AoC Toolbox | The Art of Grit (Episode 620)

Are you resilient? Resilience — true grit — has to last in order to be real. That’s what we’re going to explore in this toolbox: how to build real and lasting grit.
[Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine]

The Cheat Sheet:

  • The jolt of purpose sometimes masquerades as its more complicated and permanent cousin, grit.
  • Is there a formula for grit?
  • How does adversity affect grit?
  • Grit isn’t a technical skill or a fixed framework — it’s a process.
  • To what end is grit about us and the way we think vs. what life hands over to us?
  • And so much more…


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In the early days of our journey, right after we committed full time to the crazy experiment that would become The Art of Charm, I remember thinking: This is it. This is the thing I’m going to do with the rest of my life. The restlessness I felt as an attorney on Wall Street, the anxiety I felt as the recession unfolded, the inertia I had around finding another job — all of that faded away, and was replaced by a sort of inspired high that I had never really felt before. I was convinced that by discovering my life’s work, I had also discovered the real source of my resilience, and that I’d never have to worry about looking for it again. What a feeling! I had done what Charles Bukowski recommended: I found what I loved, and I was going to let it kill me.

It only took a few years to realize that I had only discovered half the equation.

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More About This Show

In the course of building AoC, we ran into all the inevitable drudgery and pain of building something great. Any entrepreneur knows the struggle. Cash flow got tight; insurance went up. Visions evolved; marketing stumbled. Investors went AWOL; downloads fell off. Over 10 years, we grew exponentially, developed an incredible curriculum, and built an unparalleled community of students, but it wasn’t easy. When life gets tough, you realize pretty quickly that resilience ebbs and flows in response to how difficult things happen to be at any given moment. And a few years in, my resilience was ebbing and flowing dramatically, despite the fact that I actually loved what I did.

What I had found in those early days wasn’t actually resilience, but purpose. It turns out that resilience is much more complicated. It isn’t a one-and-done deal, like I had thought; it’s something you have to be, something you have to become. Anything else is just a temporary injection — a coping mechanism, a burst of motivation, an act of gritting your teeth and bearing on.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. A lot of life, as Woody Allen said, is a matter of just showing up. But I’m interested in things that last. And resilience — true grit — has to last in order to be real. That’s what we’re going to explore in this article: how to build real and lasting resilience.

Is there a formula for grit?

Resilience is one of those slippery virtues — like patience, vision, and passion — that have devolved into cliché. Its obvious importance (of course we have to be resilient, duh!) is part of its slipperiness: What does it really mean to be resilient, aside from just pushing on? Can we really learn to be resilient by dissecting its ingredients? Is there a formula for grit?

So let me get really clear about a few things.

When I talk about resilience, I’m talking about the ability to stay engaged with a person, project, or circumstance — to stay in the game — through its inevitable ups and downs.

Or, as the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University puts it,1 to “adapt successfully to disturbances” and “resume positive functioning” following “adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress” while avoiding “deleterious behavioral and psychological changes in response to chronic stress.”

In other words, we’re talking about our ability to handle life, in all its unpredictable and maddening difficulty, without falling off, going crazy, or hurting ourselves in the process.

Put like that, you can see why it’s impossible to teach social dynamics without talking about resilience. It many ways, resilience is the glue that holds our lives together — the invisible thread that keeps us connected to the things we want to achieve, even (and especially!) when achieving them gets hard. Which it always does.

How does adversity affect grit?

Resilience matters. A ton of new research has opened up in this area in the last two decades — all of it fascinating — but most studies circle a common conclusion: that it’s not really how much adversity we face in life that determines our level of success, but how we respond to that adversity.

Consider the research of Emmy Werner.2 In a 32-year longitudinal study, she followed a group of almost 700 children to assess their vulnerability to negative developmental outcomes after exposure to various stresses (anything from maternal stress in the womb to poverty and family troubles). Two-thirds of the participants developed serious learning or behavioral problems in life, while the other third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults” who were ready and engaged to take on the world.

So what set the two groups apart?  In short, Werner landed on a handful of key variables that predicted success:

  • A strong bond with a supportive person (a parent, teacher, or caregiver)
  • The qualities of being autonomous and independent
  • A disposition toward seeking out new experiences
  • A “positive social orientation”
  • An internal locus of control (in other words, the belief that they had power over their lives and influence over their outcomes)

In other words, some predictors of resilience — like having a central relationship or being a naturally independent person — are, to some degree, a matter of luck. But others — like seeking out new experiences, having a positive relationship with the world around you, and believing that you have influence over your life — are qualities you can cultivate. I’ll be getting into that in just a moment, but for now, let’s just appreciate how much resilience depends on things that are actually under our control.

