creative, ambitious, lazy
August 31, 2014 9:21 AM   Subscribe

How does an adult develop "grit"?

I will get excited about something and put some effort towards it, only to have it turn into 'meh' a few days later. I just can't stick to it. It's like I either have crazy amounts of drive or I give up entirely. I suppose I get easily frustrated or lose my energy fast.

I have lots of creative juice and way too many interests. I will take one class of metalsmithing, do some workouts with a personal trainer, write some short stories, make skincare products at home... and then it just fizzles. I get bored, or I see the path ahead too clearly "in theory" and then don't even take the first step. As a kid I was allowed to quit stuff that frustrated me. I used to love writing and did it all the time, but I had no clue how to progress further, so it fizzled in my late teens. As an adult, bribes do not work ("lose 5 lbs and I'll buy you X" turns into "meh, you can keep X" even if X is something I really want and the weight loss is something I really want).

Learning came very easy to me in school. It only got hard around the 2nd year of university, and I stuck through it because I needed a job and I had no family to fall back on. I am supremely bored at work and have learned all I can here. I am applying to many positions and had some interviews but it's not happening yet.

It's been suggested to me that I haven't found the thing I want yet, and I would stick to it if I loved it.

I am not completely without grit - I worked my way through university, progressed in my career, bought a house & fixed it up. If I see a clear payoff, I will hustle. Most times.

Things that seem to motivate me are very external: weekly classes, all my friends are going to the gym, external validation like acting in local plays and musicals. I'd love to start my own company but I just can't seem to get over the hump of actually doing it. "Oh everyone tries to self-publish" "who needs another skincare line?" "someone else will do it better" are the thoughts that kill my drive. I can have snatches of depression but they only last a couple of days.

Even stuff I love to do for it's own sake takes enormous amount of energy to just get started.

I would be happy where I am if it weren't for this aching drive. I know people who are happy to just punch a clock and pursue other interests but I haven't found this zone.

I feel this crazy drive to be more than I am but I can't find an outlet.

How do I pick a direction and just stick to it?
How do I develop "grit" (aka perseverance, "stick-to-it-ness") as an adult?

stories & personal experience welcome
posted by serenity soonish to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 131 users marked this as a favorite
Around the Writer's Block by Rosanne Bane is about retraining your brain to break through ingrained habits of self-sabotage in order to develop productivity; it's literally been the only thing in the past 20 years that helped me break through the "start/give up/feel bad/try to ignore aching drive (great phrase!)/start again/give up again" pattern with my writing. She's also now my writing coach and the change in my approach to writing, and to projects/challenges in general, has been enormous.
posted by scody at 9:58 AM on August 31, 2014 [13 favorites]

I posted this similar question recently and think you may find some of the answers from it helpful, too.

However, your question is ultimately more about overcoming the boredom that hobbies can eventually create because of the repetitive processes involved. James Clear wrote a fantastic article on this subject: "How To Stay Focused When You Get Bored Working Toward Your Goals" (or, the myth of passion and motivation).

To quote Clear:
On this particular day in the gym, there was a coach visiting who had worked with thousands of athletes over his long career, including some nationally-ranked athletes and Olympians.

I had just finished my workout when I asked him, “What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else. What do the really successful people do that most people don’t?”

He briefly mentioned the things that you might expect. Genetics. Luck. Talent.

But then he said something I wasn’t expecting.

“At some point,” he said, “it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day and doing the same lifts over and over and over again.”

... [the coach] was saying that really successful people feel the same boredom and the same lack of motivation that everyone else feels. They don’t have some magic pill that makes them feel ready and inspired every day. But the difference is that the people who stick with their goals don’t let their emotions determine their actions. Top performers still find a way to show up, to work through the boredom, and to embrace the daily practice that is required to achieve their goals.

He then segues to his "Identity Based Habits" article about Identity ("I want to be a writer") and Practice, or small wins ("I will write one paragraph each day this week"). He has many other articles about mastering new habits by making them so easy to do ("Write one sentence today. Write two tomorrow." and so on) that you can't say no.

