Grit — or why only giving up means failing

Universal Storyteller
8 min readJan 22, 2019

Imagine you are a boxer. Imagine in one fight your face is hit so often that it resembles a cauliflower; imagine you see your opponent double and imagine you can’t feel your legs anymore. Every time you get knocked down, the only thing you hear is the faint noise of the hostile crowd booing at you, and you’d rather be dead than getting back up to fight a seemingly invincible opponent. But: you get up anyway. And you keep on fighting with all that is left in you.

This is the story of Rocky Balboa played by Sylvester Stallone.

If you aim high, you will be knocked down often. Better be prepared for setbacks and disappointments. And rejections. A looooot of rejections. You will have to go into the rough to keep the game interesting.

A good life is like a good story about duality: There is both joy and suffering. Without downs, we wouldn’t appreciate the ups. Often you have to accept short-term pain to achieve long-term goals. The exciting bit is that we meet our goals mostly not through talent, virtue or luck but by simply rejecting to give up.

Some call it perseverance, others call it resilience, we give it the short and punchy expression: grit. A simple definition of grit would be to maintain effort and work towards a goal over a long time despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.

The key is to go the distance. People with grit can keep up their chin, determination, and motivation towards their very-long-term goals in spite of challenges and setbacks, they encounter on their journey. You can choose to give up or keep going. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Excellence takes time and persistence

So, what are the advantages of grit? Well according to psychological research there is a strong connection between grit and general well-being, optimismand life satisfaction. Oh, and people scoring high on the grit scale are much less likely to take their own lives. Why? Because they still have things to do and to fight for.

Grit also makes you trust worthier as other people know that you do not give up when the going gets rough, and it can lead to unexpected discoveries as you dig deeper and go further than other people.

Most importantly grit is strongly related to performance improvement of any kind and career success. According to the studies of psychologist Angela Duckworth, grit is a way better predictor for long-term success than talent or strong cognitive abilities.

Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s 10.000-hour rule? This rule says that you can master almost anything if you are willing to put the hours into it. A lot of hours. 10.000 hours according to Gladwell. It is perspiration, not inspiration.

Of course, grit can be quite the opposite of living a comfortable life. Always striving and working towards excellence can be exhausting.

Think about this analogy for a moment: Most great endeavors are like swimming through a big lake. In the beginning, when you get into the water, there is quick progress. The trees behind you get quickly smaller, and you feel you make a good distance towards your goal. Also, the end bit seems to happen quickly. When you are close to the other side of the lake, the trees again get big very fast and when you get out of the water and if you are lucky there is a cheering crowd waiting for you and somebody hands you a medal.

But there is this painful and bit in-between: When you are right in the middle of the open lake. You are swimming and struggling, but no matter how hard you try nothing seems to be moving. The trees behind you do not get smaller, and the shore in front of you does not seem to get nearer. This is where a lot of people give up, and this is the moment where you really need the grit to keep on swimming.

It is simple: If you want to achieve your goals, you need grit.

Is there any downside to being gritty? Can we be too gritty?

Well, there are some pitfalls. Firstly, we have to beware of the so-called tunnel view. If we are gritty we can be focussed so much on one particular goal that we might overlook better options.

Also, by being too gritty, we might be more vulnerable to the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’, meaning that we keep on trying to achieve something even though actually we would be better off to give up on it. Think of the businessman who keeps on throwing money at a bad investment because he wants to desperately make it successful. Think of the athlete who misses the right time to retire and ruins his body by being in the game for too long.

So, there is such thing as stupid grit. And let’s be honest, all of us have been there: in a toxic relationship we desperately tried to turn around against the advice of all our friends, or in a job we hated but stayed in for way too long. Thus, we should stop at times and ask ourselves if we are on the right track.

Purpose, Practice, Positivity — how to learn grit

How can we become grittier?

One way is to find our true passion or a purposeful goal. The hard work we put in feels easier if we know that it is good for a meaningful goal. Also, following a clear purpose often prevents us from going in the wrong direction.

Practice is another pivotal part of becoming grittier. Build in moments of deliberate practice, which will push you out of your comfort zone and stretch your limits.

Think about it: When we see people performing extraordinary things, we do not question how they got there. We just tell ourselves: “well, they are geniuses, prodigies, born with a talent to do those things. I could never do these things.”

