Grit. Four letters, a crisp and terse pronunciation, grit might be my favorite responder value to appraise. It can bring up a lot of imagery; sleeves rolled up, dirt on your hands, sweat on your face, fatigue in your eyes, a load on your shoulders. However, grit is not saved only for cowboys, wild land firefighters, oil platform workers or special operation teams. Grit, as a value, in its simplest form, is found where shit gets done. Teachers, delivery persons, volunteer project managers, hospital maintenance staff, stay at home parents, the crews on the trash trucks in our neighborhoods and yes, especially you, the first responders - can all be examples of grit.
Let me explain the way I’m using the word.
Imagine there is a natural disaster, a hurricane, that washes ashore and begins to devastate a small coastal town. There are going to be categorically, 4 personalities that surface in this scenario, some by life circumstance, and some by choice.
The storm rages, the rains fall and the ocean surges forward; the town’s streets begin to flood, cutting off the populace from evacuating.
The personalities begin to reveal themselves: the victim, the pessimist, the optimist and the gritty.
Let’s break them down.
First, there are a large amount of people that are dependent on others in such a crisis and they are exactly why we need the gritty. The elderly, the bed confined, the dependent living populations of care centers; there is no doubt that it is our humane duty to assist those that cannot do for themselves, not just as first responders, but as citizens. So, an elderly couple trapped in their apartment as the waters rise - victims. Functionally dependent, special need, or ill citizens unable to decide for and ambulate themselves, are absolutely the unfortunate, involuntary victims in this scenario. Serve them always, kindly.
Next, the language of the pessimists. “It’s hopeless. I knew this would happen to me. I knew no one cared. This is not my fault, I can not do anything.” Need a simple assessment tool to diagnose pessimism? They have more excuses than answers, they offer more complaining than action. Serve them as well, kindly, with patience.
Then there are the optimists. “Hang in there, I believe this will get better. It can’t rain forever. I hope the flooding doesn’t get any higher.”
“Hope is not a plan.”
Now, let me be clear, the world could do a lot better with more optimism. We are admittedly, as a collective, much better with positive attitudes surrounding us. Keeping a positive outlook just seems to set us up to find more opportunities. So, if you take anything away from this article, aim for optimism as a minimum.
But, let me introduce a pretty popular saying that I’ve come to embrace - “Hope is not a plan.”
Optimism will not get a dozen elderly residents rescued from a flooded nursing facility. Optimism will not cure cancer. Optimism never stopped an active shooter or put out a fire or applied a tourniquet. Optimism doesn’t teach a room of 30 kids about science, the world and a little about themselves; all while balancing attention spans amidst a dozen different behavioral types. Optimism will not change toxic opinion or complacency or broken, ineffective procedure at a police, fire or ambulance station.
All of that, friends, requires grit.
Grit is what brings the rescue boats ( https://www.cajunnavyrelief.com ) Grit is what fills sandbags, it’s what sweeps away the mud and rebuilds homes.
Grit is the callous handed, roughneck child of optimism. It’s part ‘I believe we can get this done’ with part ‘this is going to take some work’ with part ‘I’ll carry this, you carry that and then we’ll go over there.’ Grit is mindset and action at the same time. It’s where ‘thoughts and prayers’ meets a shovel in the dirt. If you want to upgrade your optimism, make it gritty optimism. Be positive, but go get to work.
Grit, again, gets shit done.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Let’s change the scenario to something a little more familiar - our first responder work setting. Victims - we serve them everyday and it is our privilege to be there for those that cannot help themselves, full stop. Bring them your best.
However, we see victims at work too, the voluntary kind.
You will know them by their words and their deeds (or lack thereof.) “This isn’t my mess. This isn’t my fault. This isn’t part of my job. I don’t get paid to do that.” Accountability is like Kryptonite to a voluntary victim. They cut corners, they make work, they are more problem than solution. They are best identified, isolated and removed from the operation before something gets missed to the level where someone gets hurt.
Next, the pessimists’ conversations - “No one cares. Nothing will change. This is as good as it gets. What is more training going to change? I can’t do this. We have never done it that way, why change?” Then, my personal, least favorite statement of pessimism: ‘Living the dream.’ This one stinks of apathy, cynicism and a misery loves company attitude.
Here’s the thing pessimists, we don’t have to work in this profession, we get to work in this profession. So, mission up. Or, go find other work, thank you for your time.