So the reality is that no matter what we want to do, no matter what direction we choose, boredom will always be a part of the process because perseverance requires repetition, and repetition is boring to everyone. As Clear says, you have to fall in love with the daily practice (writing one paragraph daily) instead of the end goal (completing a book of short stories). There's also a lot to be said here about mindfulness and being fully aware of a moment. When you write that paragraph, be aware that you're writing right now and that you're doing what you set out to do. And that's great! Even if you don't like it and scrap it later. Repetition and practice involve a lot of failure, and that's part of the boredom that has to be overcome, too. Thinking of it as a full book of short stories turns it into a messy, anxiety-inducing icky thing that has no organization or reality to it, ensuring that you never get there. But thinking of it in small steps/small wins, even just sentence by sentence, will get you there in due time. Again, you have to be mindful and fall in love with the practice.

This has worked for me with running. I used to hate it. But then I figured out that I really liked running if I listened to 80's pop music, and if I did interval sprints rather than just long runs at the same pace. I found a way, personal to me, to fall in love with the practice and make it enjoyable so I could overcome the boredom of repetition. It may take some more time and some more shifting from one thing to another, but try to pick one thing to create a practice habit for and see if you can find a way that works for you to fall in love with it. Don't get upset if you fall off for a day or even a week, that happens to everyone, too. You just get back on and practice some more.
posted by nightrecordings at 10:01 AM on August 31, 2014 [65 favorites]

I have the same problem, if it's any comfort. I have started so many things, most of which have fallen by the wayside. I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to be drawn to the new shiny, but I've also had to remind myself that most of the time, the new shiny isn't practical or doable or something I actually want to do. It's just a shiny thing that's caught my eye. Stopping and asking myself why I want to do a thing forces me to challenge that sudden burst of excitement. If it can't stand up to that challenge, I obviously can't want it that much.

I've found that things that I do want to do are things that I still want in a few days or weeks or months time. I make myself run the acid test on them. If they fail, I don't do them. Then, when I'm doing these things, I ask myself what the payoff is. I crocheted a shawl last year. It took ages. I spent ~30 hours on it, all told. I wanted that shawl because I was the only one who could do it and I was sick of being cold in bed at night. Having an end thing, an end result, is really important to me. So, I don't learn to cook, I learn to cook a specific meal or plate of food. I still get to mess about in the kitchen, but I have a definite end point. Then, if I still want to, I can learn to cook another meal, but if I don't, that's OK too.

Related comment I made here.
posted by Solomon at 11:36 AM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Cal Newport has written a fair bit on the Study Hacks blog about developing what he calls hard focus.
posted by Lexica at 12:26 PM on August 31, 2014

I've made these two points in threads like this before, but I think it's worth repeating:

and I would stick to it if I loved it.
This is completely wrong, and the people saying it have probably never attempted a serious creative project. In fact, it's backwards: if you stuck to it through the hard parts, you might learn to love it.

Every artist gets to the point where he hates his project and wants to abandon it and start something else. It's totally normal. Finishing projects is satisfying and could be called "fun," working on them is just that: work.

In fact, a famous way of identifying a writer who is a fraud, is if they claim to "love" writing and have "fun" writing all the time. People like that always struggle to complete anything, because the second a project isn't "fun" for whatever reason, they'll bail and move on to something else, which they'll also abandon when the going inevitably gets tough.

Everyone finds self-motivation hard. Everyone can show up or get the work done when they have a commitment to someone else, but finds it hard to do so when they have only themselves to commit to. Nothing is more normal: It's as true of famous successful artists as it is of you and me.

So find someone to commit to. For writers, we usually advise to join a writer's group- if nothing else it gives you a deadline and someone to be answerable to. You can probably find something equivalent for whatever you want to do.

