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The Meaning of True Grit

Posted by Ty Velde  March 22, 2014 02:42 PM

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Can running a marathon be considered predictor of success in other areas of that person’s life? Are there unique characteristics that a marathon runner exhibits that can be definitively correlated as to whether they will be successful in other pursuits?

I pose these questions, based on the research of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth who started her career as a public school math teacher and just won a 2013 MacArthur "genius grant". In recent years, she has studied spelling bee champs, Ivy League undergrads and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.—all together, over 2,800 subjects, all with the simple goal of understanding and predicting who will be successful and why.

In the case of West Point, she looked to understand the factors that would likely lead to someone dropping out of the school's notoriously brutal summer boot camp known as "Beast Barracks." What she found was that West Point’s own measure—an index that includes SAT scores, class rank, leadership and physical aptitude—wasn't able to predict retention or success.

So, what did she find to be the best predictor of success across all groups? She found that true success was primarily connected to one core primary characteristic — grit.

Yet, what I found to be truly interesting about her research is in how she speaks to what grit “is”. It’s clear that grit is not something that everyone readily possesses. That within a group, there are a few who possess it, but many who do not. She speaks of grit as being an almost aspirational, yet elusive quality. That possessing true grit is the exception, not the norm.

In listening to this, I was once again struck by the unique nature of the marathon running community that we are all a part of. Why? Because as marathon runners, while the values and ideals associated with grit may be elusive to most, it’s clear to me we are a community that is defined our by our ability to live them by day-in and day-out.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals”
Running a marathon is not a pursuit that can be pursued passively. When it comes to making the decision to run a marathon you must by nature of your being, be a goal oriented individual. But where marathon runners truly exemplify grit, is that the pursuit of a long-term goal is not something that intimidates, rather it motivates. We’re excited by the prospect of pursuing a goal that may in reality be months, if not years, away from actually realizing.

We also understand the importance of perseverance. We realize that the path towards a long-term goal is not fraught with ease; rather there is a good chance that we will encounter difficulty along the way. Yet, we understand the importance of soldiering on, because we have a true sense of passion for accomplishing the goals that we look to set for ourselves.

“Grit is having stamina”
Stamina is the defined as “the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort.” While training for and running a marathon clearly requires physical stamina, it’s my belief that where marathon runners truly exemplify grit, is via the sustained mental effort it requires as well. While your physical stamina is something that can be built over the course of your training, for most, mental stamina is something that must be there from day one. In short, if you lack mental stamina, you will never be able to put in the time and effort required to build the physical stamina needed to eventually cross the finish line.

Therefore, for marathon runners, mental stamina could almost be consider a pre-existing condition that we are all blessed with, because without it, we’d never be able to survive both the mental and physical challenges associated with training for and running a marathon.

“Grit is sticking with your future day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years and working really hard to make that future a reality.”
For many of us, running Boston is a goal that has been years in the making. We’ve been running for years. We’ve run many races. We’ve run many marathons. For others, it’s the culmination of accomplishment associated with a road fraught with challenge. You’ve overcome adversity, you beat the odds and now you are running Boston.

No matter what path you have taken, one element that binds us all together is that future is something we embrace, not shy away from. While our path’s may be different, we’re all here because of the grit we have exemplified and the fact that we all genuinely understand that dreams are not achieved overnight and that to make them a reality it requires a lot of hard work.

“Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”
I must say that it’s ironic that Angela Duckworth used the analogy of a marathon when ultimately summing up of the meaning of grit. (see 3:23 of video below) Not only is it incredibly validating of our collective pursuit, it demonstrates to me how much more running a marathon means than just the race.

In short, marathon runners exhibit grit, because we are not about instant gratification. I’d like to think that in reality we are really a very patient bunch. Yet, it’s our understanding of patience that is truly core to our ability to be successful in our pursuits because we realize that the ability to achieve our goals is built over time and on top of a foundation comprised of many, many different things.

A “Growth Mindset”
Beyond this, I believe that we are a “gritty” bunch because we also exhibit what is called a “growth mindset” - the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed and that it can change with your effort. We are not afraid of the notion of challenge and most importantly when we encounter a setback, we do not believe that failure is not a permanent condition. Instead we understand that dealing with challenges and setbacks are part of the pursuit of any long-term goal.

Therefore, we embrace challenge and look at it as character building, rather than a reason to quit. We understand that confronting and negotiating challenge is what ultimately makes us stronger.

With the above being said, and getting back to the original questions I posed, if someone were to ask if running a marathon is a likely predictor of that person being success in other areas of their life, my answer would be “yes”. Why? Because it’s clear to me that grit is not only a characteristic that is displayed come race day, but more importantly it’s characteristic that extends far beyond the race and is in fact core to our collective being.

To learn more about the inspiration for this post, Angela Duckworth and her concept of Grit, I encourage you watch the video below.

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Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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