Grit Mindset: 12 John Wayne Quotes vs. a Dozen Madonna Songs

John Wayne and Madonna seem like opposites, but they both embody "true grit."

Posted May 12, 2019

Earlier this month, I reported on recently published findings from an 18-year-long "perseverance" study (Zainal & Newman, 2019) which found that people who were able to reframe setbacks with a positive outlook and refused to give up on achieving life goals had much lower rates of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder (PD), and clinical depression.

Paramount Studios/Public Domain
John Wayne won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1970 for his legendary role in "True Grit."
Source: Paramount Studios/Public Domain

A few days ago, I reported on another study (Cormier et al., 2019), which looked at the secret to transferring "grit" (described as passion and perseverance towards achieving a goal despite obstacles) from the domain of sports, to better academic performance and more "grittiness" in attaining life goals "off the court." Danielle Cormier and her colleagues concluded that the winning formula for nurturing grit in all areas of life involved a triad of (1) less maladaptive perfectionism, (2) adopting a growth mindset, and (3) letting failure roll off your back without beating yourself up. My life experience with grit and perseverance corroborates both studies. 

As an athlete, I spent decades competing in extreme ultra-endurance events. In the early 2000s, I won the Triple Ironman (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run) three years in a row. In 2004, I broke a Guinness World Record by running six back-to-back marathons in 24 hours. 

My passion for pushing the limits of mental toughness, perseverance, and grit was always a labor of love. But, I decided to retire from extreme sports when I realized that my neverending desire to take grit to the nth degree and prove that I was "tougher than the rest" might eventually kill me.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I took perseverance and grit too far. After running 153.76 miles nonstop on a treadmill, my kidneys shut down. I ended up in the ICU for almost a week. The doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit warned me that if I continued ultrarunning that I might do permanent damage to my organs. So, I decided to retire from sport competitions and write a book called The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss.

Writing doesn't come naturally to me. However, after retiring from sports, I was determined to transfer the same "grit" I'd mastered on the playing field to sitting in a chair and hacking away at a keyboard. I've never been very academic but was fully committed to pushing my brain the same way I'd pushed my body as a triathlete. Truth be told, a big part of my motivation to reinvent myself as a so-called "writer" was also to prove to my father (who was a brainiac) that I wasn't just a "dumb jock."  

With hindsight, I realize now that I was able to transfer domain-specific grit from sports to become a science-based writer and blogger by using the same triad identified by Cormier and her colleagues (2019).

Christopher Bergland
Helen Keller once said, "So much has been given to me. I have no time to ponder that which has been denied."
Source: Christopher Bergland

Another secret weapon I had for making my "grit mindset" transferable was that during my sports career, I'd amassed a treasure trove of inspiring quotations that I jotted down on green fluorescent notecards and kept in big stacks next to my bed. Before going to sleep, I'd flip through quotes that ranged from Maya Angelou who said, "The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination," to Teddy Roosevelt's famous advice: "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. When you're at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on." 

One of my favorite quotations that addresses learning to let failure roll off your back is by Nikki Giovanni, who said, "I really don't think life is about the I-could-have-beens. Life is only about the I-tried-to-do. I don't mind the failure but I can't imagine that I'd forgive myself if I didn't try." Another is by Johnny Cash, who said, "You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space."

Whenever I find myself feeling hopeless or cynical, my subconscious mind rifles through an encyclopedia of memorized quotations in search of some words of wisdom to help me reframe my explanatory style. I gravitate towards quotes that open my eyes to a different point of view, dissolve egocentric thinking, and break the "woe is me" cycle of feeling sorry for myself.

I also glom onto specific lyrics in certain songs and pound this music into my head while I'm working out. Clearly, everyone has a unique blend of musical tastes and preferences that evoke autobiographical memories. Self-identified songs and playlists that you love, are one of the most reliable ways to shift your explanatory style to a "positive reappraisal" framework and to see the glass as "half-full" during challenging situations. 

Using music and quotations to fine-tune a personalized "grit mindset" is easy. Off the top of your head, can you think of any inspiring songs or quotes that fill you with a sense of motivation to stay strong and optimistic in the face of adversity? I'd highly recommend jotting these quotations down on notecards and taking a few minutes before you fall asleep to memorize a new quote by someone who is a "perseverance role model" for you. Also, curating songs that reflect a "target grit mindset" and making a playlist of these anthems is a surefire way to rewire your brain to think like the perseverant protagonist in a song.

