Nature vs. nurture – one of the oldest and most longstanding of all psychological debates. Although this was a formerly hotly debated and central issue in the field, most researchers and people in general now accept that each of us are indeed powerfully influenced by not one or the other, but both biology and genetics as well as society and culture in almost every facet of our personality, preferences, tendencies, talents, and inclinations. A lot of evidence supports a variant of set point theory, which argues that we all have a genetically determined range for our weight, our aptitudes, our intelligence and even our happiness. But it is important to realize that just because we may have a particular inborn allowable tolerance, there is still a lot of room for our circumstances, upbringing, and personal efforts to make a difference. In regards to happiness for example, Gretchen Rubin cites evidence that shows about 40 – 50% of our subjective wellbeing is inherited and through habituation, we adjust and adapt to changes and events (both positive and negative) over time. However, the amount of time it requires and the extent to which we adapt varies and variables such as age, gender, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religion account for about 10 – 20%. And the remaining 30 – 50 % of our happiness is influenced by how we think and our actions. And although the breakdown between variables differs of course, the same general concept appears to be true when it comes to a wide variety of concepts – everything from athleticism to academic performance, from gluttony to grit and mental strength.
Persistence, continuing in a course of action in spite of difficulty, opposition, fatigue or frustration, is a trait which is positively correlated with success in a variety of areas. In fact, psychologist Angela Duckworth has studied individuals who have become successful across various contexts, including military cadets in training, business professionals, and students and teachers in varied socioeconomic circumstances, and has found that the one, single most significant factor which emerges as a predictor of success is what she refers to as “grit.” She defines grit as passion and perservance for long-term goals. It’s not about the talent, luck, or intense and fleeting wanting, but about mental strength, consistent commitment, and steadfastness to those goals. Thankfully, she believes, and other research suggests, that this is a quality which can be developed or improved upon with some deliberate practice and a willingness to endure a bit of discomfort in the meantime.
This past summer I read Dr. Carol Dweck’s bestselling book, Mindset, which explains how our ability to learn is not fixed, but can actually change with effort. Her research shows that physiological changes and growth occurs in the brain itself as we encounter challenges and work to develop our talents and abilities. She argues that the mindset or beliefs that we hold about ourselves and qualities such as our intelligence, personality, and talents can fall into one of two categories: fixed vs. growth. Those that have a fixed mindset believe that their traits are, well just that, fixed. They believe that they have inherited their lot for better or worse. Conversely, those with a growth mindset, “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort… they understand that no one has ever accomplished great things…without years of passionate practice and learning.” Dweck says that “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.” It sounds a lot like grit and (probably unsurprisingly) Dweck’s work shows that even this growth mindset is one that can be grown. We can learn to recognize our patterns of thinking and acknowledge that we do have a choice in how we “interpret challenges, setbacks and criticism…in a fixed mindset [one would see them] as signs that [her] fixed talents or abilities are lacking… in a growth mindset [one would see them] as signs that [she] needs to ramp [her] strategies and efforts, stretching [herself], and expanding [her] abilities.” Once we acknowledge we have a choice in the internal voices we listen to we can choose to “take on challenges wholeheartedly, learn from our setbacks and try again.” Over time our mental strength will grow and our successful progression towards our goals becomes increasingly evident.
For me, every time, barre provides a more than physically challenging workout – it also gives me a chance to practice and build my mental strength. One of the things my Pure Barre instructors always reminded us of throughout class is that your mind will give up before your body does and you are truly stronger than you think. There are so many times, as I shake uncontrollably, that I think I might actually prove that wrong, but I always try to dig deep, literally grit my teeth and stick it out for that last, best 10. And throughout my now almost four years at the barre, I can say definitively that I have indeed become not only significantly physically stronger, but also mentally stronger. I know that I am (and you are!) capable of a lot more than we think and that the euphoric sense of accomplishment and empowerment that spills over to so many other areas of our lives (not to mention the reshaping of our bodies) is well worth the grit!