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If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.

Etymology: From the Old English word grēot meaning dust, earth or gravel.

Meaning: To have grit means to have courage and resolve, strength of character, pluck, mettle. It’s a word that feels onomatopoeic: It embodies itself, roundly and confidently; say it out loud and you will feel grittier.

But drill down and grit means slightly different things depending on whom you’re talking to. To Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose work has brought grit into focus in the past few years, it means a passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit, she writes, “is about having what some researchers call an ‘ultimate concern’—a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.” And it is holding steadfast to that goal, “even when you fall down, mess up, or when progress is faltering.” In Duckworth’s school of thought, it has to do with stamina—treating life as a marathon rather than a sprint. For other researchers, such as Gale Lucas of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, grit is about the sprints, too. A marathon is made up of a series of legs, after all. “It’s the courage people have to push through the fear of failure and to persist in the face of potential failure.”

So, can we cultivate grit and learn to persevere despite set-backs? In short, yes. Mindset is key. By cultivating what Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset”—an understanding that our brains can grow when challenged—we are less likely to stagnate and settle for less.  She cites a school in Chicago where, if students didn’t pass one of their courses they were given a grade of “Not Yet,” which makes you understand, she explains, “that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” Rather than writing ourselves off at the first sign of failure, we should trust that we can learn and improve; this is the power of “yet.”

But there can be limits to the benefits of the kind of doggedness that gritty individuals often display—it can, says Gale Lucas, be a “double-edged sword.” For often the gritty individual is an optimistic one, too. And while a rosy outlook is in general no bad thing, people can lose sight of what it’s worth being gritty for—as well as what goals are realistic for them personally. Those people, Lucas says, “might not know when to quit.”

To learn what’s worth pursuing, then, gritty individuals “should try to get more objective indicators… Seek the advice of friends, family and counselors,” guides Lucas. And “try to figure out how likely it is that you’re going to succeed. Is it time to cut your losses?” In other words, use your grit responsibly.

  • Words:
    Ellie Violet Bramley
  • Photograph:
    Imagno/Getty Images
  • Words:
    Ellie Violet Bramley
  • Photograph:
    Imagno/Getty Images
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