In 2017, Kerri and I converted some 1930s cabins on 30 acres near Kings Canyon into the Be Well Retreat. It is a space designed for families to immerse themselves in nature, disconnect from their devices and connect with each other. The property came with three 1930s cabins, a newer outdoor kitchen/workshop, a bunch of trails, a creek, and a diverse woodland with a mixture of pine and oak species. It is twenty minutes from Kings Canyon National Park and the Giant Sequoia groves. Our hypothesis is that nature immersion and connection with each other would create wellness. Since we launched, we have had over 100 families enjoy the place, including ourselves for several weeks out of the year. The response has been incredible. Our guests say things like “Best sleep of my life”, “We loved exploring the creek with our kids”, and “The property is gorgeous”.
This is my happy place and I spend significant amounts of time in solitude here. The amount of discovery and growth I have from this place has been incredible. We also love to share it with our friends and family and are planning our first wellness retreats this year. It is a place of renewal, growth, hard work, and beauty. It is our launching point for numerous backcountry adventures.
In the last four weeks, the Sierra Nevada range has had record snowfall – up to ten feet in higher elevations and about four feet at the Be Well Retreat. We watched the snow accumulate on the roofs and porches of the cabins from our cameras, and we couldn’t get there because the roads were impassable. I finally decided to assess the situation this weekend. I counted ten rockfalls on highway 180 alone. The road was barely passable, locals only, and at one point, I had to stop to avoid a bulldozer cleaning up giant boulders in front of me. The bulldozer was moving fast to minimize the threat from the boulders above him and deftly maneuvered around my truck shoveling giant pieces of granite into new positions.
Well, the situation wasn’t great at the cabins. I knew I lost the awning over the bunkhouse that I made out of old lodgepole pine, some hand-milled cedar and old steel. What I didn’t expect was that we would lose two other awnings on the main cabin and an entire 32′ deck would collapse. The sheer weight of the heavy, wet Sierra snow caused a lot of damage. We have had a series of setbacks as the caretakers of this land, this was just the latest. Thankfully no one was hurt. I feel for all the people that lost their homes, their lives, or were trapped for a week or more in these storms. Our broken bits are small in comparison.
This was the reclaimed lodgepole and steel awning I created over the bunkhouse deck, which I knew had no chance of holding 4 feet of snow:
This awning on the main cabin collapsed and took the deck with it. The weight of the snow as too much for this old deck. It was a cool deck with the railing and awning made of lodgepole:
This is a bluejay nest just sitting on the ground that must have blown out of the tree during the storms. I hope they are all right.
My first thought was “well, now I can build a better deck that will last forty years!”. My second thought was “I have a lot of work to do, let’s get going”. I could have been deflated, discouraged, or pissed off. This was a good sign of grit – the ability to persevere, for multiple years, on a goal.
Angela Duckworth has spent her career trying to figure out what makes people successful. She defines grit as the intersection of “passion and perseverance” that enables people to successfully complete hard tasks, over long periods of time (Duckworth et al., 2007). The power of grit includes being more successful in school (Strayhorn, 2014), positive organizational behavior (Suzuki et al., 2015), and better well-being (Datu et al., 2019). According to Steven Kotler in The Art of Impossible, grit is even more granular and can be broken down into six different types of grit, all of which are trainable:
- The grit to persevere – This is the “grit” we typically think about. Working through a hard problem, not giving up. This type of grit is made up of willpower, mindset, and passion. I was exhibiting a positive mindset in this situation because I believed I could improve the situation by spending energy on the problem. Willpower helps us stifle impulses and push ourselves to do hard things. Willpower is limited and we need to use it wisely. Practical tips – do your hardest thing first, limit decisions to preserve it, and exercise it by doing harder things than you did yesterday. Passion is what helps us tolerate all the negative emotions that come up when we do difficult things. Curiosity leads to passion and drives focus and excitement, making it easy to get started, but passion is what keeps you going when times get hard.