As you might have inferred from the title of this post, I've made a playlist of a dozen Madonna songs that reflect a "grit mindset," which are at the bottom of this page. I've also chosen to juxtapose Madonna and John Wayne because they are seemingly polar opposites in the public eye, but I think each of us can relate to some aspects of their "grittiness" whether or not we agree with their politics.

Warner Bros. Records/Public Domain
Madonna (The First Album) was released on July 27, 1983.
Source: Warner Bros. Records/Public Domain

Nobody has emboldened and inspired me to persevere more than Madonna. I was lucky enough to see her perform live at a small club in Boston back in 1983 before she was famous. At the time, I was still in the closet. Madonna's fun-loving music combined with her chutzpah and "free to be you and me" attitude inspired me to start working out and to come out. In my book acknowledgments, I write, "Thank you {Madonna} for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since." (See, "The Neuroscience of Madonna's Enduring Success," "Madonna's Tenacity: Naysayers Can Be a Source of Motivation" and "How Music Is a Catalyst for Renewal, Recovery, and Rebirth.") 

Last week, at the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards, Madonna received the "Advocate for Change" award. In a poignant and tear-filled speech (that made me verklempt), Madonna said:

"When I released my movie "Truth or Dare" (1991 Rockumentary) I had no idea that it would inspire so many gay men to have the courage to come out. To be free. To take a stand. And to say, "This is who I am. Like it or not." The freedom fighting has expanded and continued. And so did getting my ass kicked. Fighting for all marginalized people was a duty and honor I could not turn my back on, nor will I ever. Yes. It is every humans' duty to fight. To advocate. To do whatever we can and whatever it takes." 

On May 3, Madonna released her latest single, "I Rise" from her upcoming album Madame X. This song is about refusing to ever give up on the ongoing fight for civil rights, LGBTQ equality, and firearms regulation.

"I Rise" begins with a soundbite of Emma Gonzalez speaking at a rally after the Parkland School shooting: "You think us kids don't know what we're talking about. That we're too young to understand how the government works. We call B.S." Then, Madonna sings about grit: "I know you see the tragic in it. Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it. I can't break down now. I can't take that now. Died a thousand times. Managed to survive. I can't break down now." 

 Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851
Christopher Bergland wore a red bandana filled with ice and recited John Wayne quotes to stay cool and channel "True Grit" while blasting Madonna songs on his iPod and running 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley, California at the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Source: Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851

The admirability of John Wayne's "True Grit" reputation has taken a beating in recent months because of some despicable homophobic and white supremacy comments he made in a 1971 interview that went viral on Twitter in February of 2019. Although I'm not a fan of John Wayne's worldview, I've decided to share some of his legendary quotations in this post. As an iconic movie-star persona, Wayne (aka "Duke") is literally and figuratively the posterboy for "true grit."

When I was competing in extreme conditions during the Badwater Ultramarathon 135-mile run through Death Valley (which is one of the hottest places on the planet), I wore a red bandana filled with ice to stay cool and recited John Wayne quotes in an attempt to channel some "true grit" perseverance. At the time, pretending I was in a Western movie with the Duke helped me "fake it till you make it." When I was younger, if self-doubt triggered a fight-flight-or-freeze stress response, I would half-jokingly make my alter ego think like an over-the-top red-blooded "tough guy" by reciting John Wayne quotes. In this way, Duke's persona helped me stay gritty by feigning "machismo" in the face of terrifying adversity. 

12 "Grit Mindset" Quotations by John Wayne:

  1. "All battles are fought by scared men who'd rather be some place else."
  2. "Courage is being completely paralyzed with fear and taking the first step anyway. Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway." 
  3. "I suppose my best attribute, if you want to call it that, is sincerity. I can sell sincerity because that's the way I am."
  4. "A man's got to have a code, a creed to live by."
  5. "All I'm for is the liberty of the individual."
  6. "I would like to be remembered, well … the Mexicans have a phrase, "Feo fuerte y formal." Which means he was ugly, strong, and had dignity."
  7. "A goal, a love, and a dream give you total control over your body and your life."
  8. "I was sure I'd set the world on fire, and it was hard for a young feller like me to realize the truth – that I hadn't set the world on fire, and I was totally unprepared to handle the consequences."
  9. "Life is getting up one more time than you've been knocked down."
  10. "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."
  11. "When you come against trouble, it's never half as bad if you face up to it." 
  12. "Talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much."

