I like the psychological concept of grit, which corresponds roughly with perseverance, and even more closely with conscientiousness (one of the “Big Five” personality traits). Popularized most recently by Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the concept has been around at least since the early 1900’s. Grit, unlike natural genius, can to some extent be learned, and its application is more important than intelligence in terms of life success and fulfillment.
My own mental hurdle with this concept is that the word grit literally makes me think of someone gritting their teeth and just pushing, pushing, pushing, like Conan on the Wheel of Pain.
Obviously Conan is just going in a circle, getting nowhere (though he is getting stronger and bigger). That can be the problem with brute force persistence too — you might get mentally tough but at the same time not make any progress.
For that reason I substitute the word persistment (persistence + improvement) for grit. It’s not as catchy, but it works to remind me that there are two parts to self-propelled success. Willful stubbornness will get you only so far. You have to actively get better.
A few weeks ago I wrote about my take on what it takes to create on a day-to-day basis (inspiration, daily practice, quality control, a learning system). What I didn’t really address was the mindset of the creative life. Where does the motivation come from? What should you do if you don’t “naturally” feel motivated to spring out of bed and spend hours wrestling with your medium to create something that may or may not end up good, meaningful, and/or profitable?
What is persistment (or grit, if you prefer) in terms of developing an artistic/creative career, or just living that kind of life?
Know (and Feel) Your Why
I’m talking about purpose. We get to choose if we want to dedicate our lives to something, and what that something is. For me it’s mostly about creating works that entertain others (and hopefully also inspire, fascinate, etc.). Life happens whether or not we assign or ascribe purpose to it, but I appreciate the additional agency that choosing a purpose provides. If you don’t reflect on and define your own raison d’etre, it’s too easy to get swept up in other people’s agendas, becoming a pawn in games of people craftier and more powerful than yourself.
Purpose doesn’t need to be complicated or grand. But it needs to be yours. The only requirement is that whatever you choose has a deep personal, emotional resonance. What do you care about, more than anything?
Know Where You’re Going (a Main Goal and a Plan)
For many years all I wanted was to be a successful dance music producer. That goal sustained me for my early adult life. I had a great run, publishing music on my favorite labels, co-running my own label, landing big licensing deals, co-promoting a famous San Francisco event, touring internationally as a DJ, and even quitting my technology work for a few years and paying my mortgage with only music income.
While I still love running Loöq and making music in the studio, that career has mostly run its course (probably). I no longer want to DJ, spend lots of time in airports, or participate in big dance music events, and those things are kind of required for next-level success as a producer. I won’t say I’m too old, because there are people older than me still loving it, still working the CDJs and pumping their fists in the air. But I was ready to try to something else. There’s no rule that says you can only do one thing your entire life.
I floundered, somewhat directionless, for a few years. That was a little rough. I continued to support myself and act like a responsible adult, but I didn’t have any big picture or vision for my career or creative drive.
Now I have my sights set on being a novelist. While there are many acceptable definitions of “novelist,” for me it means getting published with a reputable publisher, selling thousands of books, and making some income (though not necessarily quitting my freelance work).
I can’t promise you I’ll get there, but it’s where I’m aiming. It feels great to be headed in a specific direction, no longer floundering. I’ve committed.
(And if you’re a novelist trying to make it a dance music producer, we should get in touch and trade tips.)
Deconstruct Blockedness/Poor Performance
I enjoyed this lecture by Alan Watkins:
Watkins makes some interesting distinctions between sensation, emotion, and feelings. What he’s getting at is that we can’t just look at behavior and try to force ourselves to do better. We need to go deeper, and deconstruct what’s happening at a physiological level, then work our way back up the chain.
Same goes for “writer’s block.” If you feel blocked, deconstruct your blockedness. If you’re mildly depressed, fix your brain. If you don’t know what to write, then back up, brainstorm, outline, write what you’re going to write. If you don’t know how to write what you want to write, then do some research, study some examples, get some advice, take a class, etc. Same applies, in slightly different ways, to other creative fields.
Incremental Goals and Rewards
A friend of mine does something nice for herself every time she gets something published. I think that’s a great habit. Why not reinforce success?
But getting published isn’t within our control, and it doesn’t necessarily happen frequently. It’s important to also reward yourself for incremental progress, for setting and achieving a target. That could be meeting your daily quota, finishing a draft, or submitting a piece for publication.
Even if these actions don’t result in immediate external success (getting published, getting paid, getting famous, receiving awards, etc.) you should still count them as personal successes, and reward the behavior. Because you need to keep doing those behaviors to have any chance at external success.
So train yourself like a chicken, and condition yourself to do the things you want to be doing.
Frame Rejection as Feedback, and Progress
We all know rejection is part of the game. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it get to you. Ideally rejection should have a neutral emotional quality. Rejection is feedback, information. It can tell you any of the following:
- that your work needs to improve
- how your work can improve
- that your work doesn’t fit the market you submitted it to
- they don’t yet know who you are (reputation and connections matter)
I track my rejections, both for logistical purposes (so I don’t submit the same piece to the same outlet), but also as a measure of how much work I’ve put in.
For whatever reason, rejections no longer sting as much. Sometimes, they have a silver lining (when your work makes it out of the slush pile and the editor actually reads it, when you get personalized feedback or a nice comment).
I don’t know if I can explain exactly how to not take rejection personally. It helps having my first published story. It helps having clear successes in other areas of my life. Maybe most importantly, it helps to remember that rejection is about the work, and your progress, not you as a person.
What’s your take on grit, as it applies to the creative life? How do you nurture your own motivation?