything and bare necessities need to be brought back into sustainability, almost any legitimate job could be considered a dream.

Even ones where there isn't even an open position at the time, more so if you have already applied to an opening previously and only been turned down because the number of other applicants reduced your odds.

Take the initiative and show up ready for action, if you can get in the door treat every one you come in contact with like a top decision maker and concentrate on exuding the pure enthusiasm that only a dream job can spark. Make it undoubtable that you really really want to work for that particular outfit so much more than what they have seen before.

Make it clear that they won't be disappointed, and especially if you can get to final decision makers (counterintuitively this can be less difficult when there's no open position, so they are not being hammered by competitive applicants) make it personal and come right out and say "I will not let you down" because you really mean it.

If that doesn't prevail, get back and ask for a part-time job, I did this before and it worked so well an entry level position was created and within 6 months I ended up on overtime.

Real opportunities are always going to be hard to come by, build as much empathy with your ambition to move ahead together with prospective employers so that you can get at least two names from those you are rejected by. Ask them to informally give you alternatives or if really fortunate actual recommendations of who to try next. Eventually you'll have so many contacts you won't be able to call them all, and you'll be more able to prioritize and choose the best leads.

You've got the dream job concept underway, work it.

there's a quote by someone about the "small step after small step"

If the pace is right you can stretch pretty far.

Great achievements are the fleeting, momentary assembly of a vast number of small, seemingly insignificant steps.

Success comes not from seeking great achievements, but from the relentless pursuit of the next small step.

Of course, the difficulty here is knowing which small steps are worth doing. But I think everyone can come up with a list of small steps that would have at least some benefit, and then just pick one. Slowly, the small benefits will accumulate like a snowball. Each additional next step can then be taken with a bit more wisdom and understanding.

Alternative angle: in our lives there are vast areas of chaos and confusion, as well as domains of order and understanding. Each day we can work to increase the domain of order and understanding a small bit, and overtime it can grow to encompass an impressive size to the benefit of ourselves and many others. Looking back, one can be amazed at how far they have come without even realizing the extent of the journey.

For example, one of the easiest ways to get started is by cleaning one's room or some other mundane but useful task. At the very least, it makes things a bit nicer and feels good. Small wins beget other small wins.

These ideas have served me well so far.

I remember a video of a guy explaining that the blow that cracks a boulder relies on all the blows that didn't.

Also often the failure in your path come back later if the ideas were right but either unfinished or at the wrong time.

That's a great strategy.

I try to use a similar strategy of getting myself to train: I should go there and get dressed and if I still don't feel like it I can go skip and go home. So far I have only skipped it once, and that was after I trained for 20 min.

It's also perfectly applicable for when you should work on a project but it's hard to get started. Just force yourself the first 10-15min and then you can stop. It's almost always the case that you will continue after the initial struggle.

He's right. But muscles can also break from overuse. Just be careful, ya'll.

I want to highlight your comment. I don't necessarily think there is a ton wrong with this blog post, and major kudos to the author for his success. I would just like to point out that trying to transfer these techniques into 90+% of the rest of the population would probably not result in their success.

I'll use myself as an example. I've heard the bromides of "Get out of your comfort zone" and "push through", yada yada, many times. And I indeed have gotten out of my comfort zone many times. But I've found that often times I have extreme stress reactions, sometimes bordering on panic, when I get too outside my comfort zone. I find this especially the case where I take too much on at once - I have a poor ability to prioritize and just "let things go" that aren't important. I wish this weren't the case, but after many cases of trial and error I've found this is how I am. It's not that I'm not capable of growth and change, but I'm quite positive what has worked for this guy will most definitely not work for me.

In general, be very careful of following any successful person's advice on how they became successful. There were a whole lot of other circumstances, innate gifts, and a lot of luck for any specific person that won't transfer broadly.

