178: Building Grit


Welcome to episode #178 of the Own Your Best Life Podcast. There’s something that happens as we get older that puts us even more at risk for stagnation and that is wanting to be more and more safe. The more successful we get in life, the more we try to hold onto a certain kind of lifestyle and amount of money. The more we try to hold onto the image of the perfect house, family and relationships. Yet, we all know that life is way more dynamic than that and that we were built for change. Today’s podcast on building grit is about the challenges we purposely put into our lives so that we can grow, not stagnate and find even more freedom in the next chapter of our lives.

This past week I did a Spartan Beast race in Killington, VT – and it is known to be the toughest Spartan Beast in the US and maybe the world. It was such an example to me of what’s possible. 15.6 miles (it’s supposed to be 13.1 miles or 21K). 6 hours and 30+ minutes. Extra mile up and down a mountain at the end. 30 obstacles. And 7500 feet of elevation.

One of the 6 types of Grit that Angela Duckworth found in her research was the grit to persevere. Grit isn’t about talent or luck. Grit is about passion and perseverance for long-term goals. It works especially well for predicting our achievement of results, specifically those that are personally meaningful and challenging. It’s not about self-control to just do the next thing on your to-do list. It is about staying with something even when you fail again and again – to be in that stuck phase yet continuing through – and doing something for the longer-term.

For that Spartan race, I found that grit was present the whole time. From signing up to following through, I’ve found that my pursuits in athletics are mostly conditioned by grit. By a commitment to executing the plan and sticking with something even if I’m scared. I make it meaningful because I connect it to who I am as a person and my accountability to doing what I said I would do – and my accountability to others. 

They have found that more gritty individuals are less likely to pursue pleasure, but are more likely to pursue engagement – which is to be absorbed by a task – and meaning – which is a pursuit of activities that have more altruistic purposes.

When I thought about the Spartan, what I realized was that this 15+ miles of sheer effort was just what the grit literature describes. There was very little pleasure in the activity or even the training leading up to it. There was, however, a lot of engagement. When you’re doing things that feel hard or long, it’s hard not to be engaged. It’s hard to be bored when the effort and challenge feels just high enough that you have to pay attention. It’s actually one of the best ways to train your brain to focus – is to do longer, harder activities that are just challenging enough that you can’t look away without repercussions. I had started Crossfit to add strength training to my routine just before I signed up for the Spartan – it was harder and earlier classes – and it took sheer persistence to just keep showing up for 5 am classes when I knew I was shortchanging my sleep. 

Sometimes we look at something and all we see are the obstacles – I am not a stranger to that phenomena – and yet, what if we realized that this is normal and we just need to keep going past one obstacle at a time – to have a life we couldn’t even imagine? To have results that seem almost impossible? What if that was all it took? I kept telling myself during the Spartan to pretend that it was twice the distance – to not hope for it to be over – but to just keep going. One foot in front of the other. It is such an analogy for most of the things I do. It’s hard at times to keep working on something that feels like it’s not working or doesn’t feel good – but what’s the alternative? Work on things that just feel good? Quit everything right away? I realized that there’s a part of me that knows that life just gets harder – and that we get stronger and more experienced – and that it’s not a problem. Instead of wishing that I could coast forever, I wish that I can continue to grow to the height of my challenges. That I can take one step forward even after 2-3 steps backwards and be ok with the realities of life not working out well, the entire time.

I want to also discuss meaning because that was such a big driver for me in most of my pursuits in life. Meaning was also in high supply for the Spartan. I was doing it at the request of a friend – so wanting to support someone else and be there for them was not just about me. We then had another person join in the race – a Spartan Beast veteran (in Killington), thankfully – who was willing to do it again once he found out that the two of us were doing it…

It was the 3 of us for that day and having others around kept me focused on others and how they were doing – not just on me. This is why teams are often so successful – it helps each person become better because we’ll often do more for others than we will do for ourselves. So many of the changes I made and my clients make in their lives are because of their families. Wanting to not be so tired or exhausted so they could be more present for their families. Getting the negative voices to quiet down so they could be the calmer parent and friend. Finding more time for meditation and physical activity is often driven by wanting to be there for the people in our lives – to be at their highest capacity as a leader, thinker and problem solver. It’s that gratification you get when you help someone else – and the realization that the struggles were all worth it because everyone has struggles and we can more easily support others when we’ve been through or can empathize with their struggles. Hard times make stronger people who can help more people.

Even asking how others feel is such a great way to release the personal inner struggles that tend to run rampant if we’re not asked to get out of our heads and seek more perspective. That day, I heard so many positive comments from one person to another. “You’re doing great, man – you really are.” “You’ve got this.” “Are you ok?” “Nice work.” Those moments for me are like gold – because our words are so powerful and often we don’t realize how much it means to someone to have another person’s support. When you’re doing something hard, you don’t even realize how much it means to have someone supporting you along the way. Not just physically but emotionally or mentally or spiritually. 

Since we’re on the topic of spirituality – I called upon all helpful beings that day – spirit guides, ancestors, angels, the Universe – there were these moments where I just asked them to help me create a shield of impenetrability or to just give me some boosts along the way. And the amazing thing was, it was cold at times – wind and no sun on a mountain – and I felt cold – and yet it didn’t bother me that much. My hands were swelling a lot especially as we got to the later parts of the day and I just started squeezing my hands to move the blood and to bring back some flow. It’s like you just shift into more of a mode where your brain doesn’t make things a problem unless they’re a massive problem. In a world where we hyper focus on the negative, complain about how someone talks or watch what others do – it’s really nice to have examples of times where you’re not focused on the micro things and instead focused on the macro. 

