Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge and today, my guest is Caroline Miller. Caroline is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. For almost three decades, Caroline Miller has been a pioneer with her groundbreaking work in the areas of goal setting and accomplishment, grit, happiness, and success. She’s recognized as one of the world’s leading positive psychology experts. She’s the author of several bestselling books including My Name is Caroline, Creating Your Best Life, and a new book with Sounds True called Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance and Purpose.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Caroline and I spoke about getting grit—how being gritty is being passionate and persistent when it comes to long term goals and how the happiest people wake up to hard goals. We talked about authentic grit and how it’s different from three kinds of false grit—what Caroline calls stubborn grit, faux grit, and selfie grit. We also talked about why millennials on the whole lack grit and how this is a real challenge for an entire generation who “don’t do hard.” Finally, we talked about evidence from the field of positive psychology about happiness and success and that—ready for this?—we don’t become happy after we succeed at something but rather, we succeed because we’re happy first. Here’s my conversation on getting grit with Caroline Miller.
Caroline, to begin with, can you tell me a little bit about how—and more importantly, why—you have become so interested in the topic of grit?
Caroline Miller: Great question. I am fascinated by grit for a few reasons. One is because my fifth book, Creating Your Best Life, came out in early 2009. It was the first book to connect the science of happiness with the science of success. In that book, I have a chapter on grit and I have it because one of the findings in positive psychology is that the happiest people among us wake up every day to hard goals—clear-cut hard goals that they pursue, short term and long term. In order to achieve those hard goals, you have to have this quality called “grit” which was just emerging while I was in the first class of Penn’s Masters of Applied Positive Psychology [in] 2005.
While I was there that year, Angela Duckworth was just coming out with some of her early cool research on what grit predicted. I just was fascinated by it, so I included a chapter about her findings in Creating Your Best Life. I believe I was the first to actually introduce her and her work to the mass market.
Then, I was being interviewed for an article about, I think, Positively Caroline—my sixth book—and somebody said, “You know, your next book has to be just about grit because this is the arc of every book you’ve ever written since 1988.” It all just fell into place. That’s it—got to do nothing but grit. She was right. I’ve devoted the last few years doing nothing but thinking about grit—how do you build it? What do you do with this research in a practical way? I’m delighted with what I’ve come up with because it seems to be getting really great reviews.
TS:Now, you talk about something, Caroline, called “authentic grit.” You distinguished it from other kinds of grit that you call “false grit.” Let’s start there and [help] our listeners distinguish between authentic grit and false grit.
CM: Right. This is probably where my work is most distinctive from other books on the market, including Angela’s. That’s because, as I thought about grit, I started with her definition which is passion and persistence in pursuit of long-term goals. The more I thought about it, the more I realized—and this is kind of a “duh” moment for many of us—that it applies to people who are really bad people. [These are] people who have a focus that just kind of is narrow and cruel and they don’t stop until they achieve their ends—usually not conducive or positive ends.
Then, I started to think, “Well, what it is about grit that I want people to know?” I came up with: when grit is positive and it has a positive outcome—not just for you, but it influences and inspires awe in others—I wanted to narrow down my definition to be just that authentic grit. [This], to me, is still about passion and pursuing hard goals, but it’s also about taking positive risks, inspiring other people to play bigger, and going outside of your comfort zone and flourishing so that you’ll live your best life. To me, authentic grit is positive grit for positive reasons with positive outcomes. That’s my overarching definition of what I call good grit. And there is good grit and bad grit, and there are several kinds of bad grit, which I’m sure we’ll get into.
TS: Yes. Let’s go right for it. What’s the bad grit?
CM: Several kinds of bad grit. I was using a term I called “stupid grit” for several years before I wrote the book. We decided to call it “stubborn grit in the book so that we don’t offend anybody. When I’ve used stupid grit, it really went viral. My name is kind of associated with stupid grit.
Basically, what that means is it’s when you have an idea whose time has passed and you have a strategy to achieve a goal that is no longer working, it’s no longer smart to continue to pursue that path. I liken it to summit fever for mountaineers, who see the summit and they just can’t bring themselves to turn around. The Sherpas and the fellow climbers are saying, “We got to turn around. There’s a whiteout coming, a blizzard,” whatever.
People who are drunk on the goal and will not listen to good advice and who pursue something to destructive ends either for themselves or other people or both—that’s what I call stupid grit. You see that in companies, entrepreneurs who can’t pivot in time to save their company or their product. Generally, it’s people who are arrogant and who don’t know how to disengage from a goal and reengage in a different way. Stupid grit or stubborn grit is grit that doesn’t take you to a good outcome that’s good for you, good for others, and you don’t tend to listen to other people.
Then, there’s “faux grit” or “false grit”—but I like the word “faux” because it’s a little bit of French there. Faux grit are people who fake their results and they want you to think that they’ve done something very, very difficult but they don’t have what it takes to actually pursue that hard course.
