Grit Key Attributes
Courage, Perservance, Adaptability, Resilience
BUD/S. It’s the one thing most people know for certain about SEALs—almost everything else spec-ops teams do is classified—and it’s become a pop-culture trope. The image of exhausted, weary men getting pounded by cold surf to prove their worth as inexhaustible, unwearying warriors is like a condensed hero’s journey. It’s more of an anecdote than an epic, but the narrative arc is the same. That’s fitting, too, because when it comes to attributes, grit is less about long-term adventures than short-term challenges.
There’s a truism in BUD/S classes about Hell Week: “If you think about Friday on Monday, you’ll never make it.” Graduating is the goal for every man in every class, and most of them pursue it with a deep passion. But there is nothing to be passionate about when you’re lying in the surf zone or lugging a boat around for the fifth straight hour. If, on Monday, you dwell on all the miserable hours yet to come, the dread will be overwhelming. So you focus on the moment, and gut it out. That’s grit.
But, again, grit is hardly specific to SEALs. Think of a cancer patient enduring another round of chemotherapy—the goal is remission, but getting through each session of chemo takes grit. The challenges don’t have to be enormous, either; microdoses of grit can get us through the more routine moments of life. The goal is to have your best sales quarter, but the immediate presentation to a demanding boss takes grit. The goal is to get in better shape, but getting up early every morning and grinding through that workout takes grit. Put simply, your ability and willingness to step outside your comfort zone is evidence of grit.
Mental Acuity Key Attributes
Situational Awareness, Compartmentalization, Task Switching, Learnability
Situational awareness is the ability to absorb and process information from your surroundings, because that’s the base upon which the other three attributes rely. This should be obvious: If you’re not taking in information, there’s nothing to compartmentalize and no cognitive tasks among which to switch.
Compartmentalization followed situational awareness because our brains can’t process everything. We have to prioritize, focus, select, and deselect. Then, after all that happens, we can deliberately—or not so deliberately—task switch. That is, our brains can shift from one context or task to the next to allow us to move through the external dynamics of life.
The fourth attribute in this category, learnability, both influences and is influenced by the first three. The higher we are on the scales of situational awareness, compartmentalization, and task switching, the more effectively we’re able to learn from that processed information; and the higher we are on the learnability scale, the more easily we can put that compartmentalized and task-switched material to good use. Learnability is also the only one of the four working while we sleep. Our conscious minds are largely offline, but the brain is busy solidifying the patterns and scripts we created while awake. Memories are consolidated and neural connections are strengthened when we sleep. Neural plasticity relies on the waking mind shutting down to rest.
Topping the scale on all four of these attributes is unrealistic. But recognizing where you and other people fall on each can help explain everyday performance. If you have great situational awareness but are lousy at compartmentalizing, for example, you probably notice a bunch of things but might occasionally feel overwhelmed, especially when there is a lot going on around you. A person who’s high on task switching but low on learnability likely moves quickly from one activity to another but repeatedly makes the same mistakes. Or someone can be terrific at compartmentalization but not very high on task switching—which can mean being able to deeply focus on one thing but at the expense of other priorities because of an inability to pull out of that focus.
Regardless of how strong you are in any one attribute, you can work on your gaps. Just remember that you have all of these; the fact that you are able to function in the world is proof.
Drive Key Attributes
Self-efficacy, Discipline, Open-mindedness, Cunning, Narcissism
Thousands of years ago, a group of people lived together at the edge of a forest. With the stream running dry, food becoming scarce, and a hard winter bearing down, a handful of those people took the first brave steps into the forest. They walked off looking for safe shelter and abundant food and water. They were driven, in other words, to satisfy intrinsic needs, and possibly extrinsic ones, too. The path was long and uncertain and treacherous, but those few travelers had higher levels of the drive attributes than those who stayed behind.
They had enough self-efficacy to believe they could accomplish the journey and the discipline to keep going. They were open-minded, willing to believe there was a better place beyond the distant ridgeline. Instead of hunkering down for the scarce winter, they had the cunning to consider the novel, almost radical, approach of wandering into the unknown. Probably at least one of them was narcissistic enough to want to lead a party of explorers, too.
Drive is the behavior of staying focused on and pursuing a goal, and those five attributes all contribute to the behavior. Those prehistoric travelers would have needed both drive and grit to survive an arduous journey. Drive is concerned with longer-term objectives, aspirations that require time and diligence to achieve. Drive is what kept them walking day after day, week after week. Grit is about the short term. Grit got them through the worst moments of those days and weeks—fighting off bears, crossing wild rivers, scaling steep, rugged slopes.
Drive needs grit to be effective—it’s difficult to push toward a goal if you can’t get past the inevitable obstacles. Moreover, no single drive attribute is very effective in isolation; drive as a behavior typically requires functional levels of at least two of the underlying attributes.
