A year and a half ago I wrote a 2 part series called Getting Gritty. This is the third installment on this theme. Part 1 defines grit and examines the life of Leonardo DaVinci and his remarkable perseverance, and Part 2 discusses the balance of grit and rest as the formula for prolific creative activity.
What do Leonardo DaVinci, Julia Child, and Bob Dylan all have in common? Our first answer to this might be “genius,” meaning natural talent, or “success,” meaning they were in the right place at the right time. The temptation for those of us struggling to live creative and productive lives is to think that they had something we don’t have—or worse, can’t have. If you are like me and fall prey to this temptation, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that what these great minds have in common is something we too can have: grit. The bad news is that what we need to be like these great minds is grit.
True Grit. No, not the classic western. I’m talking about the “stick-to-it-ness” that characterizes many if not all of the most prolific and creative people across history. These figures lived through what Adam Westbrook, creator of the video essay below, calls “The Difficult Years,” or those years of hard work, sweat, and tears that history often ignores. He cites author Robert Green who defines that period as “A largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.”
Five to ten years, no achievement. That is a tough pill to swallow, especially for our instant gratification generation, a people trained to believe hard work is the stuff of fast movie montages and is over before we can blink. Is this really what it takes?
Um, well, yes. Sorry to break it to you. Grit is the thing that links great minds, and if we seek to accomplish creative feats then we must keep working, disregarding failures and the lack of an audience. We must keep creating. Todd Henry, author of the Accidental Creative, urges his readers and podcast listeners often to undertake “unnecessary creating,” meaning creative activity that we do for ourselves, for fun, and not for money. Pursuing our passions is the best training for prolific creative accomplishment; passion and grit go hand in hand.
And that is the good news. When we think of bearing down and getting gritty, we might think that this means assuming supernatural self-discipline. While discipline is important, willpower only goes so far. The only thing powerful enough to push us to this level of creative pursuit is passion, love of the craft, love of beauty, and a surviving hope that, no matter how long it takes, someone else will share that love with you.
In this video essay we learn about the profound passion of Vincent Van Gogh, and while I believe he went overboard by sacrificing his health to his art, his grittiness inspires me to push past a temporary lack of the spoils of “success” and just keep creating.
“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt