On Building Resilience and Grit

Image result for climbing a mountain
How can you increase your Grit capacity?

As we still move forward under the shadow of the pandemic, I have been fielding a lot of questions about grit and resilience.  I find this a fascinating subject and one that aligns with my values and background.

In addition to my CEO responsibilities, I am also an instructor at a highly regarded outdoor survival school in Utah.  I envision all those times out in the field: frozen stiff, ravenously hungry, and sleep-deprived alongside amazing co-instructors and resolute students having the best of times.  I’ve also had the opportunity to train Special Forces in Southern California, and worked with struggling folks in tough situations who found the resolve to pull themselves up from the worst conditions.

With that background, I have at least a basic sense of what grit is and how to build it.  I offer some thoughts so that they may be helpful to you, too.

Things People with Grit Do


People with grit excel at the art of mental reframing.  Viewing a situation in a different way can transform it from a catastrophe to an adventure.  If you get lost in the wilderness, yes, that stinks, but reframed, you are now possibly on an exciting adventure.  When a challenge arises that is frustrating you, reframing allows you to kick your problem-solving skills to the next level.

Compare Down

This is a highly effective application of Reframing that we all can use to improve our everyday lives.  “Compare down” is a core tactical application at outdoor survival school.  Here’s how it works.

After the first few days with nothing but the clothes on our backs, we’re given a small assortment of items, including a wool blanket which doubles as our sleeping bag, and a backpack.  That’s when you can apply the “compare down” technique.  If you are shivering on a mountainside in the middle of the night, instead of thinking about your 5 degree-rated Columbia sleeping bag (the thought of which only makes you miserable),  you compare down, i.e., consider that this wool blanket is better than dirt. This reality makes you feel happier by comparison and quite warm indeed.

The same technique applies if we are lucky enough to find a water source in the middle of the searing hot desert.  The water we encounter tends to be a bit dirty and has various insects floating or swimming in it.  The ineffective pathway is to wish you were drinking a cold Gatorade, which would only ruin the occasion.  Or, by comparing down, you can proclaim that this water is way better than dirt to quench my thirst.  And you know what?  It is.  When in doubt, compare down to dirt.


Stephen R. Covey always said, “Happiness, like unhappiness, is a choice.”  People who have resilience exercise their ability to choose their mindset and attitude for the higher things. And, geek alert: as we heard in the Fellowship of the Ring, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 A handy example of this is what I saw many of my friends doing during the pandemic.  Yes, a few chose to wallow in misery and engage in self-pity parties. Others chose to relish this situation because it meant more time with their family (without TV), some learned a language, took on a new hobby; in essence, they made lemonade out of lemons they were given.

A great technique to accomplish this mental choosing is, when given a bad situation, to imagine yourself months ahead of it when it would be over, and you are looking back.  How will you want to be remembered dealing with the situation? What will make you proud?  Once you identify this, you know which choice to make.

Resilience is a Choice and a Habit

It is not what happens to us that hurts us — it is how we respond to it that will determine the outcome. People who habitually respond to challenges and tough things with a determined “can-do” attitude build grit. Those who habitually turn negative stay weak. We are confronted by “moments of truth” every day at every moment to determine whether we will grow our grit muscle or let it atrophy.  

In outdoor survival, we always teach the Rule of 3s.  That translates to having 3 seconds to set your mind right, remove yourself from danger and commit to surviving; 3 minutes to ensure you have oxygen; 3 hours to stabilize your body core temperature; 3 day to get water, and 3 weeks to get food.  But, by far, the most important step happens in the first 3 seconds and continues throughout. People that make it in a deep survival situation, and in life for that matter, commit mentally to living and overcoming what comes their way.

Manage the Situation in Front of You

People with grit do what they can do. They stay focused on moving forward and on what is within their sphere of influence.  They create goals and milestones to shoot for, even if they are simple.  They know they can always do something.  As I like to say, “Hope is not a strategy.”

Be Positive

And when I recommend being positive, I do not mean playing Pollyanna. Being positive is not about spouting naive platitudes. Being positive has most to do with your focus, i.e., where your thoughts are dwelling, and embracing a firm belief combined with hope that you can do your part to turn things around.

Become a Problem Solver

When problems arise, you can get frustrated or see it as an opportunity to solve a mystery, break a code, or beat the odds.  People with resilience are adaptable.  What gives them the ability to overcome adversity is their ability to adapt and view all situations as the unique opportunity to learn and improve.  This breeds resourcefulness and confidence.

Practical Actions to Building A Strong Mind

People with resilience possess a strong mind. And as we know from the science around neuroplasticity, your brain is much like a muscle. In a real sense, you can build it up or let it atrophy.

 A simple way to start building a stronger mind is by avoiding the “pursuit of comfort.”  Watching excessive television makes the mind weak. Being lazy (as opposed to intentionally resting) also makes the mind weak. Doing what needs to be done now, not deferring to tomorrow, will help you bulk up your resilience.   Other actions to take include:

  • Grounding.  A daily practice of grounding yourself makes the mind stronger.  Grounding can take a variety of forms including meditation, prayer, walking/hiking, or sitting quietly.  Most strong-minded people have a daily routine and ritual to help them ground.  As Percy Walker once wrote, “Man is neither beast nor angel, he is both.”
  • Channel Energy.  We have a lot more energy than we think.  But so much of our energy is drained on things we cannot change or on negativity.  Even though it’s often reasonable to be frustrated or angry, strong-minded people take that energy and instead put it into activities that improve the situation, often turning things completely around.
  • Renewal.  Yes, you must continuously “sharpen the saw” or you will simply wear it down.  For people, this includes rest, eating healthy foods, stepping out of the situation, and disrupting the situation.  Sleep is also an important aspect of renewal and we know today that many people are not getting the sound, refreshing sleep they need for a variety of reasons.