Regarding your last point: this is an idea I first encountered a couple years ago in Taleb's "Fooled by Randomness", and it's been on my mind ever since.

Monetizing successful people's advice on how to become successful seems seems to be a pretty profitable endeavor.

Accepting that success, among many other things, is more random than post-hoc explanations make it seem is scary yet somewhat liberating at the same time.

Do you think you perhaps pushed too far too fast, and that a slower pace might work better? Or that the circumstances were not well suited to support "pushing through" at that time?

I'm genuinely curious here. I also empathize with the struggle you have experienced. Sometimes I'm not sure how hard I should push myself, or when I need to first repair or strengthen my foundations.

For me, it's not necessarily just that I pushed too far too fast. It's that I realized that if I do push far, that I need a good amount of recovery time to deal with it. That is, I'm OK with dealing with one big stressful event, but it's the "death by a thousand cuts" that I just can't handle, cases where I have lots of little stressors or interruptions.

And that's OK. There are plenty of ways I can be happy by not putting myself in situations where I need to deal with tons of these little stressors. Just probably took me longer than it should have to know what I'm good at, and how I like to be challenged.

Or, in other words - you need to learn how to pace your stresses and over time you’ll couch yourself to a person who’s capable of handling stress better.

I am a very sensitive person, nevertheless it took me years to learn how to do big leaps; and while at first I believed the only way forward for me were those “revolutionary, yet incredibly painful steps”, I had then reached an age when I could no longer progress in larger, rarer chunks.

So I learnt that I need to pace my pushes. It still is a cut each time, but I had to know how big that cut can be so that it would not be an irrecoverable wound.

Remember, none of those people jumped off a cliff to stop fearing heights. Neither have they worked out in a situation with a vitamin deficiency. It’s all healthy and psychological.

Thanks for sharing. That's awesome that you gained a better awareness of what works for you. Cheers to that.

This is why most people cannot become a Navy Seal. At some point you hit physical and mental ceilings and your body has to stop.

As a counterexample, every time I have valiantly tried to use Grit to face a challenge that's uncomfortable and hard for me naturally I have failed miserably. In all occasions, I would have been better just quitting the challenge or doing it in a different way that didn't require as much grit.

Yes, you can say that I just wasn't "gritty" enough, but that's the same as saying that everyone who injures themselves in exercise wasn't "careful" enough. You're redefining "careful" in order for your theory to be right. Sometimes bad outcomes happen even when you do everything you can.

My goal here is not only to discourage you from trying hard to achieve your goals (that's a goal, of course). The main thing here is to get ready for life to kick you in the face no matter how much grit you have, and sometimes, precisely for having a lot of grit (no, I won't go into details).

The most important skill isn't grit, it's the wisdom to decide when applying grit is worth it. And no, I don't know how you train this or even if it is trainable. It might be just luck.

Instead of relying on grit, stick to what you do best and don't try to use grit as a replacement for talent or other qualities. If someone is naturally better than you, in a competition they'll just get grittier than their baseline and eclipse you.

This is anecdotal but so is the linked article. For any aphorism there is an equally valid and opposite aphorism.

Devil's advocate - there is also value in embracing laziness and looking for ways to minimize effort. I train a muscle to look for easier, cheaper alternatives.

I loathe effort so much that even a banal day to day activity like folding clothes upsets me. I switched to a 'bin' system that allows me to sort a load of laundry into bins in a few minutes.

I've perfected several 'one pan/pot' type recipes. A rare and particularly sophisticated meal might use two pieces of cookware. Oh and ask me about nutrition bars. At least one meal a day is in bar form.

Anything non-perishable I might need is shipped from amazon. For perishables, I shop at a store down the street like I'm robbing a bank. In and out in a few minutes.

Effort feels wrong. Like I'm missing something. I can still do it but my mind is brute forcing the ways to make it easier next time.

Please share some recipes!

This is also a genre of cookbooks. For example, https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Da... .

