Introduction: Picking Up Where We Left Off

A while ago, I wrote a series of articles about “motivation”. My goal was to offer an evidence-based introduction to the concepts involved in motivation. The terms that expressed these concepts have been misinterpreted, misused, and presented with a judgmental, moralistic, and emotional tone in the fitness industry and pop-psychology publishing outlets. This is harmful.

In the last article of the series, I wrote about competition. Why do people compete? Why do people take part in sports – which are games, which are autotelic activities (in other words, they are an end unto themselves)? Why do six people keep throwing a ball across a net to another six people, until one of the groups fails to catch it? And why keep doing it, endlessly, until, according to a set of totally arbitrary agreements (rules), one group is considered the winner? Or why swim exactly 50 meters as fast as they can? Or… why lift the heaviest possible weight among people in a certain body-weight range?


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Some individuals are not that much moved (motivate: put in motion) by others’ thoughts on the subject (extrinsic motivators), by some quest for transcendence or recovery (intrinsic motivator), by fun, by money (most of the activities above are actually costly, not profitable), or by habit. Why in the hell do they do it, then?

Apparently, some people are more prone to adhering to a long-term goal, whether it was established by themselves or not – it’s “how they roll”.

In the previous articles, I explored the role of passion, extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, goal-setting, hope, and other concepts in performance and achievement. Now I want to focus on what keeps people going. I thought I would write about discipline. When I began my (scientific) literature review about discipline, I was surprised to find how little it highlighted individual accomplishment, instead highlighting punishment. That’s a sign that it was the wrong search term. Indeed, for about a decade, the scientific community has focused on what they call “grit”.

That reading is very close to home for me: my father is a highly-accomplished scientist at the international level. He never seemed to be very aware of awards, or where he fit in a power structure. He became the most unwilling head of department in the history of science (Martha, the secretary, kept things going). Then, to his horror, for just a few months, he became the director of the institute – it was a nightmare.

What is it that made my dad successful, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t care less about success? Puzzles. He likes puzzles – all sorts of puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles: he has those 5,000-piece puzzles, and he finishes every single one of them. Suddenly I looked at the maps that he created through infinite crystallography analysis (he could spend hours on the microscope analyzing slides) of samples he had drilled after completing multiple field trips, climbing rocks, and chasing the evidence of some volcanic activity that took place over 500 million years ago, and I understood that they were puzzles. He never lets go until he solves a puzzle.

Never, in his 94 years of life, have I seen my father celebrate a personal accomplishment. I did see him smile, however, after working for days on an educational tool to explain light polarization on crystals. And again, after finishing a 3D map that he built for his students with hard cardboard sheets, razor, and glue. In technical terms, my father would be the closest you can get to an “ideal type”, defined as a concept in its pure form – which never happens in reality.

Once I figured out my father (about two months ago, when I was beginning to work on this article), I saw grit (or its absence) everywhere. It overlaps with:

  • Extrinsic and intrinsic motivators
  • Goal-setting
  • Purpose (in its mild or extreme form, such as the mission-oriented or crusader people)
  • Passion
  • Persistence

Yet, some authors insist that it is still different.

I studied three physicians and researchers that were united by grit and mission: Carlos Chagas, Emanuel Dias, and João Carlos Pinto Dias. Chagas discovered American trypanosomiasis, a deadly human disease, in 1909 and spent the rest of his days trying to control its transmission. Emanuel Dias, his disciple, tried to develop methods to kill the intermediary host (the kissing bug) that dwelled in poor, country people’s shacks. Finally, João Carlos Pinto Dias, Emanuel’s son and Chagas’ godson, managed to get the World Health Organization to adopt the South Cone Initiative, eliminating disease transmission in many countries. Two died trying so that the third could succeed (Coutinho, 1999).

Vincent Van Gogh is often cited as an example of grit. Van Gogh never succeeded; he was never recognized, financially compensated, or even properly supported. In spite of his lack of resources and the severe mental illness with which he struggled until his death by suicide at age 37, he worked relentlessly on improving his technique and mastery of painting (Jamison, 1996).

Max Delbruck, the father of modern molecular biology, came to the United States in 1937 to pursue a “crazy idea” about how genetic information would be coded, transmitted, and mutated. He was mocked and neglected at Caltech. His scholarship expired and he couldn’t return to Germany, where he would be killed by the Nazis. Still, Delbruck never gave up on his crazy idea; apparently, neither did the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1945, the Phage group was established in Cold Spring Harbor, and in 1969, Delbruck and collaborators were awarded the Nobel Prize (Fischer, 1988).

A final example of extreme grit is John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician who, among other awards, won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Nash suffered from severe, treatment-resistant schizophrenia. His biographies are controversial, but it is agreed that he was very sick for over 30 years of his life. Yet, he kept going, solving mathematical puzzles, even with no solid reality under his feet.

At this point, you are probably asking yourself two questions:

  1. When is she going to tell us how grit pushes athletes to high performance, or at least to an interesting life?
  2. Do I need to be “a bit different” in the head to do good?

Hang on. You’ll get the answer to the first one as soon as I define the concept. As for the second question, the answer is no – but I am not going to pretend that there isn’t a relation. The incidence of “being different in the head” is about 700% higher among those who do good, especially in the creative fields (all the arts and the sciences).

What Is “Grit”?

Continue reading:

The Role of Grit in Sport Performance

A while ago, I wrote a series of articles about “motivation”. My goal was to offer an evidence-based introduction to the concepts involved in motivation. The terms that expressed these concepts have been misinterpreted, misused, and presented with a judgmental, moralistic, and emotional tone in the fitness industry and pop-psychology publishing outlets.