So, I call it faux grit. We see it in academia now a lot. We see a lot of people faking results. They’ll take shortcuts [to] get PhDs. We see it in sports, particularly when you think about the Lance Armstrongs of the world who want to be an Ironman or Tour de France winners, and they’ll take on the mantle of being winners without actually doing the work. I think the most egregious thing you can do is to adopt somebody else’s or co-opt somebody’s military honors. I found this really interesting subset of faux grit in people who buy the Medal of Honor at flea markets.
TS: Oh, my.
TS: I didn’t know you could buy something like that at a flea market.
CM: Who knew? I mean who would even to go look for it? But there are people—and there’s a lot of people—in fact, there’s a congressional committee that is specifically set up to find Medal of Honor pretenders. They buy the medal. They wear it. They ride in parades. They wave. They put it on their resumes. When you see people like this, they repel you, which is a piece of what made me really decide [that] authentic grit has to inspire other people because when you see bad grit, when you see stupid grit, stubborn grit, or faux grit—or even my next king, selfie grit—what you see are people who repel others. They don’t inspire them. They actually turn them off.
This faux grit is just people who want you to believe the best about them but they don’t have what it takes to actually be a finisher, so they take short cuts. They end up kind of being repulsive in many ways.
The third kind of bad grit is what I call “selfie grit.” In our society where humility has really gone AWOL—I mean, we just don’t have a culture that supports humility. It’s all about wanting to be a movie star and the star of your show. Take a picture of yourself here, there, and everywhere. People dying taking selfies.
Most of all, what you see are people who may have accomplished hard goals but my God, they got to tell you about it all the time. That’s not inspiring either. When you see people who do hard things but only to get a trophy or to get the acclaim of others, it’s lacking this key character strength of humility, which really is integral to becoming a gritty person—an authentically gritty person.
So, those are the kinds of grit. You may actually do hard things or pretend to have done hard things, but it doesn’t inspire others. It’s not positive and it doesn’t leave the world a better place. That’s when grit is being misused for the wrong reasons and the wrong context.
TS: Now, I want to ask you a question, Caroline, that goes to the very core of the assumption you made here at the beginning of our conversation—that the happiest people wake up to hard goals. I want to ask about that because: what about waking up and just being content with a relatively easy life where there’s not this sense of a big challenge ahead? What about something like contentment, ease, relaxation? I mean, really? In order to really be at the peak of happiness, I need to have hard goals?
CM: Who’s to say that waking up and being content is an easy goal? It’s not for a lot of people.
TS: Certainly, it wouldn’t be for me.
CM: OK. Unfortunately, the findings—it’s not assumptions. It’s actually real findings. And so I spent many, many years studying goal-setting theory and all the ancillary theories that support what it [takes] to have a flourishing life—a well-lived life. It simply is untrue that the happiest people wake up and they just kind of fall forward and do what’s easy. Goal-setting theory has really established that the happiest people are the ones who actually go out of their comfort zones because that’s where the meaningful life is. The meaningful life is not living small or just living inside your comfort zone where nothing’s hard.
That’s just very well-established across many different strands of theoretical, motivational research because when you aren’t going out of your comfort zone—when you aren’t kind of reaching with your character strengths to do things that are meaningful to you—you end up not only reaching your potential—you don’t reach your potential. At the end of life, what we’re finding is that these are the people who often say, “Could have, would have, should have.” Or, [the] number one regret of people in hospice care is that they didn’t live life they wanted to live. They took too few risks. They played it safe.
I can really say with a fair amount of certainty that that’s a finding that really deserves some thought. If people feel like, “Well, I should just wake up and kind of do what was left undone or just react to what’s in front of me or just kind of contemplate the world and have a pleasant life,” I think there’s just no research to support that.
In fact, Marty Seligman has really spent a lot of time—as have other people—studying, “What is the well-lived life? What is the flourishing life?” I think the more accepted definition of that includes five components. Having pleasant emotions and positive emotions is just one of the five things.
The pleasant life is not the meaningful life or the engaged life. It’s just a pleasant life. You need to have a PERMA: positive emotions, engagement in life—and engagement comes from being in flow. Flow doesn’t come from the easy life. Flow comes from the challenging life. You need to have positive relationships. You need to have a meaningful life. It’s very clear that the meaningful life is not the easy life.
When you think about some of the people who’ve made the biggest difference in the world—I’ll just say Mother Teresa for one; Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, all kinds of people I’m sure come to mind. Harriet Tubman. They didn’t have easy, pleasant lives. They had meaningful lives. They had hard lives in many cases, but they were flourishing lives because they were making a difference.
Then A in PERMA is for “achievement.” It’s simply not a meaningful life if you aren’t setting and pursuing goals that matter to you. That’s part of what’s called self-determination theory. We really do need to have mastery over our environment, so we end up feeling somewhat impotent in life. This is an area I do know a fair amount about. I don’t want to get too academic, but I think it’s been conclusively disproven that the happy life—the well-lived life—is the life where you just get up and find nothing but pleasant emotions.