Here's a list of 46 such recipes: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/one-pot . Mmm, I think it's time to make jambalaya again.

I'm completely sick of hearing about "grit" in any context not involving corn (I'll give John Wayne a special dispensation). Can we move on to the next pop-psych concept that explains everything?

I'm mostly tired of hearing about it because it seems like it's always a kind of sales pitch and almost never a clear description of what it actually is and what the evidence says about it. Even when the author/presenter/etc. has an actual academic background in psychology, it feels more like they're trying to get me to join their religion than describing their research.

Well, yeah, it's mostly used as some sort of cross between self-help and Malcolm Gladwell. I think a lot of people like it because, you know, if "grit" is all that matters, then perhaps we do, Candide-like, live in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing has to be changed.

I think it's worse. It's used to blame students with below-average grades, and blame schools where the students have worse-than-average grades, and blame poor people. See, if they only had grit they could succeed.

I am a fan of the blogger Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania. He frequently talks about the negative sides of grit. I'll quote from him, as he says what I would like to say, and is better about it. The quote is from http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2015/01/what-doesnt-kill-... concerning a Washington Post editorial by Virgie Townsend titled "What doesn't kill you doesn't necessarily make you stronger" http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-doesnt-kill-you-... . Greene commented:

> Townsend goes on to catalog, from the Puritans through Teddy Roosevelt through Helen Keller through Oprah, how we love the story of redeeming and clarifying suffering. I would add that it's worth noticing that one of the first things people do in these stories of growth and strength is they stop suffering. It's not like cake. Nobody (well, almost nobody) says, "Wow. That was so good, I think I'll have some more." Suffering in these stories is so good for the hero, and yet the progression, the path, is to move away from it as swiftly as possible. So I'm going to call our attitude confused, at best.

> Townsend notes that we all benefit from "life's healthy and normal challenges." But researchers have found that "traumatic incidents often have long-term negative consequences." Childhood abuse or trauma can result in toxic stress-- stress that is literally poison to the body. "In work published in 2012, Harvard researchers found that people who had been mistreated as children had, on average, a 6 percent loss in volume in their hippocampi, a part of the brain involved with learning and memory. Toxic stress also damages the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to social behavior and decision-making, and the cardiovascular and immune systems."

> Research suggests that childhood trauma increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, mental health issues and (surprise) poor school performance. "A 2009 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that people who had six or more adverse childhood experiences died, on average, 20 years sooner than those who had none."

> The classic story of redemption and strength has also been found to be helpful to children, but only when paired with the support of stable adults. Simply invoking grit or Kelly Clarkson is not enough.

> The message is clear. Childhood trauma stacks the deck against the children who suffer through it. Invoking grit or repeatedly firing the teachers who can't work miracles won't help.

So, if grit were only used to describe surmounting "life's healthy and normal challenges" then, sure, exercise that so-called 'muscle'. But the problem is that 'grit' is used as a catch-all to surmount all problems in life, including traumatic incidents and childern suffering from the long-term effects of systemic racism and disdain for the poor.

This gets to the heart of what's so repellent about this grit stuff to me.

Hearing it on a forum mainly full of people who sit behind a desk all day writing advertising and tracking code is particularly amusing.

Grit only relates to corn in the US as far as I know. May be used as a reference to a fine gravel put on roads during snow/ice in Ireland/UK

> plural of grit "coarsely ground grain," Old English grytt (plural grytta) "coarse meal, groats, grits," from Proto-Germanic *grutja-, from the same root as grit (n.), the two words having influenced one another in sound development.

But I mean realistically hominy grits are not very popular in the UK. You can read some kind of amusing old 18th-Century letters with people writing about "I don't know how people can stand to eat this crap" talking about cornbread and grits and the like, because English people took to eating corn (or maize for our Commonwealth friends) more due its being readily available in North America than a conscious decision.

Also the coarseness of sandpaper.

