While scrolling through Twitter, I stumbled across a remark about how we perceive ‘hard work’. I can’t remember the username or exact phrasing, but they said something along the lines of: “Instead of trying to get your kids to work harder, help them find something that inspires them to work harder.”
I took the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship to motivation and ‘hard work’: In my case, ‘being motivated’ means telling myself to put my head down, and forcing myself to just get it done. You know, a real push through the pain mentality. And I’ve developed a pretty thick skin for this kind of ‘grindwork’ by associating that kind of motivation with people I look up to.
On the surface, this seems fine, right? For example, Marc Manson and James Clear are both authors I look up to, but who I’m sure both struggle with writing just as much as I do. That’s what having role models is.
However, digging a little deeper, and I start to realise that my motivation to work harder in those situations actually just comes from thinking I ought to — as opposed to looking for the thing that inspires me to work harder.
The difference between just working harder to reach Point A, and finding the thing that inspires you to get there, is whether or not you’ll burn yourself out before reaching Point A.
I’m admittedly really bad at taking knocks in progress: My resilience for doing a task only lasts as long as it feels rewarding; and, as soon as I struggle or get negative feedback, my motivation plummets.
I spent some time exploring the research behind perseverance, ‘grit’ and motivation, and what I realised is that real motivation — true grit — takes a clear sense of passion and purpose to be sustainable.
This is going to be an ongoing practice for me, but I wanted to share some of that research, as well as take you through some strategies I’ve built into my own daily life to define my motivation more clearly — from the small, daily tasks I do, to my long-term career or personal goals — so that I can turn hard work into inspired work.
What I hope you get out of this post:
- Even Olympic athletes don’t fight through the pain simply because they think they have to
- No amount of hard work matters if you don’t have a clear ‘why’ for the stuff you’re doing
- The way you set your goals affects how much motivation you muster
- Motivation takes daily practice
Defining the ‘grit’ I need for hard work
Adam Grant put it really nicely:
“Passion without perseverance is idle curiosity. Perseverance without passion is a grind. Passion with perseverance is grit.”
This understanding provided a useful way for me to work through the research and writing of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, where she discusses her studies with Olympic athletes and college students, and how they think about motivation and resilience.
In working with Olympic athletes, she found that they can push their bodies to the absolute limits of their capabilities, and achieve record-breaking feats of human potential. Their motivation is so resilient, that they can fight through real physical pain to achieve their goal. What makes it so strong?
Another study surveyed entrepreneurs about starting a business. It found that people who persevere without a clear sense of direction are far less likely to succeed. Duckworth’s research showed the same, that these people all have enormous internal motivation — but it doesn’t come from sheer perseverance. She explains that: “They aren’t waking up to do work because they ought to; they’re waking up because they want to.” And that ‘want’ is something they develop on top of a higher purpose (remember this word for later).
In other words, as Adam grant says, “passion without perseverance is idle curiosity”. It does not propel us forward.
Grit driven by passion is more enduring than grit for the sake of perseverance.
I thought about how this looks in my own life: When I really want to exercise, and feel a deep need to keep my body fit and healthy, then it’s easy to get up for a 5am swim. But, without that driving passion, the chances of me getting near the gym (never mind into the pool) drop significantly.
So, I found plenty of evidence to show that passion is essential for the sustainable ‘grit’ I need to push through the hard things — but I still wanted to know how to define that passion.
Defining the passion I need for ‘good grit’
In an article titled The Curse of Being Too Passionate, Brad Stulberg wrote: In a world where we’re told we need to have passion in order to succeed, it’s really easy for us to develop obsessive passion. “With obsessive passion, people tie their self-worth to the validation an activity might bring, and become more passionate about that than about doing the activity itself.”
In other words, we become attached to the rewards and recognition of our passion, as opposed to the internal fulfilment or personal growth thereof.
In most cases, this means that setbacks and failures tend to feel like personal attacks, and as soon as things get hard — which they inevitably will — we feel like giving up. This is where I’m at right now.
This kind of passion is not only counter-productive for developing grit, but it also means we’re “at a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and burnout.”
Let’s look at that word I asked you to remember just now: In order to find a more sustainable source of motivation and passion, I first need to understand my purpose. Passion precedes perseverance, but purpose that precedes passion. And it’s the combination of both passion and perseverance that make ‘grit’.
Here are the steps I’m taking to start getting better at this myself, and how I’m applying it to the smaller tasks I do every day, as a way to practice it for my bigger, higher stakes goals:
Step 1: Define my top-level goals
To avoid obsessive passions, the purpose we need for passionate grit has to come from our top-level goals. Duckworth describes these goals as the overarching ‘why’ behind everything we do. A top-level goal, she says, is “the one that you’re tenacious about, that you are stubborn about, that you wake up in the morning and go to bed aligned to.”
