Grit: “Firmness of mind or spirit.” “Unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”—
Warren Buffet apparently drinks about five cans of Coca-Cola a day. Reportedly he also spends about 80% of the day reading and recommends that other people read at least 500 pages a day. Buffett believes that reading and thinking makes him a better businessman, so he practices those habits fervently. Natural talent aside, pouring hour after hour into something necessarily develops a talent or skill in it. Often, success or greatness has less to do with how much talent you start with. It has more to do with hard you work, how many hours you spend practicing despite the distractions and obstacles. In other words, success often has to do with how much grit you have. What is grit exactly? Why is it an essential quality of the missionary evangelizer?
T. Edison’s Grit
Another man of grit, Thomas Edison famously remarked, “I discovered 999 ways to not invent the light bulb.” Around the turn of the twentieth century, inspirational author Orison Swett Marden interviewed Edison about his work ethic. In How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men and Women Told by Themselves, Marden described:
Mr. Edison sometimes worked 60 consecutive hours upon one problem. Then, after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.
“Are your discoveries often brilliant intuition? Do they come to you while you are lying awake at night?” I asked him.
“I never did anything worth doing by accident,” he replied, “nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident, except the phonograph. No, when I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.’”
According to Marden, Edison thought anyone could be successful, if they had a specific object that they devoted enough time too. Most people simply don’t have the desire and strength of mind and spirit— the grit— to do so.
Properties of Grit
If we put this quality of grit under a microscope for close examination, what would we find?
Refusal to Quit
First, grit entails a refusal to quit when the going gets tough. Another anecdote about Edison’s grit describes how he refused to come down from his factory loft until one of his inventions worked effectively. According to Marden, it took about 60 consecutive hours of work before the problem was fixed, and only then did Edison sleep. This sort of stick-to-itivity distinguishes the person of grit from the one without.
Willingness to Sacrifice
Secondly, grit includes a willingness to sacrifice. Time is a constraint; our experience of time is tainted by original sin. For us, the unyielding pursuit of one goal means forsaking alternative opportunities and uses of time. Edison was sacrificing reading, eating, sleeping, and spending time with his family when he worked 60 consecutive hours on a project. Persons of grit will realize that they have to sacrifice; they will then need to link their willingness to sacrifice to prudence to choose what they can appropriately sacrifice in pursuit of a goal.
Enduring Pain over Time
Related to this ability to sacrifice, grit also requires a willingness to endure pain over time. Grit helps a person remain strong and devoted to a task over 60 hours, 60 days, or even 60 months or years. Even if the hardship seems unending, the person with grit says, “I will not yield.”
Grit: Just What We Need?
If this is what grit entails, is there a role that grit can play in the New Evangelization?
Yes. Think about how Christ endured His passion and carried His Cross before He died upon it. In doing so, He gave us an example of fortitude, of strength of spirit during the most miserable agony. As followers of Christ, we are called to imitate His acceptance of the Cross; faithful discipleship as missionary evangelizers will inevitably bring us face-to-face with hardship and danger. Grit can serve to strengthen us and bind us to our principles— to Truth— in those circumstances.
Moreover, no great deed is done easily. Sometimes a deed’s greatness comes, in a sense, from the grit it entails. We need more than the discernment to see what we are called to do. We also need the strength, or grit, to do it, no matter what obstacles we encounter. Both of these things—
discerning what to do and having the strength to do it—ultimately come from the Holy Spirit, and we can ask for these in prayer.
That the path to sanctity will never be without suffering is poignantly revealed in Mother Teresa’s sacrifices for the poor she served, even while experiencing her personal dark night of the soul. Even as she devoted her time to prayer and physical labor, she was nearly crushed by mental and spiritual anguish and a sense of abandonment by God. What grit it must have taken to persevere day after day while experiencing feelings of rejection and desolation!
What is Grit for the Missionary Evangelizer?
Where does grit fit into the life of the missionary evangelizer? As missionary evangelizers, we need to be ready for the long haul. Grit helps us keep on keeping on, especially when the going gets tough. We need to be willing to sacrifice and carry a cross; grit can steady us to do so. When we are given a taste of Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, grit helps us stay faithful.
We see grit exemplified not just by Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross in the intensity of their dark night of the soul experiences, but also in a myriad of other manifestations, such as in the physical suffering of St. Chiara “Luce” Badano, who died at the age of 18 from cancer. Or in how, when St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney struggled to learn Latin adequately enough, grit and the knowledge that God called him to the priesthood motivated him to continue. As missionary evangelizers, we are called to follow in the footsteps of the extraordinary men and women of the past, faithful to Christ even if suffering lasts our entire lifetime.
We need to see the value of pain in terms of spiritual offering, and grit helps us do that. There’s a temptation to let pain make us defeatists, morosely pragmatic and gloomy. Grit sturdies our character, allowing us to continue to strive for spiritual intrepidity even when we are suffering. As St. Josemaria Escriva said:
Christian optimism is not a sugary optimism, nor is it a mere human confidence that everything will turn out all right. It is an optimism that sinks its roots into an awareness of our freedom, and the sure knowledge of the power of grace. It is an optimism that leads us to make demands on ourselves, to struggle to respond at every moment to God’s call.
Grit sounds very much like what we need to struggle at every moment to respond to God’s call!
When to Stop
So, what is grit? A resolute strength of mind and spirit, especially when facing obstacles. Grit is good… most of the time. Binding oneself to work or a job purely through grit, without consideration of whether the work is something you are called to, is not a recipe for happiness. Howard Behar, former CEO of Starbucks International, recounts learning this lesson:
I had always believed that persistence pays. But I’ve learned that persistence only pays when your hat fits… If you need to leave a job, it doesn’t mean you are a quitter… Personal leadership starts and ends with knowing yourself and knowing where you’re going, and why. Own up to what’s not right, and do something about it.
Grit can be good, but when it is devoid of prudential judgement it can lead people astray. This is a valuable leadership insight, and a necessary talking point in reflecting on grit.
Grit and Love
So, while we probably shouldn’t drink five Cokes a day like Buffet and prudence should certainly guide our use of time and what sacrifices we can justly make, we can find inspiration in men and women who provide us examples of grit. We can also look to our own lives to see where grit can play a role in fortifying us through hardship. Finally, for missionary evangelizers, grit can never be separated from an understanding of love. We do not choose to be unyielding simply to be stubborn; we choose only to yield to Love.