I took a course from uber-winter outdoor survival expert Mors Kochanski once.  He constantly stated that, “If you are not sleeping, you are not surviving.”  A tired mind is weak, vulnerable, and paranoid.

  • Self-Care.  Related to renewal is self-care. When I was a child and was not feeling well, Mom would always tell me to wash my face and that would make me feel better.  And it did.  When I am on one of my solo 7-day monster hikes or teaching an outdoor survival course, I find it amazing how taking the time to clean up a bit, wash my face and comb my hair, even if my hairbrush is a pinecone, can make a big difference.
  • Intentional Venting. This is different than whining or constantly complaining. It is taking the time to cleanse your mental pallet of clutter and frustration.  It is intentional and short-lived.  Sometimes it just feels good to vent. But keep it short, and then laugh.
  • Connect. A key component of grit is connection.  Connection to humans in general, to people we love, to a better self, and to a higher purpose.  This is the fuel that keeps us strong.  Certainly, from this pandemic, even the introverts among us realized that humans are true pack animals.  Think about how Tom Hank’s character in Castaway had to connect to “Wilson”, his volleyball companion, and his unstoppable drive to return home.

A close friend of mine participated in the “Alone” television show where contestants have to survival solo in the wilderness as long as they can to win the game.  He confided that by far the most difficult challenge of the contest was the lack of connection with others.

Approaches to Resilience and Grit

For me there are two basic approaches to resilience.  Some people are drawn to one or the other approach, while others flow between the two. For me, examples of each approach came in the form of my mom and dad. Both of my parents were amazing, strong, and resilient. And they were unflappable without the benefit of higher education, self-help classes, and articles about grit. 

Dad’s approach was more the stoic.  He took care of business, never complained, and one would never know when he was sick.  A quiet, but very compassionate man, he drew strength from his faith and his family.  My entire childhood, I heard him climb out of bed and leave the house by 5:25 am to go to work.  Even when I heard him coughing from a terrible cold, he would get up, get ready, say goodbye to Mom and my brother, and go out to take care of his responsibilities.  

As for my mom, she is a sparkplug of a person.  She is the poster mom for High Energy, outwardly passionate and funny as heck.  To this day, at 80-years-old, she can outwork and out-hustle any teenager. 

Her well for resilience was based on making things lighter, often with song or humor, coupled with the drive to make things better for others. I tend to have a good mix of both my mom and dad.  The commonality of the approaches lies in the lessons I learned from them: don’t waste time complaining, commiserating, or sitting around doing nothing to better the situation.

People with Grit

When people ask me for great examples of people with a lot of grit, it’s very easy to talk about Navy Seals, outdoor survival instruction, or the Finnish people.  But closer to home, do you know who really have grit in spades?  Nurses. 

While working at The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, I realized that my resilience paled in comparison to the nurses’ unflagging stamina.  I would always tell them that, but they would laugh it off, not realizing how serious I was.

I’ve thought long and hard about the source of their wherewithal, their grittiness. Two characteristics always rose to the top.  First was that they were incredibly practical: practical in the sense that they just did what needed to be done without any to-do about it.  In their calm, matter-of-fact way, they took care of business without flinching or adding drama.

I remember during one initiative, we were looking at ways to remove “non-value” activities, when someone from the Quality Department suggested that we take the burden of throwing out trash in the rooms from the nurses’ plates. And the nursing response was uniform, “We are already there in the room, so we do it.”

The other characteristic that was so profound in the nurses was this sense of compassion that sprung from serving a higher purpose.  They were there with a mission and nothing was going to get in their way. This service orientation, being there for others, was a wellspring for the energy they needed.  When you read stories of deep survival, there is always something deeper they can grasp that keeps people going in tough situations.  What lessons can we learn from these nurses?

Just Be It

Often, while teaching a survival course, the students will seemingly marvel at “toughness of the instructors.”  I have both observed and pondered the source of this toughness. The only thing I can really come up with is that we have grown accustomed to being extremely uncomfortable, fatigued, cold, hot, and hungry.  It is not a superpower at all, but something that is familiar to us and, as a result, not frightening.

On the first day of the survival course, some people express deep concerns about their upcoming solo days, but then over the following days together, they actually grow very eager to solo.  That’s why the solo opportunities don’t’ occur till the tenth day of the course. With familiarity comes self-confidence and “toughness.”

A few years back, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Finland. The Fins are a fascinating people with a special toughness and connectedness to the land. If you are not convinced of that, you should read about the one-year Winter War the Fins fought against the Soviet Union. Totally outnumbered and outgunned, their toughness was unmatched and drove the Soviets crazy.  In fact, their term for grit, sisu, has monumental depth to it because of their history.

Wrapping It Up

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the characteristics of grit and resilience are not reserved for trying times. They are a daily lifelong outlook and approach to life in general.  Sometimes life is tough, sometimes a bit easier, and mostly somewhere in between. 

To be candid, I am past hearing people say 2020 was a terrible year or that it was unprecedented.  In fact, 2020 was just another year —  like 2019 was and 2021 will be.  Each year will have high and lows and its unique challenges.  But in the end, life gives us what it gives us, and we need to figure out how to make it work for us. The better our attitude, and the more grit we possess, the more we’re able to embrace each year or each situation and make our lives extraordinary. 

In the final analysis, grit and resilience come from a mindset that influences our choices, which become our habits, which become the gritty actions that raise us above the challenges we face. 

This Post Has One Comment

  1. mstein

    Some good perspectives. Like you, I agree 2020 was a year that definitely had highs and lows and I saw many people (including myself from time to time) get pulled in one of the directions, but coming up with a plan and working it makes a big difference in being intentional and doing things to get you out of that funk.

Leave a Reply