A few years ago, my wife and I were at a school meeting and the teacher, a seasoned elder, was telling the parents about the various challenges our kids were facing. As we concluded she said, “You’ve got great kids. The thing is . . .” She paused and seemed hesitant, and then set her jaw and continued, “Look, I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I hope you’ll take this the right way because it’s important. Your kids lack grit.” As she scanned our faces, I think she wanted to say that many of us adults lacked grit too.
We still have certain hardships today, but because life is undoubtedly easier for most people, it’s quite possible to live a normal lifespan with very little grit. Although this grit deficiency is widespread among modern people, the upside is that we generally have higher emotional intelligence than our ancestors did.
There’s a big difference between managing intense emotions because we’re emotionally intelligent versus being unaffected by emotions because we don’t feel them. Grit often goes along with emotional suppression, which was probably a more common coping mechanism in previous generations, in part because we just didn’t talk about our feelings much. The downside was a narrowed experience of life and lots of dysfunctional relationships.
My point is that what we call “grit” often comes at a high price. But grit and emotional intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive qualities. We can be tough without being shut down emotionally. In fact, the better we understand our emotional landscape, the more resilient we are, the healthier our supportive relationships are, and the less daunting it is to step out of our comfort zone.
The cultivation of both grit and emotional intelligence requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. When you think of a person with grit perhaps you imagine them sleeping on the ground, plodding through snow in order to deliver the mail, getting thrown off a horse and climbing back on, or having to use non-organic soymilk in their latte. (Soymilk is almost synonymous with grit, am I right? 😉)
We’d be best served with a combination of both qualities. Grit without emotional intelligence implies a person who can be tough and tenacious, but won’t get to fully experience the journey and rewards of whatever they invest their grit into pursuing. As for emotional intelligence without grit, a person may fully understand what they’re feeling but be unable to stand up to their emotions when they threaten to take over, nor to stand up and say what needs to be said in order to clear the air, maintain integrity, and honor their boundaries.
One silver lining of this pandemic is that I’ve seen more emotionally intelligent grit in people than ever. It takes grit to make do with shortages of food and toilet paper, to find ways to get our kids educated when schools are closed, to figure out how to make ends meet when our jobs and businesses disappear, and to change our behaviors to reduce the spread of a contagious disease. The emotional intelligence aspect is not letting our fear be the driver, instead being guided in all our adaptations by homing in on what’s most important. For instance: family, community, service, vibrant health, kindness, and ecology. It means honoring the choice that mere survival isn’t enough.
This brings us to the crux of emotionally intelligent grit, which is that having a higher purpose is essential. Without it, we adapt without heart. To me, a high purpose always implies an intention that goes beyond personal gain. It inspires the willingness to be uncomfortable as we develop and maintain these muscles, and the world is made better by this sacrifice.
Be well, and not too comfortable,