Someone who has a high level of only discipline, for example, will likely have meticulously thought out plans that are never acted upon. Cunning by itself tends to present as maliciousness, and narcissism shows up as preening arrogance. A person who’s very open-minded but extremely low on the other attributes is…well, probably just very nice.
Developing several or even all five, though, will increase your drive immensely. Combine drive with grit while exercising your mental acuity attributes, and that’s a powerful formula for optimal performance, anywhere and anytime.
Leadership Key Attributes
Empathy, Selflessness, Authenticity, Decisiveness, Accountability
When it comes to being in charge, there are generally two kinds of people: drivers and leaders.
Drivers see their organization or team as a mechanical system, and they consider the people they’re in charge of to be parts—buttons to push, levers to pull, pedals to press. Because they believe their vision is the most important one or the only valid one, they exert control through heavy-handed direction and overt manipulation, sometimes with rewards but more often with punishments. If one of those parts doesn’t perform as demanded, it’s replaced without a second thought. There is no empathy because parts are expendable; no one mourns the worn-out brakes on their car.
Drivers might get results for a while, maybe even a long while if they churn through enough parts. But like any overworked and poorly maintained mechanical system, the gears eventually begin to grind. Depersonalized workers become demoralized subordinates. No one follows a driver—they’re being pushed instead.
Leaders are different. All types of leaders—parents and siblings; commanding officers and CEOs; presidents and priests; athletes and office managers—have one thing in common: They inspire.
Leaders are able to inspire because they have high levels of most of the leadership attributes: empathy, selflessness, authenticity, decisiveness, and accountability. You already know that, you have always known that, even if the concept was never broken into those specific components. Just think of the people you consider leaders in your own life—you can see those attributes clearly. People follow leaders willingly, eagerly, because leaders motivate and influence. They might instruct but they do not dictate, encourage but not manipulate. People perform at their best for leaders not because they were ordered to but because they want to.
You don’t need to have exceptional levels of all five. You don’t need to be perfect. Anyone who’s been in charge understands that’s an impossible standard. At times, leadership might even require briefly behaving like a driver. And that will be okay. When leaders inspire and influence, they also build trust, nurture confidence, and earn respect. Remember, other people decide whether you’re a leader and whether they will follow because leadership is a behavior. Develop it and become one.
Teamability Key Attributes
Integrity, Conscientiousness, Humility, Humor
Integrity is a foundational element of trust, both in ourselves and with others. As individuals, if we can’t trust ourselves to do what we believe is the right thing, we lose confidence in ourselves. And if you don’t trust you, why should anyone else?
Integrity among individuals naturally leads to integrity within the group. Trust is imperative to any team that hopes to function at an optimal level. When members of a group trust one another, unity and cohesion are easier to maintain. Each member of the team can expect the others to do the right thing for themselves and the larger group.
Conscientiousness matters in the context of a team because it fosters trust. This isn’t an esoteric concept, no trick of brain chemistry. It’s common sense, and you understand it intuitively. Think of the people in your own life, personal or professional, whom you trust. Odds are most of them are dependable, reliable, and hardworking in one way or another. Otherwise, you wouldn’t trust them. That same concept applies to teams. Trust is paramount. Each member can operate more efficiently and more confidently if all the other members can be counted on to do so, too.
There’s a sweet spot on the humility scale, and it is quite wide. But there is danger at either extreme end, either too much or too little. A lack of humility often resembles arrogance. While that’s almost always a by-product of fear or insecurity, arrogance on any team is detrimental. It breeds resentment, stifles communication, and, as a result, is brutal in terms of results.
Too much humility, though, risks teetering into meekness, which in turn can lead to inaction. Deference in support of empowering others is necessary for optimal performance, but there are times when you need to step up and be the alpha. You will be the expert in the room, the one who’s been empowered by the deference of others, at which point you will need to take charge and perform with confidence.
Humor is a powerful attribute. The ability to laugh, to find the sliver of funny amid the tragic and the trying, can be calming, comforting, empowering, and encouraging. We’ve all heard the joke that broke the tension, the one-liner that smoothed an edge of fear, the wisecrack that distracted us from that nagging pain. Exactly what we find humorous is a matter of taste, but we’ve all been some version of that five-year-old, devastated by the loss of a pet, who was briefly relieved by our own silly thoughts.
“Laughter is the best medicine” is a well-worn cliché because there is an enormous amount of truth to it. When we laugh, our bodies release an assortment of feel-good chemicals that have both neurological and physiological effects. “We don’t laugh because we’re happy,” the psychologist and philosopher William James said more than a hundred years ago. “We’re happy because we laugh.”