But ultimately it is just a series of mundane things they learned and practiced over and over again with the sheer grit until they created this extraordinary outcome. Thus, given time, dedication and practice we all can achieve great things.

Success isn’t as sweet and rewarding if it has been easy. Always remember if you see people who have achieved greatness that there are a long-fought journey and a life story filled with hardships behind them.

Grit is critical, and luckily, it is also pretty straightforward. What’s hard about it is to stay positive over time.

It’s difficult to stay positive when you battle various challenges in your life. But do yourself a favor and don’t ever give up if you think it is worth it. Remind yourself on the end goal.

And until you haven’t tried everything don’t let negativity take over. It is often darkest before dawn. The obstacles are usually the highest right before the breakthrough. Stay persistent because the tipping point and success might be behind around the corner. And if not after the next turn, it will be after the next after the next. Hang in there. There is always an answer to everything. There really is.

Oh, and hang out with gritty people. Other people influence our behavior more than we think.

Gritty heroes

So how about heroes? Do they have grit? You betcha.

As a starter, think of all protagonists in sports movies. They do not always win, but there is one thing they have in common: they never give up.

Coming back to Rocky Balboa. Maybe the quintessential archetype of all sport movie heroes. As Rocky eloquently puts it: “Life is not about how hard of a hit you can give, it is about how many you can take and still keep moving forward.”

He is a nobody but gets chosen to fight the current heavyweight world champion. Others would have been shocked frozen by anxiety and just quit. But not Rocky. He gets up at 4am every morning, drinks 6 raw eggs and runs up and down the stairs of Philadelphia’s mayor house until he vomits and then he goes to the local slaughterhouse and hits on dead corpses until his hands are numb.

If he ever taught us something than it is to keep fighting no matter what. The reward was becoming the greatest boxer ever to be on a movie screen and to gain eternal fame.

Always remember that staying in the game is most often more crucial for achieving your goals than your talent and abilities.

You don’t have to be the smartest, tallest, strongest or wisest to save the earth. Remember Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings!? He was Frodo’s faithful companion who went with him thousands of miles through middle earth and up the Mount Doom and made the crucial move to conquer the evil forces.

Did good old Samwise score high in any virtues that people superficially associate with prodigies or talented people? Was he stronger, smarter or better looking than others? Hell no. And on top, he drank and swear too often, and he had awfully hairy feet and was clearly overweighed. But there was one thing that distinguished him from others: his resilience, his unwillingness to quit, his grit. When Frodo loses the strength to climb Mount Doom, Sam picks Frodo up and carries him the last few steps. In reality, Frodo never would have completed his quest had Sam not stuck by his side every step of the way.

And that ultimately made Sam a hero in his own right.

Think of an even more extreme example: Forrest Gump. He is born mentally disabled and on top suffers from a walking disability. But Forrest overcomes all his limitations through stubborn perseverance, and he keeps on going no matter what. He stands tall against whatever life throws at him and in the end, he saves 8 lives in a war, becomes a millionaire, father & loving husband, and is responsible for the success of Elvis Presley and the dude who paints smiley faces on T-Shirts.

Pretty impressive, right?!

Han Solo. He is betrayed by one of his best friends, kidnapped by Boba Fett, frozen in carbonate, knocked down over and over again. But he stands up again and again. And then he assists in destroying the Death Star and even gets the princess. Try to stop this guy. You can’t. That’s true grit.

It doesn’t have to be physical grit at all to achieve something great. Think of Erin Brockovich or every single James Stewart character. They fought against a gigantic evil system. No matter what hardship they had to go through, they just refused to give up and eventually beat the system.

It is the big scenes we remember

Life is short. Set your compass towards your passion and do something great. Achieving greatness takes time. Sometimes a whole life. Rome wasn’t built in one day either.

It is the big scenes in movies you remember. Our mission in life should be to create those big scenes we will always remember…and be recognized for. If we give up on the way, there is no chance that we will experience those big moments. Ever.

Listen to Will Smith’s words: “You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things — you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there are two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple…”

Here’s a simpler version by James Bond himself: “I don’t stop when I’m tired, I stop when I’m done.”

Hang in there. Have grit. It is worth it.



Universal Storyteller

Nicolai Schumann is the founder of Universal Storyteller and teaches storytelling at universities and to corporates.