Then there’s George Bonanno, head of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, who arrived at one of the most important variables in resilience: perception. Bonnano found that the variation in resilience among study participants comes down to whether we think about a stressful event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow.

In Bonnano’s view, there’s actually no such thing as a traumatic event. “Events,” he’s argued,2 “are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic” (my emphasis added). People who respond well to stressful events — and Bonnano is talking about the really stressful stuff in life, like moments where we might be seriously harmed or the death of a loved one — tend to extract some sort of meaning or significance from them. It’s not the events themselves that are traumatic, but how we choose to think about, process, and respond to them.

So the death of a parent, for example, can either be an unjust loss or an opportunity to really appreciate the relationships we’ve been given. Being fired from a job can either be a devastating wound or an opportunity to discover a more fulfilling career. Of course, these stressful events can be both — unfair and instructive, terrifying and edifying — and that’s exactly the point.

Because here’s Bonnano’s big finding: stressful or traumatic events don’t really determine people’s life outcomes. In fact, exposure to traumatic events in life doesn’t predict later functioning at all — unless there’s a negative response!

If that’s true, and there’s good evidence that it is, then our minds are much more responsible for trauma than we think. According to Bonnano, resilience actually lies in how we construct meaning from our suffering. The richer the meaning, the less powerful the trauma — and the greater our resilience.

The best part, of course, is that we have control over meaning. We can’t control the hurricane that destroys our home, the random act of violence that takes a loved one, or the corporate forces that lead to downsizing. But we can control how we interpret those events — a mental framing approach that is a major part of what we teach3 here at AoC.

We could go down the rabbit hole of research here, but these studies actually tell us all we need to know about developing resilience. While other factors definitely play a role in resilience (another study by Bonnano and Sandro Galea, for example, found4 that gender, age, ethnicity, education level of trauma exposure, and chronic disease also play a role in resilience), it’s the variables we can control that hold the secret to developing grit. That’s where we can do our best work.

The process of grit.

If resilience is a trait we can develop by cultivating certain qualities, then resilience is something we can learn.

But we can’t learn it in the way we learn JavaScript or Excel shortcuts. Grit isn’t a technical skill or a fixed framework. It’s a process. And like most processes, it’s ongoing, dynamic, and fluid. Like Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Resilience is part of that excellence, which means it’s not just something we do, but something we are — something we become — something we have to focus on constantly becoming.

So here’s my philosophy of resilience, based on the body of scientific research available and my own experience over the last 15 years. What we discuss on the show and here on the blog explores this philosophy in more depth. As we’ll discuss, any approach to resilience is personal and ongoing, but this is an excellent place to begin, and an article I recommend rereading over time.

Develop and nurture strong relationships.

Werner found that one central relationship was a strong predictor of resilience. But that relationship doesn’t have to be formed early in life; we can, at any moment, choose to seek out and cultivate relationships based on intimacy, openness, generosity, and trust — in other words, relationships built on true social capital.5

As we know, feelings of helplessness, failure, inadequacy, and insecurity take place in our minds, and metastasize fastest when we’re alone. In the context of a relationship, however, those feelings tend to have far less power.

For one thing, a  strong relationship — with an entrepreneur friend, a creative colleague, a caring therapist, a significant other, a good coach — can mirror and empathize with those feelings, and help you make sense of them along the way. For another, the mere presence of a relationship — just the fact of being connected to someone — helps reduce the impact of negative stresses in general, which eases the amount of grit we need to overcome them. I bet you can find anecdotal evidence of this in your own life: How many successful people do you know who are lone wolves?

Resilience is largely an individual habit, but the science suggests that our capacity to develop it grows in the context of a close relationship. Our own resilience also feeds on examples of resilience in other people. It’s true that some of us are fortunate to be born with strong bonds early on, but the opportunity to develop those bonds is always available to us. (As I often say, the notion of “too late” is a myth.) If resilience depends on close relationships, then it’s our job to become socially connected beings — which is the lifeblood of great social dynamics.

Explore the full meaning of life’s challenges.

Bonnano’s research showed us just how powerful our interpretation of life can be. In a world that throws us challenges, stresses, and traumas largely out of our control — a reality we all learn to accept sooner or later — it becomes our job to shape the meaning of those events. That belief traces back to the earliest spiritual teachings, and pops up in everything from the writings of Marcus Aurelius6 to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology. Our resilience literally depends on it.

But let me be clear: I’m not talking about spinning every blow into an automatic positive, smiling our way through trauma but secretly repressing our pain. That’s not meaning-making; that’s delusion. I’m talking about being honest and thoughtful about what life’s challenges can offer us — good and bad — and exploring the full significance of our stresses, so we can stop being victims of trauma and start becoming students of it.