Tami Simon: That was a very wonderful and compelling answer. Thank you for that. It seems though that grit—having grit—requires then these genuine goals of some kind, these challenges. How do you help people know what the hard goals are that are really in their heart?
CM: It’s really interesting to work as a coach. I’ve been working as a professional coach mostly with leaders or high performers—and high performers are in all walks of life, not just corporations. I should quickly say that I’m working with composers and athletes and people who are reinventing themselves at midlife.
What’s interesting to me is I could never ever predict what a hard goal is for any of them. What lurks in someone’s heart and mind is not always apparent to other people. The question I often use is, “What will you regret not pursuing if you’re looking back on your life and you haven’t made progress on something that I might not know about?” What’s interesting is everyone has an answer. Everybody. Sometimes, I’m the first person that they’ve actually articulated it to.
You want to find out what the thing [is] that you will regret not pursuing because the research on risk and regrets finds that people regret more the things they didn’t go after than the things they went after that didn’t work out. You really want to get to the heart of that. What is it that you wish to leave behind as a legacy or the thing that you want to find out that you actually swung for the fences? That question tends to get a lot of interesting answers.
I also find that this wonderful exercise that came out of positive psychology works very well, and it’s “best possible future self.” If failure was not an option, what would you be doing in 10 years? Where would you be? Who would be with you? Where would you live? What causes would you be donating to that you would work for? How would you fill your free time? Who would your friends be? What you’re really seeking is a blue sky vision of somebody. This little exercise—you do it three days in a row, 20 minutes at a time—has been found to unlock a lot of zest, hope, optimism, and forward movement in people’s goal-setting. Then, it clarifies something we’d call “goals and conflicts.”
Goal-setting truly is a science. It’s not like smart goals, which is truly not a good analysis of what goal-setting is. There’s a lot to setting goals. I have a process that I walk people through that’s in the book. Getting Grit walks people through my process of articulating and finding the goals that matter most to them and then laying out the short-term and long-term steps they need to take. That’s just one piece of it. Goals is just one piece of it, but you can’t have grit toward something without having something to work towards.
So, having a goal you’re passionate about and that’s your goal—not your parent’s goal, not society’s goal, not your coach’s goal; your goal. You have to have that because grit presupposes that these goals are going to be hard. You’re going to have dark nights of the soul. You will have failure. It’s not going to be a walk through the park, which is why resilience and grit are two very different things. You have to have passion and that only comes from setting your own goals. That’s what gets you up in the morning when you aren’t sure you want to go on because that passion—I call it “Zeigarnik passion” because the Zeigarnik effect is that things left undone are the things that pull you forward in life. You continue to try to figure out how to finish them. I call this kind of grit “Zeigarnik grit.” You wake up with a passion to keep going.
So. there’s a lot of ingredients to help people, but that’s how I start with the goals.
TS: Can you explain that word to me—Zeigarnik?
CM: Sure. I love this. I think the woman’s name is Bluma Zeigarnik and she’s, I believe, Russian—was Russian. She’s dead now. But, she was a researcher who discovered this fascinating thing about 75 years ago. She found that waiters who had delivered a meal to diners and they’d completed the order—they served on their appetizer, their soup, their main course, their dessert, given them their bill—they found that when you ask them, “What did those people order?” they can’t remember. They couldn’t remember. But, if you ask them in the middle of serving a meal, “What are these people having?” they know everything that’s happening. They know what they ordered, what’s coming, the rest of it.
This launched this really interesting line of research into the fact that things that are left incomplete—that you haven’t quite finished—call you back over and over. You continue to think about them and work on them—sometimes subconsciously. But, because of that, they remain at the forefront of your mind. You’re thinking about them. When things are coded as complete, we tend to move on from them and forget the details.
TS: Now, you mentioned, Caroline, that grit and being resilient are different—having grit and being resilient. Yet they seem connected to me as well. I mean, gritty people seem to be the kind of people who bounce back and keep going. What’s the difference that you want to emphasize?
Caroline Miller: Right. It’s a really important distinction. It is not enough to be resilient in order to be gritty, but you have to have resilience to become gritty. What that means is: resilience is really something that you’ll exhibit short term. You have the ability to, as you say, bounce back—you have the ability to kind of get back on your feet and not allow something to define you. But, that doesn’t mean that you have a passion for any specific thing going forward long term.
Grit is a very different animal. In order to be gritty, you have to have this long-term goal. It’s not enough to be gritty just about everything. People with authentic grit have a passion for something. Sometimes, they have two passions. But quite often, there’s a defining thing about authentically gritty people that is their life’s pursuit or the thing that they’re most known for because they’re not gritty in everything. You have to have that passion.