Finally, leave "grit" in John Wayne movies where it belongs. We are all the sum of our actions, nothing more, nothing less. A person who frequently comes through and gets tough tasks done could be *described* as having grit, but that description fits them *because they put in the hard work.* It's not an innate characteristic people have or don't have. Everyone succeeds sometimes and fails sometimes. There are ways to help yourself succeed, and you don't have to think of them as "cheats" or "hacks." The people who you imagine have "grit" have all used them too.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:57 PM on August 31, 2014 [15 favorites]

For what its worth I think "grit" cant be cultivated as much as finding yourself actively confronted by life.

My own personal conception of "grit" either comes from meeting an immovable object, an implacable enemy or facing up to the true nature of yourself and your own limitations, and having no option but attempting to overcome them.

I'm sure faced with a desert island or a sinking boat you'd have plenty of "grit"

It could be that there being nothing at stake that makes it all seem futile? If so maybe working to have it "cost"you more - if you're writing make a real plan to perform or publcish it it or it its starting a business putting some money behind it to force you to power through on it?
posted by Middlemarch at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Creative projects can be just as awful as any other work, with the added bonus that usually there's no guaranteed payoff, unlike regular work where there's a paycheck or satisfied boss/client waiting for you at the end to validate your efforts.

Most of the "wow, I'm so passionate about this" enjoyment of creative projects comes at the beginning, when there's the fun of thinking of the ideas and anticipation of how great the project will end up, and then end, when you have something completed to show for your efforts.

So, in getting your projects done, it's key not to rely on loving the work, which more often than not will be frustrating. Don't rely on inspiration, which is too fleeting. Or vague notions of some profession or identity you want to be.

If you want to love some part of the work, focus on the smallest bits, like the satisfaction of rewriting that function in your programming code more elegant, or of composing the photo you're about to take, or crafting another well-written sentence of your book. Because these small bits are really the essence of the work, and if you hate them, and only like the far-off grand goal or the external validation, then this isn't the right kind of work for you.

And work on some rituals and habits, like the daily ritual of sitting down at your computer to write, in a certain spot, with a nice cup of coffee, that will get you in the mode of saying "I am now working" and forestall procrastination.

nthing Cal Newport who writes about passion vs hard work. I'd also recommend The Creative Habit.
posted by PartOfThisCompleteBreakfast at 2:15 PM on August 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

And as far as having too many interests, that's fine. I'd say to explore the all until you find the one you're willing to put up with all the frustrations of and put the time in more than the others. That's the one you should pursue!
posted by PartOfThisCompleteBreakfast at 2:17 PM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is directly on point for you, but what works for me is considering the alternative *worse*. Like, if I don't want to do something (my taxes, a grind-y work project, learning a new thing) I imagine myself not doing it, and try to persuade myself I would otherwise just waste the time by surfing the internet or rereading an old book or whatever. Then I imagine myself having done the thing, and feeling good afterwards. Then I do it.

Basically what I'm saying is try visualizing yourself having accomplished the thing, and then just work towards that being true. You don't have to enjoy the actual process: the point is to reach the end stage, where the thing is done. You don't have to be "excited" or particularly motivated: you just need to actually do it.
posted by Susan PG at 2:41 PM on August 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Try needing to complete something in order sell it so you can eat. I find that this is a good motivation.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:48 PM on August 31, 2014

You might like this video based on a quote by Ira Glass-

He talks about the natural tendency to want to give up when the thing you do or create doesn't meet your expectations. Some very good advice for framing this... It is a natural part of the process and something every person in a creative endeavor deals with.

I'll be watching this thread with interest too!
posted by ista at 3:29 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

The other way to approach this is to decide to treat dabbling as a virtue, or even as a goal. (I typed "goat" but I don't think you can treat it as a goat).

I love dabbling. I love being a person who does "a bit of this and a bit of that". I'm glad to be privileged to be able to dabble in so many different things. I'd love to start my own company but I'd sure hate to continue running it, so I just kind of freelance a bit here and a bit there. For me, the ability to dabble is an end in itself, and I only work to support my Dabbling Goals.

From a financial point of view, the ability to synthesise information across a wide (but not deep) knowledge base is a valuable skill. There are millions of specialists out there, but generalists are rare!
posted by emilyw at 7:05 AM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

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