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Gaining Grit: How to find and nurture the badass within



One of my many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of
 painful moments outdoors.
After hearing a recap of one of my particularly harrowing adventures, people often react with: "I don't know how you do it." For some reason, many people think that I'm fearless or super fit or something to be doing the things I do. But here's the thing,
I am not remarkable.
Let me tell you, I still cry on really tall exposed rock climbs. I huff and puff and get all red faced while hiking. I hate being cold. The difference between them and me is just a practiced mindset. Many people call this mindset 'grit.' 

Grit is mental fortitude and resiliency. With practice, it becomes an automatic emotional response that kicks in whenever you need it. 


Grit is like any muscle- the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Unlike a muscle, it is a bit trickier to activate.

I am an ordinary human who has been able to make my grit muscle strong. Everyone has grit, you've just got to find yours and strengthen it.

Keep reading to learn what grit can do for you, and how to get it


What can grit do for me?

We all know life can suck and adulting is hard, which is why grit is so important in daily life. Life is also beautiful and awesome, but we're not talking about those parts.

Grit gives you a steadfast knowledge that you can handle and tolerate challenge, failure and pain.

Let's be honest, life is full of all of those. When you strengthen your grit, battles you did not choose and pain you did not pursue will be easier to handle. The pain doesn't weaken, you just know that now you can tolerate it. The fear doesn't lessen, but you can keep going despite it.

Grit enables you to relish challenges that would crush others

Tony cultivating grit paddling against a 25 knot headwind 
When you have found and then nurtured the grit within, you will find a resolute inner strength and
stability that you can access at will. 

Grit readies you to function within chaos

Have you heard of the second law of thermodynamics? It basically says that everything that is organized is always trying to move toward chaos. I call it 'if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.' Chaos is stressful, sometimes painful, and often confusing. Being able to stay calm and function effectively when sh*t goes down is totally a superpower. 

Great, but how do I get it?
I'm sure, like me, you've seen, and might be sick of, all the motivational photos of beautiful people in amazing places with some quote on it like: "If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you" or my favorite: "If you want something you've never had, you have to do something you've never done" 

While these quotes are great at motivating some of us, they're frustrating for those of us who are frozen by fear or intimidated by pain. You read them and think "OMG YES I'm going to do the thing!!!" but then the thing is so scary you can't breathe much less move or is so daunting you don't know where to start.

It starts with a choice. 


The key to gaining grit is to willingly pursue and embrace uncomfortable but rewarding experiences. 


I know, it sucks. We all like to be comfortable. I love my soft warm bed and sleeping in late. Comfort has been the driving force behind much of our technological advancement- running water, central heating, air conditioning, and yoga pants. 

The problem with comfort is that we won't evolve, reach our goals, or do anything epic if we stay in our comfort zones. When you step outside of your comfort zone, you create an opportunity to rise to
the challenge and to embody your unique form of greatness.

One of the most important parts to growing your grit is that you have chosen the challenge. When you choose to accept a challenge, you have recognized and acted on a purpose that is important to you. If you're suffering from something you were forced to do, you'll feel resentment. Resentment brings negative purpose to suffering which destroys motivation.

Hardship and challenge initiate change. Hardship does its job well, though hardship without purpose is not productive.

Without a purpose, we find it hard to be tenacious. Hardship that lacks greater purpose is merely endured. It is not a tool for growth- we only endure to see sufferings’ end. Hardship accompanied by purpose and hope has emboldened man to do the impossible, has fueled  revolutions, and driven many free thinkers, inventors and leaders.
Find a fulfilling reason to do something challenging.

You may endure suffering in exchange for the views from a beautiful mountain top. You might tolerate fear to feel the rush of endorphins. Growing grit effectively requires a reward that is both immediate and meaningful to you. Unfortunately I can't tell you what those reasons are, because a 'reward' looks different to each of us. To me, the view from the top was worth the hike, but for you it may not be. I will tell you, though, to be wary of extrinsic motivators like fame, wealth and food.

Use that reason as the reward for enduring hardship.

Here are a few questions to help you figure out what fulfills you:
  1. What gets your fired up with excitement?
  2. What strengths and skills do you enjoy using?
  3. When do you feel most confident?
  4. When do you feel most alive?
  5. When do you / what makes you feel most connected to the world?

Tolerating Misery

Sometimes getting started (or out of bed) is the hardest part. Sometimes the hardest part is staying tenacious when you're tired, miserable or frustrated- or all three at once. For me, it's a real struggle to keep running when my lungs are on fire or to get out of bed in the freezing cold. 

Things to remember while in misery:
  • Everything is temporary 
  • Attitude is everything 
  • Failure is a beginning

Everything is Temporary
I constantly tell myself this when I am miserable or have to do something scary. Before I know it, this will be a memory. I will be remembering the pain, or cold or fear and not feeling it. All I have to do is get through this moment / day / week. 

Seriously. When you are miserable, repeat over and over in your head something to the effect of: 'This is temporary. Soon I will be looking back on this as a memory. Before I know it, this will be over.'

Attitude is Everything
So many of us would assume that an attitude that is angry is bad. One of my favorite Mark Twight quotes is: "A bad attitude is a mental state that prevents you from realizing your dreams." I have successfully paddled in abysmal conditions with a state of mind was definitely not what anyone would consider positive, but it gave me what I needed to keep going. Some people need to stay positive and hopeful during misery. For others (like me) anger can be just as effective.