Resilient people don’t always have passion. They just have the ability to just be a finisher, at least short term. Grit—you have to have the passion. You have to have the ability to get up but not just get up short term, get up over and over—sometimes for 10 years, sometimes for 20. These five researchers who just won the Nobel Prize last year for solving the last part of Einstein’s theory in relativity are profiled in my book because it took them 40 years. They spent their entire professional careers trying to solve this one piece of Einstein’s theory in relativity. One of the gentlemen has Alzheimer’s. I don’t think he even knows he won the Nobel. But, that’s not resilience. That’s grit.
That’s the key way to kind of think it through—”resilient” is like short term. You tear your ACL, you finish a soccer game. But, does that mean you have grit to continue to play soccer for 5 or 10 years to achieve a big goal like making—I don’t know—the U23 US women’s team? Maybe not. But, when you’ll look at someone like Carli Lloyd, who got cut from the US women’s soccer team—I think at the U19 level—and then practiced for years relentlessly—five, seven hours a day—she’s the one who scored three goals and helped the women to win the US World Cup, the soccer World Cup. That was the match that was watched by more Americans than any other soccer match, male or female, a few years ago. That’s grit, but that’s not just resilience. Does that make sense?
Tami Simon: Perfectly. It’s very helpful, very clear. Now, in terms of your own long-term goal, you mentioned how writing a book about grit—someone said to you, “This is actually the natural outcome of all the books you’ve written.” How would you articulate the long-term goal that you’ve been working towards [with grit]?
Caroline Miller: That’s a great question. Let me answer it in a slightly different way, but I think we’ll get to the same result.
What this interviewer was referring to was she had read my first book, and I think it had changed her life—and my first book is My Name is Caroline. That book was something I wrote in my mid-20s when I overcame bulimia. Back in the 1980s—I don’t think many people remember this; I think people my age remember this, but it was a hopeless time to have an eating disorder. Nobody got better. You just died. You never got better. If you didn’t get better, you often didn’t make it. Karen Carpenter became the poster child for people with eating disorders. It was a hopeless time to be bulimic.
I grew up in Washington, which is where I live now, went to a really fine girls’ school. Two girls showed me how to be bulimic when I was 15 and I carried that with me right through Harvard. I was high-performing but hiding this horrible addiction, which ground me into a pulp. I hit my last bottom in 1984 and then wrote the first book by anybody who survived because I got better. I got better and I stayed better for 30 years.
What I realized—and the reason that I really wanted to write this book, Getting Grit—was I realized in hindsight that for all the talent I had and the success and the IQ and all these other bumper sticker kinds of awards or what David Brooks would call “resume virtues,” I didn’t have grit. I just kind of finished the things that came to me kind of easily, whether it was swimming or piano or school or whatever.
What made me develop grit was hitting bottom with my eating disorder in 1984 and realizing that I had to develop a passion to get better and stay better. I would have to do whatever it took and I did. One day at a time, I did get better. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever done. Yet, it was the touchstone for who I became.
Who I became was somebody who went after hard goals and sought to live each day with passion and persistence so that I didn’t squander a minute of my newfound life. Then, it became helping other people to set the right goals and achieve them, which is why discovering goal-setting theory was so important to me. It’s like, “Why doesn’t the whole world know that there’s all this science around achieving goals?” That’s why that book was so noteworthy when it came out—Creating Your Best Life.
When you look at all my books—this is really my seventh book. I have six authored books and then one ghostwritten book to my name. But when I looked at the thread from My Name is Caroline to Bright Words for Dark Days to Positively Caroline, Creating Your Best Life, to Getting Grit, what I realized is every single one of them had this core in it of learning how to be gritty—learning how to find what mattered in life and set big goals and accomplish them. That’s what my life mission is: to give people the tools—not just the theories, but the tools—to help them do the same thing in the areas that matter most to them.
I believe that’s why I’m alive today—is for some reason, I made it when a lot of my peers didn’t and I think that’s my ikigai. That’s my reason for waking up. That’s a Japanese word for purpose. What I wake up for is to help other people do the same thing in the areas that matter to them, but I’m passionate about it particularly because I had to cultivate grit one day at a time. I know people can do it. They can do it. Talent and success don’t equal grit, but grit is a whole different animal that people can choose to cultivate one day at a time with different character strengths.
TS: Now, it’s interesting that you brought up the work that you did within a 12-step community—the recovery work related to your bulimia and how important that was for you in becoming who you are today—because one of the questions I had about grit is: yes, it takes grit to recover from an addiction. But, as part of the 12-step work, there’s also the sense of “let go and let God” surrender. I’m wondering how you hold this paradox between persevering and surrendering.
Caroline Miller: That’s a great question. I’ve never been asked that question, but I think it goes to the heart of why I defined stupid grit or stubborn grit—whatever you want to call it—because I think when you let go and let God, sometimes you surrender to something that’s a better path for you. You’ve got the same goal, but you’re not holding fast to a certain idea of how you’re going to get there. You’re able to kind of reconfigure, take advice from other people, and have the same approach to getting through the day, but do it in a way where you’re not white-knuckling it. You’re not just trying to control every facet of the outcome, but you still have a passion for getting where you want to go.