In her New York Times Book Review of Angela Duckworth's book, GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Judith Shulevitz opens with a funny lede, "Grit: The word has mouthfeel. It sounds like something John Wayne would chaw on. Who wouldn't want grit? Wusses. ­Forget 'em." In her somewhat sardonic review, Shulevitz confesses that she "got the lowest possible score on Duckworth's Grit Scale, and dropped right onto my fainting couch."

Shulevitz also questions the benefits of people misconstruing healthy amounts of perseverance with a potentially detrimental interpretation of "true grit" based solely on a type of bravado that leaves little room for fallibility. Shuvelitz concludes her review with some ideas that challenge the status quo: "Perhaps an approach to character training that's less hard-edge — dare I say, less John Wayne-ish? — and more willing to cast a critical eye on the peculiarly American cult of individual ascendancy could instill grit while challenging social inequality, rather than inadvertently reproducing it." I agree. 

In closing, I've put together a dozen songs by Madonna that, in my opinion, reflect the latest findings on perseverance (Zainal & Newman, 2019 and Cormier et al., 2019). These songs touch on the importance of making joie de vivre and a willingness to let failure roll of your back a part of your grit mindset. For each song, I've highlighted some lyrics that strike a deep emotional chord and have inspired me over the years. As a playlist, I think these 12 songs hit a gritty sweet spot of "strength lined with tenderness." Hopefully, something in this music will inspire you to never give up. 

Passion, Perseverance, and Positive Reframing: A Dozen Madonna Songs to Help Cultivate Wholehearted Grit

1. DON'T TELL ME: "Tell me everything I'm not. But don't ever tell me to stop. Don't you ever. Don't ever tell me to stop."

2. DROWNED WORLD/SUBSTITUTE FOR LOVE: "I traded fame for love, without a second thought. I traveled 'round the world, looking for a home. I found myself in crowded rooms, feeling so alone. I suffered fools so gladly. And now I find, I've changed my mind."

3. EASY RIDE: "I want the good life, but I don't want an easy ride. What I want is to work for it. To feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips. That's what I want for me."

4. EXPRESS YOURSELF: "You deserve the best in life. So, if the time isn't right then move on. Second best is never enough. You'll do much better baby on your own."

5. HOLIDAY: "Forget about the bad times. It's time to celebrate. Put your troubles down. Let love shine. And we will find, a way to come together. We can make things better."

6. JUMP: "There's only so much you can learn in one place. The more that I wait, the more time that I waste. I haven't got much time to waste, it's time to make my way. I'm not afraid of what I'll face, but I'm afraid to stay. I'm going down my own road and I can make it alone."

7. LIKE A PRAYER: "Everyone must stand alone. I hear you call my name. And it feels like home. It's like a dream. No end and no beginning."

8. OPEN YOUR HEART: "I've had to work much harder than this for something I want. Don't try to run, I can keep up with you. Nothing can stop me from trying."

9. OVER AND OVER: "You try to criticize my drive. If I lose I don't feel paralyzed. It doesn't matter who you are. It's what you do that takes you far. And if at first you don't succeed. Here's some advice that you should heed: You get up again, over and over. Get up again, over and over."

10. PROMISE TO TRY: When Madonna was five, her mother died. Madonna wrote this song in honor of her mother: "'Keep your head held high, ride like the wind. Never look behind, life isn't fair.' That's what you said, so I try not to care. Will she see me cry when I stumble and fall? Does she hear my voice in the night when I call? I fought to be so strong. I guess you knew. I was afraid you'd go away, too. Can't kiss her goodbye, but I promise to try."

11. REBEL HEART: "I've lived my life like a masochist. Hearing my father say, 'Told you so, told you so! Why can't you be like the other girls?' I said, 'Oh no, that's not me. And I don't think it'll ever be' So I took the road less traveled and I barely made it out alive. Through the darkness somehow I survived. Tough love, I knew it from the start. Deep down in the depth of my rebel heart." 

12. WHAT IT FEELS LIKE FOR A GIRL: "Strong inside but you don't know it."


Nur Hani Zainal and Michelle G. Newman. "Relation Between Cognitive and Behavioral Strategies and Future Change in Common Mental Health Problems Across 18 years." Journal of Abnormal Psychology (First published online: May 2, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/abn0000428

Danielle L. Cormier, John G. H. Dunn, and Janice Causgrove Dunn. "Examining the Domain Specificity of Grit" Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: December 11, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.11.026

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