Tapping into G-R-I-T to enhance students' 'burn to learn'

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Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D.
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Helping students effectively harness their GRIT comes down to the difference between telling them about it and equipping them with the tools to acquire and grow it. I recently experienced the stark contrast between mere advising and actual “equipping” when I failed my own godson at a critical time.

How? Well, instead of helping him tap into his GRIT in substantive and productive ways, I fell into the “sympathetic (if meaningless) advice trap.” Let my failure illuminate our path.

As a first-term, out-of-state freshman at a challenging four-year university with a rigorous major, my godson has plenty on his plate and no shortage of distractions. But when the deadliest fires in California’s history surrounded his hometown of Napa, being away from home took on new meaning to him.

Even though his family and pets were safe and their most precious possessions secured, summoning the drive and the discipline to slog through calculus homework seemed overwhelming and unimportant to him. He simply stopped doing it, and even when he tried to apply himself to him, his commitment soon waned.  This was understandable given the circumstances, but not ideal.

So, what did I do? I checked in with him, offered some mouldy cliches and bland old platitudes like, “Thank goodness they’re safe”; “Don’t hesitate to call me anytime”; and “It’s always good to remember: It could be so much worse.”  Nice? Yes. Heartfelt? Definitely. But I could have done so much better by him. I missed my moment.

What I didn’t do was serve up the harder truth. I didn’t take this critical opportunity to help him realize that “stuff happens,” adversity strikes, and moments like these—when it feels like life is grabbing you and strenuously pulling you away from your educational goals—are both the key tests of your GRIT and the opportunities to significantly grow and apply it to things that matter.

Every student experiences some combination of rigorous academics, relational breakups, family issues, health concerns, roommate dramas, bureaucratic headaches, personal injustices, scheduling conflicts, emotional hardships, financial stress, external pressures, and existential angst while pursuing a college degree. This is a long list, but worthy path is strewn with struggles!

My godson didn’t need my warm but vague advice as much as he needed the essential, practical tools to truly own—to dig deeper and better in order to unwaveringly pursue—his learning and his goals in the midst of his struggle. How could I have helped? I should have pointed him to the GRIT questions.

Each and every component of GRIT—Growth, Resilience, Instinct and Tenacity—is critical, and individuals must fully engage with them to truly own and achieve worthwhile educational goals.

Consider these four facets of GRIT and the questions I, a teacher, a counselor, or anyone can ask about each one to help students own their learning, their goals, and their lives in good times and bad.


The propensity to seek out fresh ideas, perspectives, input, and advice to accelerate and enhance one’s progress toward one’s long term, difficult goals.

Growth is about going after one’s goals and finding out what one needs to know in order to get there better and faster. It shifts a student from being a victim or a passenger to being the driver at the helm of his journey. This dimension of GRIT accelerates growth, learning, and momentum, while reducing the kind of frustration and exasperation that lead many to fall short or quit.

  • What new resources might you tap into to get some clarity and support around your goal?
  • Who could you talk to, both inside and outside of school, who could offer you the best, freshest wisdom on this issue or concern?
  • Do you notice that as you keep attempting to achieve your goal, the effort seems to be making you stronger and allows you to imagine new strategies to get where you want?


One’s capacity to not just overcome or cope with, but to make constructive use of adversity.

One of the big wake up calls in education is: Adversity is on the rise everywhere, and resilience truly matters. Support and resources are external. Resilience is internal. Resilience is not about bouncing back. That’s not good enough.

It’s about harnessing adversity, using it as fuel to end up better off because of the increased strength and knowledge that comes from working through and overcoming a difficult obstacle. There is no better place for a student to learn and master this distinction than in higher education.

  • While you perhaps can’t control this situation, what facets of this situation can you at least potentially influence?  Of those, which one(s) matters most to you?
  • How can you step up to make the most immediate, positive difference in this situation?
  • How can you use your experience of struggling against this adversity to actually fuel your next attempt to reach your goal?


One’s propensity to pursue the best goals in the most effective ways.

Arguably one of the most consistent and potent contributors to student failure, dropouts, or underperformance is a lack of Instinct. The vast majority of students waste tremendous energy, time, and effort pursuing less than ideal goals in less than optimal ways. That’s why so many lose their way or quit. That’s why it’s important to ask:

  • What adjustment(s) can you make to your goal to have it be even more compelling and clear for you?
  • What specific tweaks or shifts can you make to how you are pursuing your goal to best accelerate and/or enhance your chances of achieving it?
  • As you think about your goal (e.g. graduation), in what ways might you be wasting your precious time, energy, and/or effort?  If you could do less of one thing and more of another to most dramatically enhance your chances of success, what would that look like?


The sheer relentlessness with which one pursues one’s most important, long-term, difficult goals.

This is the classic, traditional definition of basic grit. But as the world education wakes up to the hard reality that more tenacity is not always a good thing, we have an opportunity to infuse the qualitative aspects of GRIT. These include two continua, Good versus Bad GRIT, and Effective versus Ineffective GRIT.

Pretty much every student has expended considerable Tenacity on the wrong stuff, or in less than optimal ways. The more students master how to funnel the right of Tenacity and overall GRIT toward their most worthy goals, the more likely they are to thrive and succeed.

  • If you utterly refused to quit, and were to give this goal your best-ever effort, how would you attack it even better this time?
  • How can you re-engage toward and go after your goal in a way that is most beneficial, even elevating, to those around you?
  • If your life depended on you sticking to and achieving this goal, what steps would you take now, that you’ve not yet taken?

How do we equip students to stay on path, no matter what occurs—from natural disasters to simple, everyday adversity?  Growth, Resilience, Instinct, and Tenacity spell more than GRIT. They spell ownership. And they transcend plain old advice (even the god-fatherly kind).

While each of these dimensions is powerful on its own, when we weave them together they become the four, actionable facets of GRIT that not only fortify students, but can also permanently instill in them a lifelong sense of ownership for learning, making important decisions, and for contributing something of value to their own lives and their society.