“Let go and let God” is still about, let’s say, “I want to be sober,” which I also am. I’ve been sober for over 30 years and so, “let go and let God” is part of remaining abstinent from an eating disorder or sober from alcoholism. but doing it in a way that isn’t all about pain and “my way” and not listening to other people but having the wisdom to take the advice and counsel of other people, which is part of becoming humble. Anybody who’s in recovery from anything knows that humility is a huge piece of getting where you want to go.
That’s how I resolve it. It’s a great question because I don’t think it’s immediately apparent how to do both but gritty is not about being miserable all the time, but it is about holding fast to a dream and finding a way to get there and go as far as you can because you know you’ll regret not doing that if you’re looking back on your life and you haven’t given it your best in the right way in the right context.
TS: OK. Let’s talk to that person who, in the course of this conversation, has surfaced a life dream of theirs—”This is something I’ll regret if I don’t do it. I need to do this thing,”—and they want to have the grit to achieve it. How can you help them cultivate grit, if you will?
CM: There are many paths to God. Let’s start with that sentence right there because there’s a variety of ways to actually get to a finish line. I want to hasten to quickly say that you can have a long-term goal and you may not achieve it, but you’ll know that you went as far as you could. I think that satisfaction is a piece of what we’re talking about here too—is the ability to know you gave it all you had in order to see if you could accomplish something that was important to you. Many times, you will. But other times, you’ll get close or you’ll find something else wonderful along the way. It still involves passion and persistence in pursuit of long-term goals.
One of the things I like to ask people is, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” We begin to unpack what the risks [are that] they’ve taken in order to achieve something that was meaningful to them. You often find when you ask people about, let’s just say risks in life, you find that it’s also connected with some of the biggest rewards that they’ve ever achieved as well. You start with kind of this idea of, “Have you done hard things before and how did you accomplish them?” Sometimes, what I find—and this is reflected in Getting Grit too, is that the millennial generation quite often has not been called upon to do hard. They don’t always know what hard is or they don’t have the emotional calluses to deal with disappointment.
I’ve raised three millennials I love very much—my husband and I have—and yet, I watch society dumbing down hard as they grew up. I was appalled by how easy it became for them to have retests in school, for example. They’ve removed parallel parking from the driver’s test in Maryland because it’s “too hard.” They got more trophies than anybody I know when I was growing up. My kids each collectively probably have 30 to 50 trophies for literally nothing at times. I think we’ve raised a generation that doesn’t always have the humility or the persistence or the passion to actually understand how to sit through hard things, so we’ll have that conversation.
There are a lot of other components to developing grit. One is self-regulation—the ability to delay gratification. There’s a lot of really excellent science on that alone. How do you develop the ability to say no to yourself? What do you have to do to actually kind of sit with discomfort or distract yourself in order to be able to get through a day without giving in? I think that was part and partial of what I had to do to overcome my eating disorder. There are a lot of instructive lessons from overcoming my eating disorder that I was able to unpack as I got older and learned these theories around self-regulation. I said, “Those are things we can teach people.”
There’s a robust science around all of these things—patience, persistence, goal setting, self-regulation, humility. Those are just a few but you start with everybody, finding out what their temperature for taking risk [is]. What’s their temperature for dealing with discomfort? Do they have the right set of friends? I cannot tell you how often women in particular are completely derailed by frenemies in their lives because they endure these people around them who are not invested in them being successful, but they don’t want to get rid of them because they don’t want anyone to think they’re not nice.
So, a significant amount of time always goes towards identifying, “Who’s your web of support and how do you know they support you? Where are your role models? Do you have any?” It’s a nuanced, many-layered conversation that takes a while but my book is meant to lay this out step by step so that people who can’t afford to hire a coach at least can see how I do it over time with people.
TS: Now, you mentioned raising three millennial children and I presume your kids are gritty.
CM: I hope they are. I think they are.
TS: What perhaps did you do differently than other parents of millennial children or what’s the pitfall? Why is it that so many millennials end up not being gritty?
CM: I think there are a few things. Let me hasten to say I was not the perfect parent. I think I made some significant mistakes partly because my kids were born and were raised during the height of the self-esteem parenting movement, which was very, very misguided—meant well but was misguided in the sense that we were all told that if our kids felt happy—if we made them happy—then they would feel so good about themselves. They would have high self-esteem and therefore, work very, very hard.
Now, the results are in on what actually has occurred as a result of that movement of this self-esteem kind of ceremonies at school or these trophies everybody gets. I mean it’s unbelievable how often kids get rewarded for doing nothing on sports teams at schools, whatever. I watched my kids being raised during this and I thought, “OK. Maybe this works.”
I kind of had some misgivings about these trophies and the rest of it but I went along with it until we began to see how awful it really was. There’s less effort. Now, science is backing this up. When you reward people for doing nothing, it changes their brain. It’s called the partial reward extinction effect. My husband and I began to notice that when you over-praise, you literally dumb down their ability to persist through hard times.
