3 steps to upgrade your GRIT in education

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Grit, it is a powerful tool to help you achieve your goals, but as we know, it can sometimes fall short. Worse yet, using it the wrong way can backfire, even lead to real trouble. Consider this “fall short” and “backfire” conversation I overheard just last week.

“What’s your grit and resilience strategy?” the Provost at a premier regional college asked his cross-town colleague at a college fundraising dinner I recently attended. The question instantly caught my ear and my eye. I was struck by both the ease with which this clearly loaded question fell from his lips, as well as the relaxed assumptiveness with which it was received.

“Ah, well, you know, there’s so much talk and information about grit out there now, but honestly, we’re not sure what we think about it yet. Of course we’ve had our people watch the videos, read the books, start talking about to each other it more…at least the basics, you know? But frankly, results seem mixed, at best.

Get this! We had one student repeatedly camp on the doorstep of the Registrar’s Office, apparently in an effort to get his grade changed, because he thought he could get what he wanted just be refusing to take no (or a bad grade) for an answer. When it was explained to him repeatedly that this wasn’t the best strategy and his grade was actually determined by his professor, the student somewhat deafly responded, ‘Got too much grit to quit!'”

“That’s an amazing story,” the Provost replied. “Good to know. Honestly, you’re way ahead of us. We’re still exploring all the options on what we’re might pursue with grit, but your example will definitely help.”

So what’s your grit and resilience strategy for your institution? And how do you avoid the dreaded and increasingly common “mixed results” or backfire conundrum? How do you minimize the potential downside of students misusing their and maximize the vital upside that will make them successful and productive? Here are three simple steps to Upgrade Your GRIT™ in Education.

Step One: Shatter the “More is Better” Grit Myth

Arguably one of the most dangerous assumptions when it comes to grit is the burgeoning belief that “more is better, more is more”. It’s nearly everywhere. “We just gotta show more grit!”, Dabo Swinney, Clemson University’s football coach declared after a heartbreaking loss.

In another instance, I was asked by a faculty member at a Texas university, “Dr. Stoltz, how do we help our students grow and show more grit?” This is not an uncommon question. One I hear more and more.

However, if just having more grit is so desirable, consider this simple provocation. First, think of the most dangerous person you’ve ever heard of or known. Second, ask yourself how much grit—determination, passion, and effort—they showed in pursuit of their nefarious goals. Next, ask yourself, is grit always and necessarily a good thing? For everyone? In all situations?

The truth is that helping  our students build higher and higher levels of grit guarantees next to nothing. Worse yet, it can lead to disaster.  In truth, many students have plenty of grit. That’s not the issue. Their quantity of grit is not  what’s getting in their way. It’s the quality of their GRIT that may be hobbling their efforts, progress, and success.

To free yourself from the “more is better” myth, ask yourself and/or your team a simple question. What matters more – the quantity or quality of your students’ grit? When it comes to the kind of students we want to grow, the kind of lives we’d like them to live, and contributions we’d like them to make in the world, do we want them touse their growth mindset, resilience, instinct and tenacity to not merely achieve their goals but also to show their consideration for other people, for their environment, and for the general good?”

Ready for a bizarre, if not impossible statistic? I’ve asked this exact question of more than 500,000 people across six continents, and one hundred percent respond resoundingly with “Quality!” 100 percent. That’s stunning. And each time I test it, I get the same result: When it comes to GRIT, remember– Quantity is what we require, but Quality takes us higher.

Step Two: Foster Smart GRIT

“But I worked really hard on this!” How many times have students used said that do defend work or a test wasn’t as good as it should be. Don’t forget its anemic sibling, “I stayed up all night (or “spent all weekend’) studying for this test!” “Doesn’t my effort count?” they complain.

What I sometimes call “Smart” and “Dumb” GRIT can be re-labeled “Effective” and “Ineffective” GRIT. Does urging our students to just try harder, to pour more effort and energy into the task always lead to the best results? More importantly, does it best serve our students as they try to make progress in an occasionally puzzling world? What if, instead, we taught them how to use ever-more thoughtful, intelligent, effective GRIT—the kind that accelerates and enhances their success—especially for the most daunting, long-term, challenging assignments, projects, and tasks?

Shifting students’ focus from a concern with “how much or how hard can I try” to asking the questions “How else can I achieve my goal?” and “How can I do this even better?” can lead to profound revelations for them. By encouraging them to consider rational, creative, or more efficient alternatives when they get stuck or new ways to solve problems that might yield an even greater result, we begin to equip our students for the adversity-rich, highly demanding world of work, where they will be rewarded mainly for how well they achieved their goals, not the how much sheer effort or drive they expended in their pursuit.

Step Three: Grow Good GRIT

Ever see that high achieving student whose classmates find him hard to be around or to work with? What about the ones who, the higher their marks, the lower their classmates’ desire to pay attention to their comments or be part of that student’s group project?

We’ve all experienced the boss, colleague, or student who has plenty of GRIT but goes after goals in ways that hinder, even hurt others. Consider the powerful difference between Bad and Good GRIT. Bad GRIT happens when a person goes after goals in ways that are intentionally or unintentionally detrimental to others. Good GRIT is of course the opposite: its hallmark is pursuing goals in ways that take other people and their goals into consideration or working in teams in ways that allow all participants to benefit. Pretty much everyone I know, me included, has demonstrated Bad GRIT, despite the best of intentions. That’s pretty humbling.

Good GRIT happens when we go after our goals in ways that are ultimately beneficial, and ideally elevating to those around us–this attitude is often described by none other than rock star  Bruce Springsteen as he ends his concerts: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”

Teaching students the difference between Good and Bad GRIT is arguably one of the most potent and important lessons we can impart. Awakening them to the power and potential of Good GRIT is elemental to us graduating not just decent students, but good citizens.

Long after they return their caps and gowns, it is the quality of our students’ GRIT that determines how they will navigate life’s ups and downs and what kind of mark they will make in their community, their workplace, and their world.