The optimist’s language - “I wish someone would address this. Maybe it will get better next quarter. Hopefully nothing goes wrong over this. Hang in there, it can’t get worse. This should be ok. I think this is good enough.” I hate to make the optimist sound wishy-washy, but I’m setting up the important contrast from thinking positively and wishful to tactical and operational.
Finally, the gritty language - “This is unacceptable. We can do better. Where can I help? This isn’t working. We should try another way. I haven’t thought of that, let’s do it. That looks great, keep going. We’ve got this. Let’s roll.” (https://www.amazon.com/Lets-Roll-Ordinary-Extraordinary-Courage/dp/0842374183)
See the parallels?
See these people in your profession?
Uh-oh, which one are you?
Don’t worry, we all lapse. We will all have moments where we get down, negative or even a little salty. We’re hardwired for fear and we reflexively roll our shoulders and tuck our heads in the face of danger and adversity. It’s pro-survival and fear lives in the amygdala, a little nut shaped structure in our lower brain.
Fear is natural.
Courage, therefore, is super-natural. Grit and courage are something we might not always be able to muster. But I believe if we’re ahead of the curve even a little bit, if we are just that little bit grittier and acting with courage when it counts; we’re making the difference.
“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”
So, if you haven’t noticed yet, I freaking love the concept of grit. I believe it is the one single value that has the potential to literally change the world by influencing the individuals to action, then small groups, then entire tribes at a time. I also see grit as essentially the full sum of the tenets of Mission Ready - Purpose, Integrity and Courage.
A quick review:
Purpose - knowing what you are, what you believe in, what you will stand for and what you want to see materialize in the world.
Integrity - believing, saying and doing your purpose, consistently; so that the world knows it can rely on you.
Courage - being afraid and then facing what we fear anyway; doing what is uncomfortable, testing what is unknown; moving forward through challenges because it is the right thing to do.
So, let’s close this by making grit operational.
First, start building a gritty mindset. This is where we tell ourselves better stories.
Instead of saying: “This looks like its going to be really hard” or, “I can’t do this.”
Say: “This is going to be challenging, but I will find a way, I always do. I failed this time, but I’ll be better for it. Time to start again.”
The stories we tell ourselves everyday make up our realities, in the end. The only way to change the story is tell a different one. What does the character in your story do in the face of adversity? How does your character adapt, overcome and serve?
Grit is about challenging ourselves. Feeling the resistance, and pushing forward still.
Also to note, grit is outward support to others in need as well. It’s not a tough guy approach, saying “suck it up.” It’s about showing them the way through or around their struggle. Sometimes grit is encouraging, sometimes it is pushing, sometimes it is carrying them. But one thing that grit is never, is leaving them behind.
“The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher.”
Consider this, if you didn’t struggle in EMT school or at the police or fire academy, then they simply did not serve you as well as they could. We become our very best under appropriate struggle. Sailors are made great in rough seas, not calm waters.
Stress is simply a stimulus from the world that is looking for our response. Will we fold up and quit? Will we crouch down, tuck our heads and just ‘hang in there, hoping for the best?’ Or, will we meet the stressor as a challenge, break it down into consumable parts and move ahead, one foot in front of the other?
Will we sometimes have to divert our course, go around, over or under an obstacle? Yes.
Will we sometimes have to see that we cannot complete something alone and we need to ask for help? Yes.
Is asking for that help outside of our comfort zone? Yes.
But, doing each of these, pushing into life’s challenges with the mindset of perseverance and growth - is grit.
It has taken me 47 years, but I’ve come to realize - the struggle, is the good stuff.
Adapt this mindset and you will be way ahead of the game.
Honestly, if it all went perfectly, life would be boring.
We signed up for this work because we wanted to help, we wanted to make a difference. That's what most of us say. But the true first responders have the grit to say it, mean it and act on it, consistently, year after year.
True first responders have grit. They want to be challenged, not coddled. They know that somedays we either find a way or we make one, but we do not quit.
True first responders are pro-things, not anti-things. They make plans, take action and climb obstacles. Then they reach behind them and help the next one up.
True first responders know that someday, somewhere, someone will need their ‘A game.’ They know that being Mission Ready is part of the promise they made as a responder - know the job, work with purpose, serve with integrity to our values and bring the courage to push, climb and carry past challenges, in the service of a worthy cause.
Grit, as a true first responder, is earning your patch, everyday.
We’ve got this.