03/17/2015 06:29 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT

It's Never Too Late to Acquire "Grit"

Is there a blueprint for "cultivating grit," and are there steps you can take right now to build it within your life? These are questions that come up a lot whenever I give a talk on overcoming adversity, so I thought I would share a few of my strategies with you.

I was being interviewed last week for a radio program and the host asked me what my definition of "success" is. I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback, as I struggled with whether to give the concise stock answer I thought she was looking for, or to really explore what I believe to be the many nuances of success.

I've never been one to equate success with money, power or prestige. I've always considered success to be inseparable from the tenacity that comes with having an unbreakable spirit. Adversity is the great equalizer, so it makes no difference who you are--there will come a time when the threat of loss or an overwhelming fear will shutter you, and stop you dead in your tracks.

Having spent the majority of my life publicly working through issues with sexual violence, addiction and at times, fragile mental health, I had begun believing what so many people around me were telling me, that maybe I am "resilient" and that this was in some way the cause that I could champion in my community. But as I began unpacking this notion a little further, I realized that I am in no way going to settle for simply being "resilient". If you're 'resilient', you are inclined to bounce back in the face of adversity. It's hard to argue that this is not a good thing, but it really has nothing to do with 'growth' and 'moving forward'.

I have to credit my wife with this change in my thinking because it was she who sent me a quote she had come across--one that she thought perfectly described me: "Resiliency is your ability to bounce back. Resolve, however, is your ability to dig deep and push forward in the face of adversity. It comes from a strong sense of inner purpose, drive, and tenacity that helps you rise above any obstacle or failure."

It's a subtle difference, but it is one that has the possibility of yielding immense personal growth. There is definitely something to be said for soldiering on and rebounding from setback after setback. No doubt, it speaks volumes to your tenacity. The problem lies in where I, and so many others get trapped--living in a vicious cycle of being knocked down and getting right back up again, so much so that it's hard not to feel like life's punching bag.

But how can we expect to ever break this cycle? I believe the answer is found in what we do in the midst of the adversity, or chaotic dissonance, and not in what happens once we have already rebounded. There is no denying that we are a pain-averse society--one in which we gravitate towards avoidance and numbing, rather than submitting and enduring. I suggest the greatest opportunity for personal growth, and thus the possibility for substantive change, comes just after the moment we are naturally inclined to turn away from the discomfort. In so doing, we deny ourselves the opportunity to listen to the lesson that echoes within the discomfort. As William James said, "Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they've got a second."

Author, Caroline Adams Miller, sees the roots of this problem in how we raise our children in such a way that they are insulated from challenge and failure. According to her, "this is not a gritty generation" because teachers and caregivers have become so consumed with building children's self esteem, that most children lack the "grit" necessary to achieve long-term goals.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, Judy Holland states that the latest "research shows grit is usually unrelated or inversely related to talent. But if you fear your kids are light on grit, don't worry. We can cultivate traits of gritty people--and model them for our kids. Grit is contagious."

Is there a blueprint for "cultivating grit," and are there steps you can take right now to build it within your life? These are questions that come up a lot whenever I give a talk on overcoming adversity, so I thought I would share a few of my strategies with you.

Treading water won't get you to the shore.

One of the greatest challenges for me is to strike that perfect balance between living in the moment and envisioning the broader picture. Whenever it feels as though all I'm doing is just "getting by" or "keeping my head above water," I like to step back and reassess my priorities. Oftentimes, it comes down to the simple question of, "what am I willing to give up in order to pursue the goal I am chasing?" You'd be surprised by what this question can reveal in terms of the cost to your health, your family, and your time.

I try to remind myself that for me, the joy often lies in the pursuit rather than in the acquisition, so it's only logical that swimming through the adversity may in fact be the thing to cherish most. As the American poet Tyler Knott Gregson has said, "Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim."

Maybe it's time to go to your bench.

A valuable lesson that I've had to learn is the importance of jettisoning naysayers and surrounding myself with a diverse resiliency team. I've not had the closest relationship with my birth family, so I've needed rethink what 'family' means to me. I welcome people into my life who see the best in me and are aligned with what resonates in my soul. These people tend to play one of three roles: A "buffer" who shields me from being overwhelmed by self-doubt or debilitating adversity, a "booster" who rallies me and fills me with confidence and motivation, and a "bumper" who gently nudges me out of my comfort zone towards growth. Ultimately, the people I surround myself with can be my lifeboat or parachute, but if I don't choose them wisely, I could be left with a lead balloon or a leaky raft.

Embrace the wretchedness.

As a veteran of over 100 marathons and ultra-marathons, I have an intimate understanding of what if feels like to dig deep when everything in your brain is telling you to quit. Nothing disappoints me more than to see elite athletes deciding to step out of a race early because they are having a bad race. Quitting because you won't make your time goal is in no way in keeping with the purity of sport. You'd be hard pressed to find a clearer indicator of grit being "inversely related to talent."

Whenever I encounter a tough patch and feel overwhelmed in a long race, I remind myself that by quitting now, I make it that much easier to give up on myself the next time I face adversity. Patterns are easy to establish, and once they're entrenched, it's very difficult to break them. It was Robert Frost who said, "The best way out is always through." None of us likes to "sit with" pain or suffering, but by learning to be present with it and listening to the lessons it whispers to us, we begin to see suffering not as an obstacle in our path, but as a stepping stone to growth and transformation.