Grit is More Than Sand in Your Teeth

Wind is blowing sand in every direction.  There’s sand in my teeth, eyes, and ears.  The other guides and I are doing our best to cook dinner for our 20 river trip guests who are acting like starfish holding down their tents. Boats are flipping over, the tables have already blown over.   We’ve dug a pit in the beach for our stove and are trying in vain to get pasta water to boil so people can eat.  It’s intense, every sense is bombarded, and every guide is focused.  I look at one of the other guides and we start laughing at the absurdity of our current predicament.

Flash forward a decade and a half. Now instead of rowing a boat, I row a desk as the Executive Director of a small non-profit whose mission is to connect young people to the rivers and canyons of the Southwest.  You may not think that these two experiences are connected, but they most definitely are!  The lessons I learned about the value of grit while working as a river guide very much translate into my work.

What is grit?  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit is defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.”  For me, grit is the perseverance to succeed despite obstacles. There are plenty of obstacles in the non-profit sector that require grit; lack of funding, challenging partnerships, and always feeling short-staffed.  I have learned again and again that the lessons of the river are relevant in being the best Executive Director I can be.  Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about grit:

Be Courageous: Going back to the windstorm, as guides we had to put our personal fear and comfort aside to do what needed to be done for the safety of our guests.  Sometimes when I’m struggling with a problem, I have to step out of my comfort zone, confront my fear of failure, look at the problem from a different perspective and act courageously with the information I have at the time.  Sometimes that means facing the fact that there isn’t always a perfect solution.  Challenges are both expected and unexpected and grit requires us to be courageous in both instances.

Keep your sense of humor: Let’s face it, sometimes when faced with a challenge, it can be downright overwhelming.  Variables change that are not in your control and you’re forced to start over.  Hanging onto the belief that we control the outcome, we fail and take it personally, blame others, get defensive, become a martyr, or give up.  Remembering to laugh and find the humor in the situation has been key.  Being humble, knowing that my attitude is the only thing I truly control, has helped me to laugh at myself and has done wonders in keeping a healthy perspective.  Finding colleagues or friends who have helped me find the humor when I’m taking things too seriously has been vital for me to persevere when things are tough.

Remember resiliency: Many of the most rewarding aspects of my job (on the river and off) has been to be a witness to, and to personally experience the power of resiliency.  Resiliency is the relief after you’ve made it through a challenge.  Resilience is being open to an option you had not previously considered to get to your goal.  Resilience is seeking excellence even through failure. Resilience is the exhilaration in trying again and again and in finally getting it right.

Hopefully, the river of life will give us just enough rapids to keep things interesting, but not so many rapids that we are constantly gasping for breath.  When faced with a challenge, I reflect fondly to my time on the river.  I remember the rainbow that breaks wide over the canyon after a torrential rainstorm that has soaked me to the bone.  I remember rubbing my tired feet after leading a long hike to an amazing view.  I remember the grit in the spaghetti that we cooked in a pit that we dug in the sand and the adventure we had cooking it!

For more inspiration about the power of grit, I recommend Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk:


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