I think we were saved in a few ways. One is that our kids were competitive athletes, all of them—and swimming, crew, football—all of them had a lot of injuries for long-term goals and a lot of things that you don’t get early on. You don’t win every race when it comes to swimming in particular. They learned a lot of delayed gratification from their sports. My husband and I are both athletes. We’re athletes so they had that athletic mindset from us as well. I think they got that but I can honestly say, without divulging their private lives, that they all had significant setbacks, really awful setbacks at times that I really would have loved to spare them.
I mean I’m a mom. I get it. You don’t want your kids to be miserable but I can tell you this. All three of my kids, when they point to the moments that define them and allowed them to become men and women of integrity, it was those setbacks. It was those downfalls. It was those negative events, sometimes of their own making, that caused them to develop grit much the same way my eating disorder did.
If we don’t allow our children to fail, if we don’t allow them to feel what happens when they do the wrong things or something doesn’t go their way, they never really find out who they are and they never have a flourishing life because the research says that you have to have setbacks. You have to have between three and seven significant setbacks in life in order to have a happy life because you don’t know the difference between good and bad if everything’s pleasant all the time. How do you actually know that you have what it takes to live through challenging times? It’s not normal.
You find out who your friends are. You find out what you’re made of. You find out what your character strengths are. You take a look at your goals. Are these the right goals for me? That’s why I believe my kids all have grit, is because not because we did anything right but because we did allow them to go through some really difficult times that we didn’t swoop in and save by hiring lawyers or calling schools and advocating for them. You have to let your kids get through things by themselves or I’m not sure they ever really figure out how to make anything happen on their own. Unfortunately, that is what we’ve seen with this millennial generation. It’s not true of all of them but percentage wise, it is true. They don’t tend to have that stick-to-itiveness that the workplace is really looking for. I have a whole chapter on that in the book as well.
TS: You mentioned another thing about millennials that I’m curious about—that not only is this stick-to-itiveness often lacking but that there’s often a lack of humility as well. Why is that? Why is there a lack of humility?
Caroline Miller: I think because they were told they were special. They were told they were special for doing very little in many cases. I think it’s also a generation that has begun to believe or does believe that being famous is, for maybe putting yourself on YouTube or having a following on Instagram or whatever, is the highest and best pursuit in life. If you surveyed college students in the 1970s and asked them what would make a happy or meaningful life, the vast majority of them answered, “To make a difference in the world.” That was what they said.
When you went 20, 30 years forward and ask these same college students that same question, what you find is they want to be famous and make money. Those are not things that actually make for a fulfilling, meaningful life and yet, I think they’ve come to believe through the media, through some of the role models that have been put up there, they believe that this is what happiness is all about—this dotcom bubble where there’s instant billionaires. You get the Kim Kardashians of the world who just have their own show, where they’re primping all the time and kind of doing these kind of superficial self-satisfying things. I think you start to get the message that that’s what success is about.
I think we’ve got this whole problem going on in society where they’d become awe-deprived. We’ve cut funding for the arts and for music. Kids don’t go out in nature as much as they once did. This grade inflation—it’s another big problem—is when kids are given As for not necessarily doing awesome work. They really start to believe they’re entitled to these grades.
I think they’re awe-deprived. They don’t often see what excellent behavior or excellent performance is. One of the things I call for in the book is to have awe breaks in your life. Be around things that truly are awesome.
I spoke at a big company last October. One of their performance review criteria is, “You’re awesome,” but what does that mean? How often are people being told they’re awesome when they haven’t done anything that inspires a standing ovation? Way too often, you see that word being used in affiliation with kids who grew up in this generation. I truly could go on and on about why I think that is but I think they’ve been given a path early in life, not because they wanted it.
My experience is that when you offer opportunities to the millennial generation to see what elite performance is like, this is how you achieve it. I find that they want to work towards those standards but when they go to playgrounds that have these plastic contraptions and wood chips and nobody can get hurt at a playground, they go into school and it’s math made easy and phonics made easy and then you’ve got this grade inflation, you’re eliminating tag at a lot of schools, you can’t even play games for fear that your bones will get broken and then, they’ve got these safe spaces at colleges so you don’t have to hear anything you disagree with—I mean, this is the most bubble wrapped generation of all time.
They’re not supposed to hear hard things, do hard things, see hard things, fall out of a tree—and they’re facing one of the most difficult environments from a global economic and terror perspective that any generation has ever faced. Our fear is—and I think the results show this—they’re not really prepared for it.
I think this book I’ve written is not just about a nice-to-have quality. This is a need-to-have quality. If you don’t have grit, I just don’t know how you’re going to navigate life. Life is hard. Life is complicated and we just haven’t created a society that’s compelling us to develop it. I think it’s a really important conversation. I just got back from four weeks talking about grit in New Zealand and Australia, the same thing there. It’s not just the United States. It’s really a global issue.