- The grit to control your thoughts – Gratitude, positive self-talk and meditation are all effective tools at training this form of grit. Meditation will teach you focused attention, which is necessary for deep work, and will help you observe your thoughts with less judgment and less attachment. Gratitude practices and habits reduces pain (Emmons et al., 2003), improves sleep quality (Zahn et al., 2009), and the effects are long lasting (Zahn et al., 2007), which all help with pursuing long-term goals. Using positive affirmations and self-talk can help us perceive “threatening” messages with less resistance (Logel et al., 2012) and reduce stress and rumination (Koole et al., 1999), both of which can help us get through difficult setbacks on the way to long-term goals.
- The grit to master fear – Fear can be a source of energy and requires courage. To exercise courage, force yourself to take disciplined risks to increase your exposure over time. Too much fear can create anxiety, too little can create boredom and a lack of growth. Fear drives dopamine, helping us focus and apply our resources to the problem at hand, which is necessary for flow. Become comfortable with noticing the physiological symptoms of fear and back off when there is too much. Individuals who face their fear are able to commit for longer periods of time, are able to adapt to challenges better, and focus more on what they can control instead of what is out of their control (e.g., the weather in the Sierras) (Kobasa, 1979).
- The grit to be your best when you are at your worst – I love this one… This is the ability to perform when s**t hits the fan. Practice your activity in harder situations than you will in real life. For example, work out when you feel tired. Push harder when you missed your last workout. Or, set up intentional difficulties when you practice. For example, practice your presentation without the slides, while you are running uphill, when you haven’t slept well. This gives you a psychological boost in addition to the training because you know you can perform under normal circumstances.
- The grit to train your weakness – None of us really like to do this. Working on our weaknesses is hard because we either don’t know what they are OR we lack the passion to actually fix them. Ask five friends and five colleagues for your greatest strengths and your greatest weaknesses. If 2-3 people list the same thing, you better believe there is some truth to it! Choose one to work on. It may be slower because we lack passion to fix our weaknesses, so be patient. We should try to align our role and activities to our strengths to be highly successful, however, peak performers will hit a point that they must also work on weaknesses in order to unlock new potential.
- The grit to recover – This can be hard for hard chargers. If you are hard charging and on the move all the time, you are missing out on one of the most important steps to increase performance. You will actually reduce your productivity per hour over time by not recovering. By doing active recovery, you can adapt to higher levels of performance over time. See Put your Oxygen Mask on First for some practical tips on how to do this effectively.
The reason we continue to fight through setbacks and work with nature at the Be Well Retreat is because of the passion we have for these woodlands and the impact they have on people. Moments like this make it all worthwhile:
- Measure yourself honestly on the Grit Scale to see where you are at – https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/
- Datu, J. A. D., King, R. B., Valdez, J. P. M., and Eala, M. S. (2019). Grit is associated with lower depression via meaning in life among Filipino high school students. Youth Soc. 51, 865–876. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118X18760402.
- Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perserverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247.
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
- Kobasa, S. C. (1979). Stressful life events, personality and health: An inquiry into hardiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, (1-11).
- Koole, S.L., Smeets, K., van Knippenberg, A., Dijksterhuis, A. (1999). The cessation of rumination through self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 111–125.
- Kotler, Steven. (2021). Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. Harper Wave.
- Logel, C., & Cohen, G.L. (2012). The role of the self in physical health: Testing the effect of a values-affirmation intervention on weight loss. Psychological Science, 23(1), 53–55
- Strayhorn, T. L. (2014). What role does grit play in the academic success of black male collegians at Predominantly White Institutions? J Afr Am St. 18, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-012-9243-0.
- Suzuki, Y., Tamesue, D., Asahi, K., and Ishikawa, Y. (2015). Grit and work engagement: a cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE 10:e0137501. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137501.
- Zahn, R., Moll, J., Krueger, F., Huey, E. D., Garrido, G., & Grafman, J. (2007). Social concepts are represented in the superior anterior temporal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(15), 6430-6435.
- Zahn, R., Moll, J., Iyengar, V., Huey, E. D., Tierney, M., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Social conceptual impairments in frontotemporal lobar degeneration with right anterior temporal hypometabolism. Brain, 132(3), 604-616.