How about gumption? Moxie? Spunk?

I mean the whole thing is a repackaging of the idea that nothing matters except whether you tried hard enough.

Not doubting the author, but I'm curious why people upvote these articles that present some X viewpoint and just back it up with "I did this because of X, therefore X is so and so" without any scientific research

Again I'm not disagreeing with him, but do people enjoy this kind of articles for motivational purpose or than information? Just curious

Good advice, but keep in mind that willpower might be a limited resource (it is[1], it isn't[2]). You do not want to spend it all while training for grit.

In my personal experience, willpower is indeed limited. But that's n=1. As with everything in life, moderation is key.

[1] https://www.wired.com/2012/10/mf-willpower/

[2] https://digest.bps.org.uk/2015/06/24/new-research-challenges...

What’s the difference between “grit” and the traditional understanding of perseverance?

Isn’t perseverance carrying on in the face of obstacles or without reinforcement anyway?

A TED Talk.

or Medium post.

In this particular case I think it's the TED Talk and accompanying book by Tammy Duckworth.

It's actually Angela Duckworth and not Tammy Duckworth. Sorry Senator.


Interesting. As a non-native speaker I wasn't really aware of this meaning of the word "grit", but it seems very similar to the concept of "sisu" [1] in Finnish, often regarded as an integral part of the national character of Finns and considered very difficult if not impossible to translate exactly. Wikipedia does list "grit" as one of the mental characteristics "sisu" can be thought to be a combination of.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisu

"Grit" aka mental toughness under duress.

I highly recommend looking into a GORUCK Challenge (https://www.goruck.com/the-challenge/) for anyone who wants to develop stronger mental muscle in a few short* hours.

It's amazing how just a short period of discomfort pares away the bullshit. You learn how to prioritize under duress, work with other people to assess, quantify and leverage strengths, and you figure out that you're capable of more than you thought.

You wouldn't think that a physical challenge translates outside of that scope. But it does, because most physical challenges are really mental challenges featuring a facade of physical discomfort.

*They will not feel short.

If you can summon the willpower to go to one of those, I'd say you already have more than the average person.

I agree. I would also add on a personal note, I'm not religious by any account, but your goals have to be your religion. You have to have faith that your grit will achieve those goals and pray to the gods of achievement everyday and be grateful you are alive to be on this journey, no matter how hard it is. Its kind of like you have to willingly be insane. I also found it helps if you work out really hard to get through some of those darker days as your small workout achievement boosts your mood and in a way is similar to having pain and then being the master if it by running up that hill, etc. Great article.

I do not agree with your first sentences. You can work hard without being insane. In fact you can decide to work very hard based on reason. 'Teach Yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness' by Donald J. Robertson is a great introduction.

> You have to have faith that your grit will achieve those goals and pray to the gods of achievement everyday

Having faith, that your grit will achieve your goals is also sort of insane. It's irrational for sure. Whether you achieve a goal or not is out of your control. All you can and should do is to try your best.

Well its subjective as I cannot exactly say feelings. When I mean "insane" I just mean it feels that way as you are pushing yourself toward something without definitive proof or in some cases breaking completely new ground that relies on a lot of things working out of your control. Definitely can be interpreted many ways, I agree.

For grit to work you also need some success from time to time. You can't just grind along without ever getting positive feedback or you'll burn out at some point.

Good advice but incomplete in my opinion. Discipline(grit) is good, but developing it without a concrete goal is very hard.

He uses push ups as an example and states that it's not for the physical conditioning, but to train his grit. That's his goal. He's chosen this thing and has probably thought for a while about its value, and has come to the conclusion that it is worth the tradeoff is the time and pain of the pushups.

Goals are personal and the same might not work with everyone. If 'developing grit' is some wishy washy thing that an article on the internet told you to do, then you might not stick with the pushups. If your goal is to pass a fitness test for becoming a firefighter or something, and that's something that you really, really want to do, the pushups become easy as long as you hold your ultimate goal in mind.

