Grit and the skill of dealing with unplanned challenges

May 7, 2016

by Ravi Raman

Yesterday was all about “grit” for me.

Grit is an underappreciated trait that I’m convinced has more to do with success and achievement than talent or luck. I distinguish grit from its cousins, hard work and effort.

If you read any of my writing, you know I’m not a fan of the term “hard work.” It conjures up everything I despise about what it means to make a living and what it takes to be successful.

People use “hard work” as an excuse people use to push themselves hard, regardless whether an outcome is desirable to not. Hard work I consider to the application of extreme effort against a consistent plan. Things, however, rarely go as planned. I also find that hard work is often done in pursuit of someone else’s dream. I don’t consider this a good thing.

After all, if you are putting in proper effort to pursue your dreams, would you call that “hard work”? I wouldn’t.

But back to grit…

Grit has a different quality. It’s like the difference in quality between white sugar and honey. They might seem similar, but there is a visceral different in underlying motivation and emotion. Grit is about hunkering down and getting through an ordeal because you believe in its inherent goodness. It’s a dogged determination and trust that in applying your energy in pursuit of a dream, something good will happen regardless of the outcome.

I find that grit comes primarily in dealing with unexpected circumstances that cause high amounts of physical and mental duress. Just when you think things are at your limit, you are forced to find even more resources to go onward.

In the past 24 hours, I had a sizeable exposure to my inner grit. It came about as part of my training for upcoming 50-mile and 100-mile running races in the mountains of Colorado this year.

Yesterday, I planned for a 5-ish hour run, on hilly terrain. I expected to cover 22 miles. I carried all my food and water, amounting to about 10 pounds extra weight on my back and set off in hot weather, with the temperature approaching 80-degrees and bright sunshine.

My legs fatigued from the start. Even when hiking, I was sluggish. Never a good sign for a long run in the mountains. I kept with it, pounding as much water as I could. As I moved along the trail, I resisted the urge to take any shortcuts back to the trailhead. I committed to the entire route.

After a few hours of running, I was in my groove and at peace with the heat. Then, a wrong turn took me about 10 minutes away from my planned course. This detour shook me up a bit, but no problem, I made my way back to the trail, feeling fine, but a little miffed at my carelessness.

Then, nature upped the ante.

The hot weather changed swiftly with the appearance of a cold and howling wind. Colorado is known for wild swings in the weather. I knew this in my mind, but experiencing it first-hand during a hard training session creates a different response.

From the top of the mountain, I had climbed, I could see the rain clouds looming, and within minutes heard the thunder. Moving faster, to get down from an exposed area of the mountain, I felt the hail pelt my back and saw the flashes of lightning. All of this was happening, on top of what would be a tough run under good weather.

At one point, I stopped on the trail as my hands started to freeze and shouted out loud “I got this!”. I instantly felt better. I was tapping into something. Let’s call it my inner “grit.”

As I started running, my hands going numb from the cold, the clouds parted, and the sun returned, along with the heat. Mentally, I was prepared for the heat, then I made peace with the cold, and now the heat was back! This threw me for a loop. Again, the need to harness my grit.

As I made my way down the mountain, thick clouds returned, and a cold rain started showering down. Time for more grit.

20 minutes later, my cast-iron stomach (I can eat anything before/during a run and be fine) turned on me, and I had nausea and major GI distress, at one point ducking behind some shrubbery to take care of business.

Got any grit left? Not much, but yes I do!

This run was turning into more mental torture than a physical test.

It was at this point that I created a new purpose for my run. This run was not going to be about meeting my training goals for time or distance. It was about mental training and toughness. It was about using that thing called “grit” to deal with things that are not just physically hard, but unplanned and mentally tough.

Looming Clouds

Looming Clouds

In the end, my run went nowhere close to plan. I covered less distance (14.5 miles), climbed fewer feet of elevation (3200 feet of climb)), moved for less time (3 hours 40 minutes) and went far slower than planned.

However, in dealing with a ton of unplanned challenges, I tapped into something that might be far more useful than achieving my training goals: the ability to use my inner resolve. Call it grit or whatever you want. I have strong suspicion that it will come in handy down the road.

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