The double-edged sword of grit
Balancing on that edge is tricky
I recently listened to Beowulf by Maria Headley. This version of the epic poem is thoroughly modern. The first line: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!”
To remind you of this story, Beowulf is known as a great warrior, winning battle after battle with mighty foes. After one last epic fight with a dragon, Beowulf lies mortally wounded. Knowing death is close, he reflects on his actions as a leader.
"This death is final. I'm the last of me. I've been ruling here fearless for 50 winters. I was the man....my name kept enemies at bay.”
“I want to know what I did, look at my winnings...I want to know it was worth it. My dying will be easier if I see what I died to do.”
“My people lose me but gain a hoard gift...I went hard, I traded my life for this as a good bargain."
There was something about this modern translation that made me draw comparisons between Beowulf’s heroic measures with that of grit in modern work places, especially in startup land. Grit is a favored tool of startup leaders for a reason, the tough environment makes it nearly impossible to survive without a measure of it. Grit makes us resolutely focused on the outcome we seek. In this mindset we push past obstacles. Our eyes on the prize, grit helps us dig in, doing whatever it takes.
Grit task a level of mastery of self control. Being able to control our impulses, focus and delay gratification can propel us forward in our careers bringing lofty rewards. The grittiest of us become leaders (titled or not) influencing everyone around us. The ripple effect sweeps up others. Soon we all believe that we can achieve impossible things. Sometimes we’re like Beowulf, rewarded with big treasures. This is the power of grit.
My dad’s favorite phrase is “Your assets in excess become your liabilities.” Too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. There’s a cost. In Beowulf’s story that grit pummeled his body, pushing him towards death. In our work, too much Grit (with a capital G in this case) leads us to a different kind of death. Pushing past insurmountable obstacles can render entrepreneurs bankrupt and the team in the throes of burnout.
When stuck in Grit mode, we have a hard time seeing ourselves as anything less than strong. Asking for help means seeing ourselves as frail, incapable. Enthralled with its power we don a steely shield, protecting the soft underbelly. Never show your weakness. Win at all costs our ego intones. We push forward past one obstacle, then another acting like a superhero in a movie. We trust only ourselves. We take the challenge all on our own back but eventually the tank runs dry. We're deep in the fight with nothing left to give.
We look for other Heroes just like us. We create a team that looks and acts just like us. After all, we trust them to get the job done. Finding them useless, we shun others with different skills. The blinders of Grit obscures more creative solutions that allow us to achieve our goals with less harmful effort. We get stuck in a cycle of working harder and harder. We’ve been seduced to believe hard work is sufficient to achieve what we seek. And, that achieving those goals is everything.
With the harm that came result from over doing grit, it’s tempting to denounce it as a tricky quality. Avoiding grit isn’t the answer. Without enough perseverance we quit too quickly. A lack of grit leaves us wandering around, flitting from one idea to the next, never achieving much. Having the freedom to plant ourselves wherever we want seems like fun but the allure wears off. We feel empty, our confidence wanes. Everyone feels and needs the lift of accomplishing a goal. Though it seems a paradox, too little grit can also deplete us, stemming from too little stimulation. A lack of purpose makes life less meaningful, we find it harder to care about much.
Too much grit can get us into trouble but without we don’t accomplish much and we lose meaning. If you’re wondering what the answer is, I hear you. I’ve kept plowing forward long past a reasonable stopping time. My sister once said to me, “You get up again and again, even when the rest of think it isn’t wise.” She meant it as a compliment but there were condequences to my behavior. I spent way too much time on impossible projects and relationships. Despite this, there have also been times when I’ve given up too early. For instance, when faced with a big challenge of pivoting my business I stopped believing in myself way too soon. I didn’t quit but I didn’t try everything I could. I muddled along instead of pushing just a bit harder to find a path forward.
Knowing when to dig in and when to give up is a classic conflict. How do we get past our natural tendencies to push too hard or not enough? How do we to find just the right amount of grit? There aren’t many shortcuts to find this balance, it’s a winding road full of switchbacks and dead ends. Pay attention to signs and patterns. Even stopping to consider if your grit factor is out of balance can help. Use your environment (both internal and external) as a guide, you’ll find something like balance eventually.
What else to read
The audio version of Maria Headly’s Beowulf is fabulous.
This Ted Talk on the power of Grit by Angela Duckworth is a classic.
How Celine Halioua raised a $11M seed round as a solo first time founder.
Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne’s experience with burnout as a startup founder.
Observations and Annotations is a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories. If you enjoy the content, please like and share it.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership consultant and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.