A beautiful synchronicity that occurred that day was after the second to last obstacle. We thought we were done – our watches already hit 14+ miles when this was supposed to be a 13.1 mile course. Our families were there and as we came down the mountain we saw that there’s another massive obstacle. A punishing 40 lb sandbag carry (I think it’s 60 lbs for men) up and over and down a ski slope. When I first saw it, my mind immediately went to “what?” and then “no way – this is going to hurt my leg on the downhill” to “my family’s watching, I have to try” to “I can’t believe I’m doing this” to “just keep going, don’t think – just one more step – don’t think about putting it down”. Especially on the way up, I would hear the sound of one sandbag after another being thrown down. My thought was that I don’t know if I can pick it back up if I put it down – it felt that heavy. So I didn’t and that thought – “just keep going…one more step at a time” kept me going the whole way. 

As I finish the sandbag carry, I am so relieved to be done with it – not wanting even to feel the relief but to just think about how I can put it down in a way where it’s easy for the next person to pick it up – asking myself even in the hard moments – to just do one more. To be my best when I’m at my worst – which is another one of the 6 kinds of grit – although I didn’t think about grit literature at the time. 

I see the girls again and I go up to them – but just before I hugged them, I found a giant feather on the ground in front of my family. Now, birds have been a spirit guide for me – and have often come up with my family in meditation and in real life. So seeing this feather there was just that subtle sign to say, “you’re on the right path.” To do hard things not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually – at the end of the day – it isn’t just for me – it’s for them and if it didn’t somehow help my family along the way, it doesn’t make sense for me. So thanks Universe for putting out one more extra big cue for that day.

As we finished the Spartan Race after the true last obstacle – which was jumping over a log of fire – they cut off our bracelets and said, now back up that mountain and then back down. Now, the whole race was about giving just a little bit more when I thought I had nothing to give – and that was another example. Heading into that race, I was low on sleep with a super full calendar at work where I was coaching at night and spending extra hours during the day and evening working on a big training. I could feel the thoughts coming in that, “I’m not sleeping enough” and “I’m not in the best condition for this race.” Instead, I tried to rest the night before and just tell myself that there’s so much more left in the tank – it wasn’t just about one week. Whenever I did training runs in high school, I remember always having to spring the last bit – even at the end of a long run. I remember as I ran with Jay, he would ask me why I did that and I told him it was a mental thing, to push harder even when you think you’re done. Even with my running coach – there is always another mile or set of strides – and he said the same thing, “to train you to know there’s more left in there.”

One thing I want to note for building grit is that it’s a confidence booster during uncertain times. There will be more times in your life that you don’t know things than you do know things, especially if you keep stretching your comfort zone. When you consider how much you change your self-perception each time you stay committed or consistent – that’s one of the biggest wins. To break your own self-imposed ceilings. Thinking that your health is just going downhill after kids or that you shouldn’t do interesting things because you’re a parent now. Or that you’re just the person who does this work, when really you’re so much more. Or even thinking that you can’t be consistent, push through or be committed to something. None of this is true.

The Spartan Race is one marker of many days of commitment for myself. I never want my races to be things I do just for that day and that’s it. To me, it’s a reason to train or to keep moving. It’s a reason to do things I’m scared of doing. That race was built upon the years I spent moving every single day. The commitment to running consistently through the seasons. The commitment to daily effort, not just occasional fair-weather moments. That race would have been way more brutal and punishing if I didn’t already put in a fair bit of work each day.

For those of you who are considering a Spartan Race or any kind of challenge that’s outside of your comfort zone, just know that you can build grit through many different ways. The 6 types are: the grit to persevere, the grit to control your thoughts, the grit to master fear, the grit to be your best when you’re at your worst, the grit to train your weaknesses and the grit to recover.

I’m actually more focused on the grit to recover than anything else, but that’s because I find burnout and not wanting to slow down can be challenging when you’re committed to peak performance. This means mindful movement, long walks, sauna, baths, sleep, food, hydration – these are actually hard things to do especially when you’ve had a longer day and to do it on a regular basis means I have to be more purposeful with my time. This also means having a true active recovery protocol that’s not about binging on drinks, food or screens to recover. 

This also means that I have to have clear goals – and clear items that I’m trying to do so I can actually stop and turn off when those things are done. The process of getting things done is perseverance – and there is so much dopamine that gets created when you check off the list of clear goals. But putting alcohol in my body afterwards or eating food that bloats me as a recovery tool really isn’t helpful because then it would affect me the next day. I get poor sleep and I wake up later. So that’s why I don’t drink very much, if at all – and it’s also why I have been eating more moderately and less extreme as a rule. Real results are like compound interest, they need time to build up day after day and if we just keep derailing ourselves with recovery protocols that negatively affect our health, it’s hard to see the effects of your work add up.

What was really interesting is that I’ve found that I love being challenged and that there’s a part of me – as there is in you – that rises up to the challenge. One of my favorite comments during the Spartan race, that clued me into the last mile not being an official part of the race is that as we were doing that extra climb up and down – yet again – someone on the way down said to us on the way up, “these are the true Spartans.” 

While I’ve leaned out and back from punishing activities over the last decade, part of me is now ready for more. I’ve been building my recovery grit and not seeing that time as a weakness – versus knowing that I need it because there will be times when I’m pushing through and am already running on lower stores. I am building trust in knowing myself and knowing that I am stronger than I realize and that I don’t need to fear my own strength in pushing myself – and instead I should own it even more – and use it to help myself and others as much as possible.

This makes the next several years a very interesting one – and I’m excited to be looking at my next 5 years again to see what’s in store for me. 

If you’re ready to Own Your Best Life, I want to invite you to watch the free training on how to Stand Out and Lead, using spiritual, high-performance strategies. You can access the training at https://may-empson.mykajabi.com/stand-out-and-lead.

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That’s it for this week. Have an amazing one and I’ll talk to you next time.

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