"The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude."
-Bob Bitchin

Part of a successful attitude is the attitude you have when you begin your endeavor. You know what you are potentially up against- pain, frustration, anger, complications, etc. but you aren't feeling them yet. You are in the calm before the storm. In this calm, you can see the storm but not yet feel it. You know the storm will make you stronger, tougher, smarter, so you choose to dive in. 

Even when you are miserable, remember and repeat: 'This is helping me become who I want to be.' or 'I am becoming a badass' or whatever else works for you.

"Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."
-Muhammad Ali

Braid your hair like Lagertha's  to conjure your 
inner shield maiden.
External, physical expressions of your desired mental state can be incredibly potent. There is a reason that warrior cultures around the world use war paint. Have you ever worn a costume that made you feel totally awesome? Do you have a 'power suit' that you wear to important meetings or interviews? Use whatever clothes, hairstyles, accessories or makeup that physically show the way you want to feel. I've used 'war paint' made from sunscreen and eye shadow with my students to get them psyched to face a hard challenge. 



Failure is a Beginning


'Nothing is final until you're dead, and even then I'm sure God negotiates.' 
- Evil stepmother in Ever After

Approach your endeavor without any expectations of success or failure. Expect only challenge. When we expect failure, we often don't push beyond what we expect ourselves to achieve. When we expect success, failure comes as a swift and crushing blow to ego, confidence and motivation. Accept that both success and failure have positive outcomes, therefore there is no reason to be crushed by failure.

So you didn't summit the mountain, finish the race, or get the contract. Failure doesn't devalue your experience or effort in any way.

There are plenty of good things we gain from failure.
  1. You have grown stronger and wiser
  2. You are one step closer to success
  3. You have a greater understanding of your task
  4. You have proven to yourself that you have the discipline to endure
  5. Your compassion grows

Don't make it personal. You failed at something. This does not mean you are a failure. Don't allow yourself or anyone else to define you by your mistakes.

Live, learn and move on. Don't hang out with jerks who dwell on your mistakes.

If you're struggling with failure, pull out a journal and answer the following questions

  1. How has this experience improved me as a person?
  2. How will these improvements impact my life?
  3. What have I learned about other people from this failure?
  4. What factors within my control contributed to failure?
  5. What factors beyond my control contributed to failure?

Help I don't have any self-discipline!

Don't worry, I don't either. Having it makes growing grit easier, but it isn't required. I've always envied the people with the discipline to get up before dawn and go for a run. As much as I would love to be one of those people, I've reached a place where I've mostly forgiven myself for hitting snooze a million times.

Here are my methods for getting myself to do things I know are good for me but can't seem to get off my butt to do:

Pay for an Experience
Money talks. Or in this case, it motivates. I heard about a gym chain that started charging people more for not showing up. Every week you didn't show up, they charged you extra. Apparently it
really worked. People got off their couches and went to the gym.

You can use a similar method. Sign up for an experience that you know will challenge you but is also super rewarding- one that you'll look back on and be proud of. Make sure they require a deposit that is non-refundable. Bonus points if you get friends to sign up with you.

Find a partner (or several)
WayfinderAli rock climbing
At the first bolt of my first on-sight
of a 5.10 climb, belayed by my partner.
Preferably someone with A LOT more self discipline and grit than you, who isn't scared to hold you accountable. 

When I was in college, my climbing partner was this for me. He climbed harder than me, lifted harder than me and had the discipline I didn't. He pushed me to be better, gave me hell if I skipped a workout and refused to lower me off a climb if I had a bad attitude. He was the reason I got up at 4am on a Saturday to drive three hours to a crag and climb all day. 

Get a Job (or Volunteer)
Chaos by Christopher PoindexterI usually sign up for jobs with long hours and hard labor in rugged places. I enjoy comfort too much to decide to go for a hike on a cold rainy day on my own. But if I'm working, I have no choice. This summer I got up at 4 and 5am in below freezing temperatures, lifted 70lb bales of hay, and slept on the ground. As a kayaking guide, I battled headwinds, thunderstorms and relentless mosquitoes. 

I still chose to do those jobs, knowing full well the misery I would probably endure. When I signed up, that misery was vague and off in the distance which made the decision a bit easier. I knew the benefits would be worth the hardship. 

What motivates me to do those jobs? I love being in wild places. I love getting stronger. I love helping my students find their inner greatness and grow through challenge in the outdoors. Being an outdoor leader makes me want to be the best version of myself  I can be, because I want to be a mentor and role model for my students. The wilderness is one place I never feel restless. I love how I feel after getting through tough, scary and miserable situations with my team of students and coworkers. When I sign up for those jobs, I focus on the things I love about them.

If you're ready to unleash your inner badass, these books are your route to success:


You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero 
I absolutely love this book.You'll laugh your way through it because her writing is not only entertaining but totally blunt and honest. Get excited to get off your butt and kick some ass!


Extreme Alpinism by Mark Twight
If you want to get psyched to suffer, this is your book. This guy is a total badass. He is an accomplished mountaineer, so he knows a thing or two about suffering.

Sections of this book are useful even to those who don't climb. The most useful section is right at the beginning- Chapter 1 is titled 'Attitude and Character.' His writing will make you want to embrace challenge and misery like a warrior. The section on mental training in chapter 2 is also incredibly useful.



The Rock Warrior's Way - Arno Ilgner
Don't let the title dissuade you if you aren't a climber. This book is an incredible resource for anyone facing scary challenges.

Arno will help you create calm and order in the chaos of your mind. He explains harmful mental habits in a way everyone can understand, and then guides you through addressing them.

Arno focuses on separating our identities from our experiences- which enables us to respond to failures and successes with patience and insight.

This book will help you savor challenge and thrive within it.

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