Five VCs in a row have decided not to fund your company. What is their rejection trying to teach you? Are there aspects of your company that need to be fixed? Do you need to refine your pitch? Or are these investors missing a crucial insight only you understand — which reinforces that you’re actually on the right track?

Notice that we’re not trying to dismiss the data or find an easy interpretation that fits our immediate purposes. What we’re doing is being radically honest and searching for as much data as possible, so we can use these challenges to our benefit. It’s like Garrison Keillor said: “It’s all material.” Robert Greene7 echoed that quote in a speech he gave at Yale, where he said8 that he wants to be “the master observer of this world” — in other words, a master interpreter.

Life’s stresses are various, and so are the meanings we extract. Explore them. Question them. Share them with the people around you. Don’t try to arrive at a fixed interpretation — positive or negative — but appreciate that challenges always contain both. If you make this a habit, the positive meaning of suffering will always win out. That’s the funny thing about finding meaning in life’s challenges: the moment you become a student of suffering, it only functions to help you. And if trauma helps you, then you don’t need to go looking for resilience — you’re becoming resilient just by choosing to think about your challenges in a new way.

Remember that resilience is a journey.

One of the biggest myths peddled by self-help experts is that happiness and success are qualities that can be taught and sold. The truth is that happiness and success are the byproducts of processes and habits that are much more difficult and mysterious than most experts care to admit (or even really appreciate). If you listen to the show, you know that I’m a big believer in practical tips and real results. This article alone won’t make you resilient — no article can — but the processes we’ve discussed here will build grit if you choose to live them every single day.

Take, for example, the importance of a central relationship. We know that close relationships are a strong predictor of resilience in life. But relationships aren’t just a collection of friends or an address of book full of people. Real relationships, fruitful relationships, are in the relating — the sum total of the presence and value you invest in the people around you.

I know a lot of entrepreneurs whose concept of resilience is talking to other people — a lot — about how hard they’re working. The funny thing is that this actually works, up to a point. But it’s not the stuff of real resilience, at least not the kind we’ve been talking about here.

So in the quest to become more resilient, don’t just seek out more relationships; seek out better relationships, stronger relationships — which will almost certainly mean fewer but deeper connections.

The same goes for finding meaning in challenges. Once you realize how powerful your interpretation of life is, it’s tempting to think that resilience is just a matter of finding the right interpretation to fuel your desire to keep going. That kind of significance isn’t hard to find. Most of us do it every day, reflexively, and for many of us, it does work — again, up to a point.

But the best kind of meaning-making — the kind of life interpretation that builds true and lasting resilience — is an ongoing process of questioning life’s hidden meanings. The research shows us that trauma is in the eye of the beholder: whether life is trying to hurt us or help us largely depends on how we choose to think. And how we choose to think isn’t so much a light switch — on or off, good or bad, bright or dark — but a dimmer switch. We turn it back and forth, looking for different shades of meaning, constantly adjusting the light to reveal the full significance of life’s events. Our ability to remain in that illuminating process is the stuff of resilience.

I often begin my show by saying that we don’t have all the answers, but we definitely have a lot of the questions. Ironically, it’s that humility and curiosity that leads to the most enduring resilience and grit. If we’re going to learn how to stick with our goals, we need to grow into a concept of resilience that allows for discovery, connection, and meaning. Those aren’t woo-woo concepts; those are core social dynamics skills. That’s the work. That’s how we keep going.

  1. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper 13.
  2. Konnikova, M. (2016). How People Learn to Become Resilient. The New Yorker.
  3. The Art of Charm (2017). Bootcamp: Week-Long Residential Program.
  4. Bonanno, G.A., Galea, S. (2007). What Predicts Psychological Resilience After Disaster? The Role of Demographics, Resources, and Life Stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
  5. The Art of Charm (2017). Social Capital.
  6. Holiday, R., Harbinger, J. (2014). The Obstacle is the Way (Episode 248). The Art of Charm Podcast
  7. Greene, R., Harbinger, J. (2014). 7-Year Anniversary Special (Episode 250). The Art of Charm Podcast.
  8. Greene, R. (2010). Robert Greene’s Speech at Yale. Power, Seduction and War Blog.

This toolbox episode has been adapted from an original piece by Gabriel Mizrahi. Drop him a line at Twitter if you enjoyed it, and go visit his website here if you’d like to read more of his work.

If you enjoy this toolbox, you may also want to check out our episode with Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance here, as well as our toolbox on resilience here.


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Jordan Harbinger - author of 952 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.


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