TS: Now, one quote from your book that I pulled out that I found interesting was you write, “The two qualities that are the best predictors of success with our goals . . .” one of them, I think our audience would guess, [is] grit. We’ve been talking about that but then, the second quality you point to is curiosity. We need both grit and curiosity. I was curious about curiosity. Why do we need curiosity to be successful with our goals?
Caroline Miller: I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. As your listeners may or may not know, I come from the field of positive psychology. I got this very cool degree from Penn in 2006—34 people. We were the first 34 to go get this Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology from Penn. One of the coolest findings is that we all have character strengths. I think it’s been now down to 24 character strengths that are universally admired. But of those 24 character strengths, there are about five of them that show up over and over among the happiest people—the people who have the most well-lived, flourishing, meaningful lives.
Curiosity is at the top of that list of character strengths because when you’re curious, it’s not just all about you. You’re looking around. You want to know what’s going on. What can I learn from you? What can I learn from the world? How can I go out and kind of challenge my perspective to see what I don’t know?
Curiosity is about opening yourself up and having what I call “intellectual humility.” When you have intellectual humility, you’re not afraid to ask questions. You want to know, “What is it I don’t know? How can I understand that? Tell me about you.”
People who have this selfie grit, it’s all about them. They’re not curious. They don’t want to know what’s going on in your world. Then, when they have stupid grit or stubborn grit, they’re not curious about other ways to achieve their goals. They think they’ve figured it all out. We’re going to do it my way. You see this a lot in offices. “We’re going to do it my way because I know best.”
Curiosity is one of these wonderful, wonderful character strengths that allows you to build bridges with other people, have flourishing relationships, add to your knowledge base, connect with others, and kind of build your humility and your inner resources to establish new and fresh ways to see the world and accomplish your goals. I cannot overstate the importance of curiosity from a character strength standpoint. It really is critical.
Tami Simon: Now, in the beginning of our conversation, one of the things you talked about is how there’s actually a lot of science behind goal-setting theory and this idea that if we want to be some of the happiest people, wake up to hard goals. I know there’s also a science behind grit and the subtitle of your book is The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose. Can you summarize for our listeners the science behind grit?
CM: I doubt I can do it quickly, but I can try. I will say this: I’ve looked at the other books about grit on the market and there’s Angela’s book, Grit, which is a justified bestseller. It’s about her research for the most part. I have a lot of footnotes, but every other book I’ve looked at has no footnotes. I think that is a piece of what sets my book aside—everything I say, every study I cite on humility or curiosity or goal-setting or patience or perseverance—all of the points I make about not just why [this] is important and how it [connects] with what I call authentic grit—but how are we going to—what the exercises [are] that allow us to build this particular strength—every bit of it is completely backed up by research. There’s an exhaustive set of footnotes in my book.
When you say, “What’s the case for the science?” what I can say is it’s a collection of research studies over many, many decades—if not longer than that—that support the theories that I believe are completely behind building the strength of passion, persistence, awe-inspiring behavior, and making the collective better, not just yourself better. I think that’s probably where I should leave it because otherwise, I’ll spend the next whatever amount of time we have left talking about all kinds of research data. But, suffice it to say that there’s nothing in this book that’s just my opinion. It’s all about, “What does the science show us and how do you use that science in your own life in a practical way to get where you need to go?”
Tami Simon: OK. I’m going to pull out a quote from the book that I found curious, but I am going to believe you that the research points to it—but here you go: “We don’t become happy after we succeed at something but rather, succeed because we’re happy first.” That really got my attention because of course, I think there’s this notion that, “I’m going to have this goal that I’ll regret it if I don’t do it and then I’m going to be gritty and I’m going to, God willing, achieve it—and then I’ll be happy.” Then, I read this quote, “We don’t become happy after we succeed at something but rather, succeed because we’re happy first.” I wanted you to explain that.
Caroline Miller: Sure. Your reaction mimics my reaction. In the fall of 2005, this really pivotal piece of research came out written by three of the top people in the positive psychology field—really esteemed academics—Laura King, Ed Diener, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Their research is called “Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect.” I remember just feeling electrified as I read it because what it said very conclusively—this is not a little finding; it’s a slam dunk finding. Hundreds of pieces of research were looked at and that’s causal/correlational research, qualitative, quantitative—you name it. What this all this research found is that all success in life is preceded by being happy first.
We don’t become happy after we succeed at something. The research finds that you have to be in a flourishing, positive emotional frame of mind and state in order to have what it takes to persist at hard goals, to have hope, to have optimism, to have zest, to build positive relationships with other people. And so it makes sense when you step away and go, “Gosh, that makes sense,”—that in order to succeed, to have this ability to persist, to be optimistic, to be hopeful, to build bridges to other people—that’s what lays the platform for us succeeding at all goals whether we’re talking about professional success, personal success, our health—you name it. All success is preceded by building that platform of being a flourishing human being first because it gives us all of the tools to do the things we want to do, to persist when it’s hard, to not be a pessimist, to not give up.
