How to stay motivated – on grit and stick-to-itiveness

Motivation is a lie. It’s a fleeting, unreliable source of energy, spurred on by whims in the middle of the night, or arbitrary dates like new-years-eve, or Mondays. This summer I vowed to build a bunch of nightstands and side tables after binge-watching about 50 “how it’s made” videos, and this guy on YouTube. Do you want to know how much carpentry I did this summer? You guessed it, none.

Grit however, is a completely different story. Grit is the thing that fuels you when you’re considering giving up. When you’re in university, even though the end goal is your dream job, the road there isn’t a clear upwards trend line like this:

"Could you please stop drawing on the windows Carl, that's not a whiteboard"

"Could you please stop drawing on the windows Carl, that's not a whiteboard"

It’ll probably follow more of an uneven trajectory, and have its ups and downs, and its “Jesus I’m failing every class this year”-moments. You might have to take additional courses, or go completely different routes to get to where you want to be. Or you might fail an exam, or experience setbacks, which will add another year or two to your original plans.

If any of these scenarios sound likely to happen in your future, what you need isn’t motivation. It’s grit. This is something I’ve been convinced about for years, and I’ve been so provoked by the idea of only working when you’re “motivated” to do so. There’s a quote that I love by William Faulkner on consistency and motivation, which says

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”

I could go off on a complete tangent on literature that I love on this topic, such as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the rigorous daily schedule he held (you can find that for free here if you’re interested), but instead I’m going to show you how I stick to, and adapt my goals when faced with adversity.

In a recent episode of “Freakonomics Radio” researcher, and author of “Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success”, Angela Duckworth argues that grit is something you can learn. She begins by defining grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals, and goes on to state that by cultivating grit you can change your character, and outlook on work. Some key characteristics that gritty people have are interest, practice, hope and purpose. I want to hone in on that last one, namely purpose. Having a concrete end goal can serve as a huge motivator, and if that end goal is something that you’re interested in and passionate about, you’re well on your way to becoming a grittier person.

I like to give myself a visual image of this end goal, and for several years, I’ve used this type of model to do just that.

This is what I’ve named my five-year plan, even though I’ve used it to plan out five semesters, three years, or any other type of long-term time increment. What I use this for is pretty simple: I start by plotting in where I am now, and where I want to be in five years (or three or two, you get what I mean). Then I sit down, and write a feasible plan that I know I’ll be able to commit to, but will require some effort and planning on my part. By doing this I can course correct every so often, but still be working towards an overarching goal. To be clear, this is NOT set in stone, and you can change it whenever you want! If you decide you want to do something else, then don’t be afraid to start over. The only key to grittiness is constantly working toward something.

When you have the passion in place, Duckworth says that the next step to grittiness is practice. This is where the going gets tough for most of us, and motivation falters. In the interview, Duckworth goes on to talk about a particularly gritty spelling bee contestant, saying:

“Kerry Close, who won the National Spelling Bee one year that we studied it, said the one thing that very grittily studying for the National Spelling Bee for five years in a row — because she won her fifth year of competition — was just the, the ability to take a large something, and break it up into little tasks, and to fractionate things so that they’re not so overwhelming and that you can do them. So that is the second stage, and it’s about doing things that you can’t yet do. And that, too, I think if you ask the question: “Do you think kids could learn how to practice in that way? Could adults who really want to pick up something new, could they learn that?” I think they can.”

If you take a look at the mock-up of my five-semester plan from a few years ago, you can see that I had to section my year into smaller parts, which might seem kind of messy. However, by being aware of the many hours of practice that I was facing, I could motivate myself by the visual image that working on geology or English would lead to, in my case, vet school.  

In this case I used the "five-year plan" to map out the upcoming five semesters.

In this case I used the "five-year plan" to map out the upcoming five semesters.

This structure doesn’t have to be about school. It works with career planning, on personal goals, fitness. Anywhere where you can define an end goal. And when you reach that “end” goal, you can use that new platform as a starting point for your next five-year plan, which is something I plan on doing in the near future.

The Freakonomics interview goes on to discuss purpose and hope, and I highly recommend reading the transcript, or listening to their “self-improvement month”-episodes over at or on whatever podcast app you use.

I know I probably haven’t faced the toughest challenges just yet, and judging by a conversation I had with one of the seniors today, vet school is only going to get tougher in the years to come. So I hope I can look back at this and stay persistent and remind myself how much I want this. Speaking of that conversation, today I learned that the school newspaper has found my blog (which I’m a bit mortified by), so hi! Sorry for the shitty graphs and the potato quality images, this is a work in progress. And for the rest of you, this week’s Sunday entry will be about the exam we’re going to have in two days, and some perspectives on research animals, and ethics, which I’m really looking forward to writing. Until then, work on your own pyramids! Where do you see yourself in five years?