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If Grit is the Answer, You’ve Got Problems!

In a previous post, I wrote about “satisficing”—putting in just the right amount of effort. Whether you’re hearing, “These employees simply need to do more with less” or “We need to teach students to have grit”, the implication is that people need to try harder. Blog images fall 2015.002

However, too much effort OR too little effort invite the same risk: Both extremes leave you teetering on the brink of failure, if not going right over the edge. Think about this from a sports viewpoint:

Last fall I listened to Haruki Mirikami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. This celebrated Japanese novelist runs about an hour a day, wherever he is in the world, and has completed numerous marathons, ultra-marathons, triathlons—you get the picture. As I listened, I thought, Maybe I have a “fixed” mindset toward running. What if I’m wrong? What if my aging joints really can handle more than 10 miles a week? The next week, as I tied my shoes I concentrated on having what Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford calls a “growth” mindset—the belief that ability isn’t fixed and that in fact effort creates ability. 

I ran 25 miles that week without any problems. Effort creates ability, right? I just needed more “grit” to go to the next level as a runner! Now go run a marathon, right? 

Wrong. Really, really wrong. GRIT is not a solution. 

It’s so easy to see this in physical effort. For a marathon, runners need to carefully build capacity, not just try harder.

Capacity AND Grit, or effort, form a Polarity—They are an interdependent pair of values that are incomplete without the other. 

Yes, strength and endurance come from consistent training and grit or EFFORT, but you also need the CAPACITY to succeed. Capacity for running a marathon includes having great shoes and other key apparel, healthy joints, a race plan, the right energy boosters, and a keen sense of awareness around one’s own well-being to avoid stress injuries and heat exhaustion and a debilitating cramp and…

Instead of problem-solution thinking we need the both/and power of seeing capacity AND effort as intertwined.

What are your capacity factors? Time? Personnel? Technology? Customer size and resources? Employee loyalty? CEO turnover? Ignore them by only asking for effort and you’ll get burn-out, failure when the going really is too tough, all-out pursuit of the wrong goals, valuing results over the people producing the results, and more.

Right now, conflict is bubbling in the education field because of a problem/solution attitude toward Grit, ignoring the need for capacity. Here’s how these values line up in education:

“Leveraging” Capacity AND Effort for Learning Involves:

  • Having the time to master content/process AND Having effective learning strategies
  • Necessary prior knowledge AND a belief in one’s ability to succeed
  • Adequate support and instruction AND Awareness of when to ask for help
  • Effective feedback or self-monitoring tools AND knowing that mistakes help you learn
  • Curiosity/interest in learning goals AND the intrinsic motivation to persevere.

Either side without the other results in failure. Building student capacity without helping them learn to persevere leaves them dependent on external motivation and support. Insisting on effort when students don’t have the tools they need to learn results in failure as well.

Next time we’ll look at how you “leverage” doing more with less with the very-real opportunities and limits of capacity.

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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