I came across an interesting “megaanalysis” (https://www.pnas.org/content/116/47/23499) which examined data from over 10,000 cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. When analyzing data on cognitive ability, physical ability, and grit, the researchers found a few interesting things.
According to the research article, on arrival at West Point each cadet goes through a 6-week initiation training nicknamed Beast Barracks. This experience has been described in the handbook for new cadets as, “the most physically and emotionally demanding part of the 4 years at West Point.” What’s interesting, is the researchers found that a cadet’s grit was the only thing that could predict whether or not they would complete this intense 6-week training period. Cognitive ability and physical ability did not reliably predict retention during this period. Said differently, grittier, but not necessarily more cognitively or physically able cadets were more likely to complete this training period.
The researchers also found that grit and physical ability were better than cognitive ability at predicting whether someone would ultimately graduate from West Point.
So, what is “grit” and how does it apply to behavior change?
In Merriam-Webster, grit is defined as, “firmness of mind or spirit” and “mental toughness and courage”. In the research article, grit is discussed as passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance, zeal and the capacity for hard labor, and the tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles.
I wanted to write about this topic because when we read a book or hear someone talk about building new habits it sounds so easy. “First do “x”, then do “y”, then “z”, and boom! Your old habit is gone!” In reality, it doesn’t always work like that. Sure, some habits are easy to eliminate or replace, but some aren’t. Sometimes we want to change something, we try to change something, and we fail. It doesn’t always go super smoothly the way books and diagrams make it seem. I think this lack of consistency between what we read and how things actually go can be very discouraging if we aren’t aware of the fact that it’s normal if we try to change a certain habit and aren’t successful the first, second, tenth, or even twentieth try.
The main point of this article is just to say that as someone who has worked with countless people who wanted to change their habits, it’s not always easy and it doesn’t always happen right away. It is a process that many times takes longer than we would like. That’s it. That’s the point of this article. Just to say that it’s normal to struggle with the process of habit change, it’s normal if you keep failing, and it’s normal if things aren’t going nearly as smoothly as the books make it seem. The positive is, my experiences coaching clients who struggle to reach their goals (and in my personal struggles to reach my goals) mirror what’s shown in this research — those who really want to change their habits, if they stick with it and keep trying new things, if they get gritty, eventually they are able to change them.