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Surviving Tough Times

Effortless grace won't get you through tough times. You need grit.

Warthogs and Gazelles

Dick Marcinko, author of Seal Team Six and other books about the Navy Seals and related topics, says that when he is looking for tough men for his units, he looks for warthogs, not gazelles.

Nancy Darling
Source: Nancy Darling

A gazelle is fast, lovely, and elegant. Warthogs are ugly and slow.

To Marcencko, a gazelle is someone who does things effortlessly and well. They're smart and talented. Everything comes easily to them. But the problem with gazelles is that once they go down, they're down. Get them in the mud and the hyenas are all over them. Marcencko believes some people are like that too. They do well when things are going fine. But when things are going way too wrong and everyone needs to pull together to survive, the gazelles will give up and not fight their way out.

Because they've never had to dig deep, they don't know how to do it.

Running underwater with buckets of rocks

To get into Seal Team 6, you go through days of grueling, hard grunt labor. You shoot. You run. Lots of men drop out.

The Navy Seals swim - one of their primary missions is underwater reconnaissance

They got to one point in the testing where the men were supposed to grab two buckets full of rocks and swim across the pool with them. Most of the guys couldn't make it. Not surprising.

Some of them did - those guys made the team.

One guy grabbed the buckets, jumped in the pool, and started running. Underwater. He ran the whole length of the pool, grabbed the edge, and hauled himself and his buckets of rocks out.

The drill instructor snarled at him in disgust: "What the f**k is wrong with you a*****e?!"

"I can't swim!"

He made the team. They could teach him to swim. But no one could teach him grit.


That's what warthogs have: grit.

Psychologists have begun to study 'grit' - perseverance and sustained interest in long-term goals. Not surprisingly, grit tends to be associated with resilience and the ability to keep going in the face of difficulties. Angela Duckworth has found that winners of tough competitive events like the National Spelling Bee were 'grittier' competitors (Duckworth, et al., 2010). They chose the boring, tough strategies (working alone with flashcards and studying and memorizing alone) rather than the easier rewarding ones (being quizzed by others or reading). And taking that tougher road paid off long term - especially when things got hard. It wasn't the study strategy that helped them win, it was the gritty personality that explained the relationship between strategy and performance.

Similarly, Carol Dweck's excellent work on how different theories of ability influence how kids respond to initial failure is about grit. When kids think that their ability is due to talent, when they hit a wall and have problems, they tend to give up. They're gazelles.

On the other hand, some kids think that their ability has to do with effort and that it gets greater when they exercise it - like a muscle does. When they hit a problem, they refocus their efforts. What am I doing wrong? How can I overcome this? What did they tell me to do that I've forgotten?

Those kids are warthogs. And those kids seek out challenges, take tougher courses, and keep on plugging when things get tough. Long term, they get much further.

Maybe warthogs could use some gratitude too

I was thinking about warthogs and gazelles the other day when I got some pictures from my eldest son. Both because he is in South Africa right now and was writing me about watching gazelles and warthogs, but also because he's in the Peace Corps - what the old ads used to describe as 'the toughest job you'll ever love'.

A job for warthogs.

My son sent me pictures of his 8' x 8' living quarters. I posted a description of his quarters on Facebook:

He has a cot, a straight chair, and something that looks like a school desk that serves as his kitchen. He has four candles to light the room and a large collection of soda bottles to hold his boiled water and mayonnaise jars and a cardboard box to hold his food. His clothes are stored in a laundry basket and he has three buckets - one to bathe in, one to do his laundry in, and a regular bucket. One computer, one iPod, two cell phones. 12 books and a journal. Two blankets, two sheets, no pillow. A kettle. Two pots and a hotplate.

He has no running water but does have electricity that works most of the time. There is an outhouse. He says he will never call any bathroom in the US 'sketchy' ever again.

One of his fellow volunteers has bats in his outhouse - the part of the outhouse you sit on. You can hear them crawling around down there while you're trying to do your business.

My son does not. Something to be grateful for. In fact, he finds many things to be grateful for:

  • food
  • letters from home
  • a cellphone to call other Peace Corps volunteers, because they're the only ones who know what you're going through
  • sunsets
  • coombies - the vans that run all over the countryside and serve as public transportation to the villages

Like most volunteers in the first few months of service, he's also stressed, overwhelmed, and homesick.

I was writing to him about how to cope. A fruitless effort, perhaps, but that's what moms do, right?

One of the things I was telling him was to make an effort - a real SERIOUS effort - to notice things that went right. Because when you're working hard and doing your best and nothing is coming easy, it's easy to beat up on yourself. And really easy to see what's wrong.

Noticing what's right - and being grateful for it - helps. And if you keep noticing, and keep being thankful, you may start to notice that things slowly, slowly, slowly, start to get better.

A snapshot of the past

Writing my note, I remembered something from a long time ago.

I have this crystal clear snapshot memory of pushing a button for an elevator. I was much younger, and feeling exhausted and depressed and completely overwhelmed. It felt like everything was wrong and no matter how hard I tried, I'd never catch up and make things 'right'. I was probably my son's age.

And the elevator came.

The door opened.

And I was SO grateful and amazed that SOMETHING had gone right.

I still have such a clear vision of that elevator button and the opening door.

Remembering that, I both laughed and cried. And felt empathy for my son, who I hope has enough grit and can garner enough gratitude to keep going.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Follow me on Twitter! @pt_think_kids

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