The Ultimate Guide To Grit, Mental Toughness, & Meditation
The Marshmallow, The Jelly Bean, & The Rock
When it comes to mental toughness, it is said there are three types of people: the marshmallow, the jelly bean, and the rock. Soft inside and out, marshmallows quickly squish under the slightest pressure. With a hard shell and a soft inner core, jelly beans can withstand some stress, but in time, always buckle. Hard inside and out, rocks can handle anything.
According to the work of a world famous University of Pennsylvania psychologist, the "rocks" in this world have something more valuable than intelligence, more important than genetics, and more helpful than talent. Dominating headlines with her viral 14+ million view TED Talk and bestselling "Grit" book, Dr. Angela Duckworth makes the compelling case for "mental toughness" as the "secret sauce" pumping through the veins of successful people.
Successful People Have "Grit"
Every summer, some 1300 cadets enter the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point. To ensure they have what it takes, the cadets must pass what's internally known as "Beast Barracks," a complex, highly demanding progression of mental, emotional, and physical exercises. Because of the program's incredible difficulty, many drop out along the way.
To find out why some graduate and some don't, Dr. Duckworth tracked 2441 of these cadets over two incoming West Point classes. Her metrics were high school graduation rank, Leadership Potential score (extracurricular involvement), Physical Aptitude Exam (exercise capacity), SAT score (raw intelligence), and Grit Scale (passion and perseverance).
And the winner was... Grit! By a wide margin too.
Because Beast Barracks tested their intellect, physical stamina, and leadership ability, it would be expected that the smartest, fittest, and most charismatic cadets had the best chance to graduate. Well, it turns out that mental toughness matters more than genetics, influence, brains, and talent.
To confirm her groundbreaking results, Duckworth and colleagues began interviewing top performers in many fields, including investment banking, art, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Again and again, grit was found to be the most accurate "high achievement" predictor.
Dr. Duckworth on the results: "Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit (or a close synonym) as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not (at first) seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field."
We all know someone who flushed their truckload of talent down the toilet or took their thimble of talent to the mountaintop. The world is full of underachievers and overachievers.
Luckily, like most traits, we aren't born with a "set" amount of grit. There are things we can do to strengthen our mental toughness. And leading the pack? Meditation. It all starts with the brain.
How Meditation Makes Your Brain "Gritty"
If an election were held for the "grittiest" brain region, the "anterior cingulate cortex" (ACC) would win by a landslide. With pain resistance, willpower, motivation, focus, and emotional resilience among the ACC's wide range of functions, this powerful brain region ticks all the gritty, mentally tough boxes.
Then, to increase grit, strengthen the ACC, right?
Correct! In a study to understand why meditators have such a high tolerance to pain (as multiple studies and countless anecdotal reports had previously shown), University of Montreal researchers (Grant et al) compared the brains of 17 experienced meditators to 18 "normal" brains. What did they find?
The meditators' brains had much "thicker" gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), with degree linked to years of experience. In other words, meditation fortifies the brain's "grit" center.
While Dr. Duckworth and colleagues have suggested that we can "get gritty" by adopting what's called a "growth mindset" (seeing challenges as learning opportunities rather than obstacles to overcome), harnessing the power of meditation to literally "grow" and strengthen the "grittiest" brain region of all takes that idea to a whole new level. Neuroplasticity is a powerful thing.
Meditation strengthens our "inner-Rocky-Balboa" in other ways too. Like what? From focusing our mind, to eliminating fear, to instilling confidence, to cranking up our motivation, meditation's mental toughness upgrades span the seven great seas.