Finding meaning of the term “grit”

May 02, 2023

Written by Joshua Altschule, Psy.D. || Founder & Co-Executive Director


When I first heard the term, “grit”, it summoned a number of not so pleasant visualizations. For example, memories of cleaning burnt grease and food debris from pots and pans while working as a dishwasher. Also of mopping everything that was deposited from the soles of shoes to the restaurant floors each day. Little did I know that these memories would prove quite relevant for me, towards understanding what psychological grit means.


As a child and young adult, I made many efforts to avoid school work. Whether it be procrastination, making creative excuses for missed assignments, or working hard to distract my teachers from their lesson plans. My modus operandi was to avoid trying so that I could then avoid confirming a deep fear that I would fail. However, avoidance only produced the very outcome that I feared.


So what does dishwashing, mopping, and academic failure have to do with grit? The answer, It turns out, is everything. You see, I’d always cut corners, lacked perseverance, and failed to believe in who I was. And after being kicked out of college, I hit my rock bottom, and I was forced to make a choice: change or let go of my aspirations. So I took on a job at a fast food restaurant and made a new commitment: no cutting corners and no excuses.


Every day, I walked an hour in the frigid Albany, New York tundra to catch a bus and get to work by 6 am. When I arrived, a broom, mop, and bucket were there to greet me. I was told to first wash with warm soapy water and then again with just water. I was to lift each chair onto a table and sweep and mop from corner to corner. I did this religiously for one year. To this day I consider myself, pound for pound, to be one of the greatest mopping artists of all time!


As for grit, what happened here? Making no excuses and completing a menial task day in and day out in its entirety was my grit training ground. I wrestled with thoughts like, “I’m above this”. When I was ready to give up, I reapplied and recommitted myself and began to take pride in my work. When I returned to school after a year, I used my newly developed skills to apply myself and push through old ingrained habits to form new ones. Eventually, I became the change that I sought and completed my doctorate with flying colors!


I share my personal story here for several reasons. Firstly, these days I celebrate this victory in my life and want to inspire others. But more importantly I hope to share this experience from a parenting perspective. Our children struggle in life and we want nothing more than to eradicate their discomfort. But note that this discomfort acts as essential building blocks for developing grit and learning the essential skills for activating potential. We must allow our children to suffer and grow through their experiences. Without it they will lack the necessary skills needed to become adults and achieve their goals and aspirations.