Let me clarify to you how I understand and apply “grit”.
I began working at McDonald’s when I was 14 years old alongside my older brother. When I was in high school, there were days I’d come home to the power being cut due to unpaid bills. My stepfather was an alcoholic and suffered from throat cancer. My mother worked very hard to ensure that my brother and I received an excellent education to build solid foundations for our futures. Our McDonald’s paychecks went into buying clothes and entertainment items, and my mother took care of our housing and Catholic school tuitions.
Now, I don’t need a job. I have a husband who makes enough for us to live comfortably. I’m an educated, capable woman who’s been independent for most of her life. I am wholly uncomfortable having someone else pay for my things, including my husband.
But for the past few years, my grit has been tested.
I’ve learned that grit doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the short-term, but grit is my source of strength in everything I do.
What character trait should a person have to be successful? Talent? Intelligence? Charisma? Not really. Those things may help, but increasingly, studies reveal grit is perhaps the most common characteristic of successful people.
Grit, as defined by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval in their book Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary, is “Having the passion and perseverance to accomplish difficult things.” MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth expands on the notion in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by explaining that talent and skill are both important, but “With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” Grit, once learned, is ingrained into one’s character. It isn’t a new concept. Aristotle wrote “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we cower after failing, stay within our comfort zones, and refrain from investing in our skills with practice, then we’ll never be extraordinary.
What group of people are very likely to possess grit? It turns out, members of the military possess incredible grit.
Most military personnel have completed rigorous physical, mental, and emotional training. Programs such as the military academies’ Basic Training and Special Forces training require first the breaking down of candidates, then building them back up. Candidates who don’t have the tenacity or the grit to endure that training don’t make it through the programs.
The call for grit doesn’t end once our brothers and sisters in arms complete training. There are long days of simulated exercises, deployments into war torn countries, the balancing act of home life with constant moves and time away. Being in the military requires a certain amount of grit. Grit translates into success. Therefore, when it’s time for them to hang up the uniform, veterans are ideal choices as employees and more likely to be successful entrepreneurs.
It’s a struggle for anyone to change careers, whether you’re military or not. But the military brings special challenges. Spouses of active duty members may find even more obstacles with their constant moves. Some find frustration living in smaller towns, where their skills leave them marked as “overqualified” in many of the local jobs.
I know firsthand of these struggles because I’m that military veteran who’s still unemployed. My story in the military begins with my graduation from the US Air Force Academy. As an Airfield Operations Officer, I managed around 95 individuals in the running of a busy Air Force airfield, and in my free time, earned a Masters in Humanities. For my last active duty assignment, I taught young officers at our career field’s technical school.
In a very short period of time, I went from being a young female military graduate to being put into situations where I was called upon to be responsible and accountable for a significant number of people, operations and lives. It was then that I learned how important grit is to be successful.
It wasn’t while carrying a dummy rifle up a steep hill during Basic Training. It wasn’t while memorizing flash card after flash card of air traffic control terminology. And it wasn’t in becoming accustomed to saying good-bye to friends and family on a regular basis.
While stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, NC, I had the opportunity to work under an incredible flight commander. He was a senior Captain at the time, a pay grade of O-3. Military pay grades go by steps. Saying “senior” means the individual has put in some time in the rank and is likely getting ready for promotion. Since the different services have different names for the rankings, the pay grades help us better understand the expectations for each member. In the Air Force, the lowest officer is a Second Lieutenant or an O-1, while a Brigadier General (one star) is an O-7. Our airfield operations flight was slotted to be run by an O-4 with two O-3s, and an O-2 or O-1. Our office, like many units in the Air Force, was low-manned.
So there I was, a fresh First Lieutenant, an O-2, with my flight commander, and a young O-3. Both O-3s were prior service, meaning they were enlisted before becoming officers. I owe the two of them much of what I learned about being a good AOF. On an ordinary day, we’d check into our units: the airfield management, RAPCON, and air traffic control tower. There were meetings to attend, including construction projects for the airfield, pilot meetings to plan large movements of jets, and general staff meetings. We also spent a lot of time tackling administrative tasks, like letters of agreements with agencies and rewriting our massive airfield operations guide which dictates procedures that more than nine agencies follow. We balanced the tasks among the three of us. My flight commander looked for learning opportunities for me and took the time to explain his thinking to me.
Then there were two. The young O-3 deployed for a year, leaving me to take on more responsibilities. Heavy decision-making – like an appropriate punishment for a great Airman caught for underage drinking was taken care of by my flight commander; he ran the flight and I was merely his right-hand officer. Then my flight commander was slotted with a six-month deployment, putting me in charge of the flight. I called my older brother and told him, “I don’t know if I can do this. There’s a lot of work to do, there are a lot of people to manage.” His advice, “Well, put your big girl pants on and get to work.” That’s just what I did.
My flight was an extraordinary group of individuals. During my time as flight commander, we began an extensive $18 million runway construction project, boosted our manning with cross training initiatives, streamlined procedures, successfully dealt with a 66% budget decrease, and even reduced our weekend hours through an agreement with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).
I learned a lot of life lessons in that time. Coming in 30 minutes earlier than the supervisors gave me time to sift through emails and look at my day’s to-dos. I began projects right away and set reminders to follow-up with people. I made mistakes, admitted fault and tried to find solutions. It was a busy time, and with perseverance, hard work and determination, extremely rewarding.
After separating from the Air Force in November 2014, my job search was put on hold until my Active Duty husband got notice of where he’d be relocated, when we moved to Anacortes, Washington.
While awaiting our move, I carefully wrote out my work experiences, took a career transition class, figured out what color my parachute was, and read articles to garner tips on how to make myself a top candidate. I was told my resume was impressive by multiple local job search experts and was confident I’d find a job quickly.
I applied to 31 jobs – airport jobs, management positions, government jobs, adjunct professor positions, Starbucks as a district manager, store manager, and barista. “We’ve chosen another candidate” or hearing no response at all became a common refrain. A school hired me for what I thought was a teaching position, but turned out to be monitoring the lunch room and the playground. I counted on going back to school for a Masters in Creative Writing, hoping to get an edge in a writing career, but my application was rejected.
So I turned towards another option: freelance writing. Writing is a portable skill; I could continue to work with established clients even when my husband was re-stationed. Many studies suggest veterans have been groomed to successfully take on the hardships of owning and operating a small business, which is essentially what this would become.
My business venture took off well in the beginning with two long-term, well-paying clients. Then it slumped. After finishing those projects, I pitched numerous companies and magazines that remained unanswered or sent back with a polite “No thank you.” Any jobs I landed were short term. Once again, my grit was tested.
Being a writer requires a thick skin grown from rejection. Stephen King used to nail his rejection notices above his desk. Nine publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. I know I have to be rejected before being accepted. I know failure makes me stronger. However, I won’t lie and say in the past two years there haven’t been times when I lost faith in myself and questioned my sense of worth.
I don’t want condolences. I’ve led my life with the belief that success follows hard work, and still believe that. I have the passion and perseverance to get where I want to be. Every day, I ask myself what I can do to improve. Every day, I look for more opportunities to share my work and find inspiration. Hard work and grit will pay off.
In sharing my story as a veteran, I hope to inspire others, especially other veterans, who feel frustrated and want to give up on their dreams. Keep pushing a little further. Challenge yourself and embrace failures as learning opportunities. And remember the grit you already have within you is valuable, no matter what you strive for.
Everyone reading this has their own unique abilities, and something to give. We all have the opportunity to do something incredible with our lives. It’s never too late to cultivate grit.