She uses the idea of a pyramid: The low-level goals are the concrete things on our daily to-do lists. They serve our mid-level goals, which in turn serve our top-level goals.
The problem with focusing on low-level goals is that they run out. This means we constantly need to look for new ones, tire ourselves out doing so, and are more likely to tie our egos to the reward or recognition of those activities, as opposed to the activities themselves.
Duckworth’s West Point study illustrates this point well. In a study of college students studying for an assessment, she noticed that:
“Students who are just trying to get an A… just trying to make it to some threshold… get to a certain level of proficiency, and then stop. If, on the other hand, [they] are not just trying to reach a certain cut point, but are trying to maximise [their] outcomes — you want to do as well as you possibly can — then there’s no limit, ceiling, or threshold.”
In other words, passion should not come from something with a finite point or limit; it needs to be continuous. This is what makes our top-level goals more sustainable, because they maximise outcomes over the long-run.
To practise this, I spent some time being aware of the things I did on a daily basis that required ‘hard work’ or motivation, and asked myself why I was doing them five times over. This forced me to go beyond my low- and mid-level goals.
I tabulated some of those daily tasks below, with my pursuit for the top-level ‘why’:
As you’ll notice, some of the top-level goals had interesting similarities. Before doing this exercise, I wouldn’t have thought that doing the dishes before bed and watering my plants, or fixing broken cupboards and doing yoga, came from a similar top-level motivation.
By distilling the things I do into a few, overarching reasons for why I do them, I don’t need to generate new motivation (and tire myself out) for every task. Instead, I can derive the same motivation for different kinds of hard work. Now all I need to do is make it easier for me to access it.
Step 2: Make my top-level goals more accessible
I wasn’t going to draw a table like this, every day, for everything I do. I needed an easier way to remind myself what my top-level goals were.
James Clear tweeted a routine he built around this idea, which I used as inspiration and adapted. His tweet read: “For the last week, I started each day by writing “What do I want?” at the top of a blank page. It’s surprising how useful it is to keep asking yourself this question. Each time, my answers got more precise. Once I know what I want, I translate the answer into action steps.”
I used this idea, but broke it down into smaller chunks, and focused exclusively on work-related tasks. I kept a blank notebook on my desk, and before I started any task I would write down a quick one-liner of the top-level goal I thought this fit under.
For example, if I was about to edit an article, I jotted down “Help people communicate their stories better”. Then, I used that as a North Star when I ran into a tricky paragraph, or took an hour longer than I expected. I looked to my left, reminded myself of the top-level goal this task was in service of, and pushed through.
Let me say here that I don’t think this is a sustainable solution. However, what it did do was help me start the habit of asking myself why I was doing this work at all. The practice is making this instinctive.
In most cases, I found that my motivation for the tasks I was doing really just came from recognition or reward. When faced with that tricky paragraph while editing, for example, my initial reasoning to push through was that my team would think I was a bad editor if I didn’t.
Having this routine, then, meant that I could start applying my top-level goals to my passion, and use that ‘grit’ to turn my hard work into inspired work.
Step 3: Use grit to do ‘inspired work’ every day
The goal with this habit is to practise grit on a daily basis, and not just for the really big, really long-term career goals.
And, spoiler alert: I’m nowhere near achieving that yet.
When I had a long day at work, and didn’t feel like making dinner, I thought about my goal of building habits that keep me healthy, active and curious. But I still ended up ordering take-out.
When I got harsh feedback on an article that required a rewrite, I thought about my goal of helping people communicate better. Although I could see that this was an opportunity to move myself closer towards that goal, I still got upset, I still got frustrated, and I still doubted whether I had a career in writing at all.
This is not to say that top-level goals don’t work. All I’m saying is that having them is not enough. Motivation takes practice, and grit is something you need to develop over time.
Even though I still have a long way to go, in both of the above examples, grit is the mechanism that is going to help me be inspired to work harder, as opposed to just working harder because I think I should.
I may not have completely reframed my relationship to ‘hard work’, but now I can point to things that prove that the hard work I do is in service of something greater than itself. And, where it isn’t, I can question why I put so much hard work into those things in the first place.
If you have any experiences similar to mine, or tried this out and want to share what you learned about your own motivation, please leave a comment and feel free to reach out to me! I love hearing from you, and sharing what worked and didn’t work from each other’s experiences.
- Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It? by Paul A. O’Keefe at Yale-NUS College, and Carol S. Dweck and Gregory M. Walton at Stanford College
- Why grit requires perseverance and passion to positively predict performance by Jon M. Jachimowicz, Andreas Wihler, Erica R. Bailey, and Adam D. Galinsky
- The Curse of Being Too Passionate by Brad Stulberg at CUT
- This simple mental diagram can help you discover your ultimate goal in life by Ruth Umoh at CNBC
- The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth by Deborah Perkins-Gough at ASCD.org