The most disciplined people in the world got there not because being the most disciplined was their goal, but discipline was necessary for attaining it.

Incidentally it's pretty common to injure yourself with one of those 0-100 exercise programs like push-ups. I gave it a try and screwed up my elbows for a while.

I am reading a book about management “a sense of emergency” by John P. Kotter, and weirdly I think it’s also an excellent book for self development to improve grit and reduce procastination.

“Once you form a habit, habit starts forming you”

Hypothetically, what if you don't have the willpower to do even a small thing every day? How is the process bootstrapped?

There is a guy from Stanford, BJ Fogg is the name IIRC, who does a course "Simple Habits". It's like, commit to doing 1 pushup for 5 days first thing in the morning. It is supposed to lead to forming long-term bigger habits, but I'm personally not convinced. Anyways, check him out.

Interesting, thanks. Still, it takes at least a bit of initial grit to do that one pushup - especially every day.

You need to get the ball moving with following your own instructions. The first tasks don't have to be useful or related, just doable. Eg force yourself to blink. Then raise one arm. Then stand up. Now you are half way to doing the pushup. Ignore the silliness of it all, and keep going. With each progressively harder step, you gain more momentum and more energy to take bigger steps.

If we are talking depression: try getting more veggies, try going for a walk outside. Small steps. Try changing your surrounding a bit. Then seek medical support ? And don't blame yourself.

Start by making your bed when you get up, because it's something easy that naturally belongs at that time, and gives you immediate visual feedback in the form of a nicer looking room.

But isn't the visual feedback counterproductive? I think grit means repeatedly doing it despite not having that immediate feedback. At least, that's the kind of habits I think people have a real problem sustaining.

I do make my bed every day, although not in the morning - I prefer to unmake it so it can receive sunlight. But I don't think it takes any willpower, since I find it a pleasant activity.

Here is IMO a much better framework to think about grit: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/08/19/the-calculus-of-grit/

Some excerpts:

''' Grit has external connotations of extreme toughness, a high apparent threshold for pain, and an ability to keep picking yourself up after getting knocked down. From the outside, grit looks like the bloody-minded exercise of extreme will power. It looks like a super-power.

I used to believe this understanding of grit as a superhuman trait. I used to think I didn’t possess it. Yet people seem to think I exhibit it in some departments. Like reading and writing. They are aghast at the amount of reading I do. They wonder how I can keep churning out thousands of words, week after week, year after year, with no guarantee that any particular piece of writing will be well-received.

They think I must possess superhuman willpower because they make a very simple projection error: they think it is hard for me because it would be hard for them. Well of course things are going to take superhuman willpower if you go after them with the wrong strengths.


If it isn’t crystal clear, I am advocating the view that if you find that what you are doing is ridiculously hard for you, it is the wrong thing for you to be doing. I maintain that you should not have to work significantly harder or faster to succeed today than you had to 50 years ago. A little harder perhaps. Mainly, you just have to drop external frames of reference and trust your internal navigation on a landscape of your own strengths. It may look like superhuman grit to an outsider, but if it feels like that inside to you, you’re doing something wrong.


Exhortation is pointless. Humans don’t suddenly become super-human just because the environment suddenly seems to demand superhuman behavior for survival. Those who attempt this kill themselves just as surely as those dumb kids who watch a superman movie and jump off buildings hoping to fly.

It is the landscape of your own strengths that matters. And you can set your own, completely human pace through it.

The only truly new behavior you need is increased introspection. And yes, this will advantage some people over others. To avoid running faster and faster until you die of exhaustion, you need to develop an increasingly refined understanding of this landscape as you progress. You twist and turn as you walk (not run) primarily to find the path of least resistance on the landscape of your strengths.


I wish mental problems could be « gritted out » as easily as physical challenges :).

how can you do crunches in the bed?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact