Mental toughness, personal crisis, and the role of grit in your success


By Mark Schaefer

I was about to facilitate a new workshop to a group of Chief Marketing Officers. I rarely get nervous, but I have to admit I was little concerned about this one. The participants included the CMOs of many well-known brands like the NBA, Subway, and Citi Bank.

Moments before I walked into the conference room, I received a text message with news I was dreading. A close family member had been diagnosed with a debilitating and incurable disease. My head was spinning. I wanted to go back to my hotel room and cry. But I had a conference room full of people waiting for me.

I had to pull it together. Not only that, I had to be focused, and I had to be GREAT.

In those moments, what do you do?

The role of grit in personal success

Writing my book KNOWN was an extraordinary experience because it allowed me to hear the stories of dozens of people who had become known in diverse careers such as real estate, education, banking, art, banking and other fields. And through the interviews, I began to detect a pattern. The people who made it were … tough.

They kept going when they were sick.

They created content when they were depressed.

They overcame fatigue, disappointment, and tragedy.

All these data points came together and made sense to me when I read Angela Duckworth’s fine book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Angela defines four characteristics of people who persevere:

  1. Love of the work: Success begins with enjoying what you do. Every gritty person Angela studied for her book can point to aspects of their work they enjoy less than others, and most have to put up with chores they don’t enjoy at all. Nevertheless, they’re captivated by the endeavor as a whole. With enduring fascination and childlike curiosity, they practically shout, “I love what I do!”
  2. Capacity to practice: Nobody is born an expert, so after defining what I call in my book your sustainable interest, you must devote yourself to the focused and full-hearted practice that leads to mastery. You must zero in on your weaknesses and commit to improve, week after month after year. To be gritty is to resist complacency.
  3. Purpose: For most people, an interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. Gritty people are driven because they can say, “My work is important – both to me and to others.”
  4. Hope: Hope is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. From the very beginning to the very end, it’s important to keep going even when things are difficult, even when you have doubts. At various points, in big ways and small, you get knocked down. If you stay down, grit loses. If you get up, grit prevails.

This explained a lot. These were the same words I was hearing from the stars of my book. The fact is, building a personal brand takes time, consistency … and yes, grit.

Dialing in grit

We are all equal in our human condition. To be human is to suffer, and if you haven’t suffered or experienced loss, you will. As a business person, sometimes we have to deal with that kind of grief and at least put on a show that makes people think everything is OK.

Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with suffering in a professional context quite a bit over the years. Sometimes I handled it well, sometimes I didn’t. But I have learned a few things over that time. This is how I put on my “game face” and “dial up grit” on a moment’s notice.

Focus on one hour

Most business tasks are an hour or less. A meeting, a presentation, a phone call, a pitch. In those cases, I just focus on getting through one hour. I can do anything for one hour, right? Block it all out and just be tough and focused for one hour.

Don’t worry about tonight, tomorrow, or anything else. Just be present and calm for one single hour.

And if there are more meetings to deal with, I deal with those later on. But right now, I need to be great for just one hour.

Focus on the promise and the hope

When I create content for you each week, there is one promise that is pounding in my brain every single day: “I will never let you down.” And to do that, I can’t quit.

The day my blog (or podcast, or book …) isn’t relevant, interesting, timely, and entertaining is the day I hang up my keyboard.

To keep my promise, it’s smart to be prepared for setbacks. I have a bank of about 25 blog posts and hundreds of story ideas that I can call on in the case of disaster. It’s like having a back-up power supply. If the personal power flickers off, I can still bring the power to you … even for weeks if I need to.

Focus on the purpose

I am a teacher. The is at the heart of everything I do. I know I have an impact on people, their lives, and their businesses, because they tell me so. This is my purpose. This is why I am here and what keeps me going.

Creating content that impacts people makes me happy. It’s my reward as I head into the final phase of a long career. Angela Duckworth’s research is correct. The purpose — that’s what keeps you going in difficult times, no the money.

In the name of transparency, there was a point in my life where I felt I could not persist. No tricks worked. So I don’t want you to think I am some kind of superhuman or something. In those days, I couldn’t even focus on a timeframe as long as an hour. It was minute by minute. So look … if you ever hit that place, be good to yourself and just get the hell through it.

We’ll be here waiting for you on the other side.

How do you persist in the face of a personal struggle?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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