When I read it, I had a number of reactions. One was, “Oh my God, this is why—partly why—I had my eating disorder. I thought if I had that body, that swimming time, that college acceptance letter, that boyfriend, whatever, I will be happy after I achieve those goals.” What I found was I was never happy when I got those things. It wasn’t what made the difference for me. I needed to be happy first because that’s when I discovered what success really was. When I got into recovery from my eating disorder, I realized that it was that flourishing place—that place that I needed to be that was going to dictate how I approach every other goal in life, partly because when you’re just fixated on success at all cost, you’re quite often not even picking the right goals. You’re picking extrinsic goals—superficial goals, goals you think that will look good to other people.
It’s a multilayered answer, but I think the core of what I’m trying to communicate here is that the research is very, very conclusive that simply achieving a goal does not leave us with some kind of profound well-being. It’s what precedes the pursuit of goals and allows us to persist over time. That well-being is what predicts whether or not we’re going to succeed at our goals. It’s a different conversation if we pick all those right goals and we persist through upping our well-being and then we achieve those goals. Yes, you probably will be happy if you’ve gone through the goal selection process. But, what we find with gritty people is they don’t rest on their laurels. They find other hard goals to pursue after that. Does that help?
TS: Yes. It’s, I think, a very, very, very important point. Very important. We don’t become happy after we succeed at something but rather, succeed because we’re happy first.
CM: That was why I wrote Creating Your Best Life. That piece of research right there explained my entire history to me. Why hadn’t I been happy when I got into Harvard? Why wasn’t I happy when I got married? Why didn’t it make my eating disorder go away? That’s why when I came across that and married all of those theories on well-being together with the science of goal setting, which should never actually gotten out of academia and into the mass market until my book—that was the absolute crux of creating your best life.
That’s why that book has sold so well and been translated into so many languages, is because people don’t know this. They don’t know. Their happiness precedes success so any discussion of goal-setting that doesn’t talk about emotional flourishing first is not a productive conversation. You have to understand the science of flourishing if you’re going to make any headway with yourself or anybody else when it comes to setting and pursuing the most meaningful, important goals in your life that are going to be game-changers.
TS: Now, there’s another quote from the book that “authentic grit is contagious.” I thought to myself that’s why I like reading in the book, Getting Grit, stories of gritty people who have been successful. It was contagious. I’m getting it. I’m getting grittier just hearing their life stories. I think that’s why there are so many movies also that show some kind of a gritty protagonist. I wonder if there’s either a story of someone or a figure in a movie that we could end with here that you think could help with this contagion of grit.
CM: Wow. I’m just thinking about your comment for a second. No one said that to me—that they found grit to be contagious by reading the stories—but I get what you’re saying. One of the things that Angela Duckworth’s research has found is that grit is contagious because when you’re in the presence of somebody who changes their mindset—I call it “changing the channel”—someone who works a little bit harder; someone who doesn’t give up; somebody who makes sure they’re surrounded by hopeful, positive people who make sure that they remain there—I think what you find is that those behaviors are all learnable. I think your point about the stories creating a contagion of grit is important because we learn through storytelling.
One of my favorite stories is my friend and my martial arts master, Paul Thomas. I’ve been privileged to have him in my life. One of the things he has is what I call “ordinary grit.” Ordinary grit, I think, is the most common kind of grit. I talked about “Mount Rushmore grit,” which is historic grit; “Mount Olympus grit,” which is people who do amazing things with their bodies. Then, you have “celebrity grit” like J.K. Rowling. But then for most of us, what we’re seeking to be surrounded by and to emulate is ordinary grit—people who do extraordinary things in ordinary circumstances.
This man I profile, his name is Paul Thomas. He grew up in the projects of Perth Amboy but because of his hard work, his discipline, his dedication to excellence, he’s created a martial arts school. He’s a sought after personal trainer but more than that, every day I’m in his presence, I’m a better human being because of the way he goes about his life in a dignified, humble way. I find that ordinary grit is contagious because it impacts you. It makes you ask yourself, “How can I be more like that person?”
I’d just like everybody to think about—if they’re listening to this, they’re thinking, “Who are the people with ordinary grit in your life that you could spend more time around because they make you better men and women simply by definition of being around you?”
I think we all have to seek them out and even hold them up to others because they’re not the ones who will brag about themselves. They’re the ones who are just going about their job doing the right thing, trying to be the best they can be—but because they’re in our midst, we are all uplifted as people. That’s one of the main messages of the book—aspire to ordinary grit and surround yourself and your community with those people.
Tami Simon: I’ve been speaking with Caroline Adams Miller. She’s the author of the new book, Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance and Purpose. Caroline, you’ve said so many things that have inspired me today and have been so helpful. Thank you so much.
CM: Thank you for such an extended period of time to talk about this. I really appreciate not just you but your questions have been really magnificent. Thank you for that.
TS: Thanks everyone for listening. SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey.