The Building Blocks of Resilience: Grit (Part 1)

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Resilience—that is, the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks—is essential for any lawyer who hopes to find success and well-being in the legal practice. Forget merely surviving, with resilience, you can actually thrive.

For lawyers, thriving is a goal that is often hard won. As a 2017 report on lawyer well-being shows, we are not thriving.  Instead, lawyers are at an increased risk of addiction, mental health challenges and stress. Given the very real problems lawyers in every facet of practice face, educating lawyers about the importance of resilience and how to get it becomes critical. This article is the first in a four-part series outlining many of the building blocks of resilience—and how to cultivate them in your own practice.


The subject for this article is the first building block:  grit.  Grit is a true foundational element of not only resilience, but true success. Grit is a concept coined by Angela Duckworth, winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2013.  After spending years in education, Duckworth noticed that student success was often not determined by IQ or so-called natural talent, but by something else—something then unnamed, which emerged from her studies as grit. Duckworth defined it as “behavioral persistence in the passionate pursuit of long term goals.” Duckworth’s research reveals that it’s grit—not innate talent—that matters most over the long term. It is grit that predicts success. But don’t take that from Duckworth’s research, think about the successful lawyers you know and how they got to where they are now.  Chances are, they not only love what they do, they are persistent in pursuit of their goals.

When thinking about how to encapsulate this concept, I was reminded of an old fable, retold in church to myself and my daughter one Sunday morning:

A little mouse, who lived far away from his mother, desperately wanted to see her, and she him. And so, he put on his shoes, packed his bag and set off on the journey to look upon her face once more.  Miles down the road, his shoes wore out.  There happened to be a person standing next to the road selling shoes. And so, the mouse bought a pair and continued on his way.  Several more miles down the road his shoes wore out. There was again a person beside the road.  This time, the person was selling boots.  The mouse bought a pair of boots and continued on his way. Before long, the boots also wore holes in the bottoms. So the mouse continued with his bare feet.   But soon after, the mouse’s feet also began wear thin. The mouse then bought a pair of new feet from a person beside the road and put them on. Shortly after acquiring his new feet, the mouse reached his mother’s house. She held him close and told him how very glad she was to see him, and how fine he looked with his new feet. The little mouse smiled with contentment at seeing his mother and they celebrated their reunion.

The little mouse is an almost perfect example of grit: he is pursuing a long term goal — one that he has chosen out of love and passion and one that benefits someone else.  He launches into pursuit of this goal only to immediately meet a setback when his shoes wear out. He needs to cultivate multiple strategies to get all the way to his goal, never giving up hope that he will reach it.  There is something else in this fable as well. For the mouse, it is not only focus, determination, and love. He has faith in himself. He has trust in the path he has chosen. He has optimism and hope.

Many of these things—passion for your goal, practicing at it until you get it right, doing it not just for yourself but for others, and hope driven by your own actions—are defining features of grit. And if they don’t come naturally to you, take heart: they can be taught and cultivated. To get gritty, try the following strategies recommended by Duckworth in “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”

4 Strategies to Increase your Grit

Remember, Find or Cultivate Your Passion

You can’t be gritty if you don’t care about your work. Find ways to hone your interests in your current position. Foster a passion for what you do. If your current practice isn’t capturing your imagination, think about why. Revisit why you became a lawyer, went to law school and followed this difficult and potentially rewarding path. Did you want to help people? Are you? How can you? Can you try harder, try different or expand your interest and practice areas? It may be difficult, but it’s well worth the work: if you love what you do, you will become successful at it and it will be that much easier to stay at it when it gets hard.

Practice Your Passion

Getting good at something doesn’t happen overnight. Cultivating a new skill or deepening your area of expertise takes practice.  Expertise is what helps you develop staying power or persistence, and later, grit. Even the best lawyers didn’t start out knowing how to practice; rather, they developed their practice with time. This can mean multiple revisions, and space from projects to critically step back and think. It can mean trying new and different strategies in depositions until you find the style that works for you.  It takes 10,000 hours over ten years to become expert at something, so when Duckworth says practice, she really means it.  But it isn’t just about quantity of time, it’s also quality of time. Skill development takes deliberate practice: setting a clearly defined stretch goal for yourself, working until you meet it with full concentration and effort, keeping track of progress systematically, seeking immediate and informative feedback on what you did right and wrong, and then doing it all over again with reflection and refinement.

Keep Your Purpose in Mind

Passion and practice only get you so far.  You must also believe in the purpose of what you do and how it contributes to the well-being of others. According to Duckworth, the belief you’re your work helps others is what gives it staying power and builds grit. You can get creative in finding this purpose – maybe you don’t feel as much purpose in your formal practice but it allows you to do pro bono work, or support your family or furthers your career in a way that will help you get to what you love.  Finding purpose and meaning in what we do is critical to cultivating a successful career—it is what can drive you forward when it seems hard to keep going otherwise. Here are three ideas to help cultivate a sense of purpose:

-As above, reflect on how the work you are already doing can make a positive contribution to society;

-Think about how in small but meaningful ways you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values; and

-Find inspiration in a purposeful role model.

Stay Hopeful

This isn’t about a belief in better tomorrow.  Duckworth said it best:  Grit depends on a different kind of hope, the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. So ask yourself, how can you ensure that tomorrow will be a better day? Cultivating hope is, like anything, a step by step process. Start small, with an achievable goal. Measure and track your progress. Watch your own self-efficacy grow as you achieve first one, then two and then many more small goals.


For more on the next Building Blocks of Resilience, read my next column on mindfulness and self-compassion in our next newsletter, in April 2018.  Ready to get gritty?  Read more in “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth.

Shannon Callahan is a LAP Illinois Task Force on Attorney Well-Being Committee Member, LAP Advisory Committee Member, and senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Department of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Chicago office.

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