Sometimes I think about those men who ended up with the word “Great” added on to their names. I pause for a moment in washing the dishes to imagine Alexander the “Great”, and how he would or would not have escaped the many wasted moments of an average life. I’ll pick at a hangnail and try to visualize Peter the “Great” doing the same pointless gesture as time escaped him.
Peanut butter slides across my toast: what does that word even mean? What does it mean to be great?
Standing in line at the grocery store: is it a thing that is still possible? How must one be measured now, standing with a cart full of wrappers and boxes, among the weeping children and petty, domestic cares?
How many layers of mediocrity separate my life from the lives of these great men? Too many to ever dig my way out of?
First step for not losing your mind: accept defeats, shortcomings, failures. Learn to revel in them. No one is ever going to call you great. And you should never give yourself pause to listen for that voice, either. There are billions of people in the world all believing that they deserve more, many of whom are greater than you. And what makes your deserving unique or profound? Chances are you are missing one part of the essential alloy – that welding of luck, work ethic, connections, birth, opportunity, longevity and genes that might someday lead others to look back on your life and say to themselves or others, “yes, that was a great man.” And this is precisely why it doesn’t matter. It is why you shouldn’t care. It is why you should wipe your concern for whatever the hell “greatness” amounts to right off of the scales and balances with which you judge yourself.
So much of it is simply beyond your control— the circumstance, the caprice of lineage, the opportunity and the voices of other men around us. All of these variables are things best let go of. None of them really matter. There is, in fact, only one single quality that means anything at all.
A forgotten bit of character: the art of losing with a purpose.
This quality is often called “grit”. The word comes to us from the act of setting one’s teeth together, the natural reaction to a great weight, pain, or discomfort borne through.
The men who have it have a way of stubbornness, of workmanly candor, of growing towards some inner purpose that only they can name or assign any adjectives to. When challenged they withdraw to an invisible spot inside where only they can hold stewardship over the value of their own souls.
It is a trait that has largely gone overlooked, overshadowed by a pile of buzzwords about success, life-hacks, productivity. The reason being that humble grit is not a fun, sexy concept— it is not the kind of word most people imagine having on their tombstone. Grit is as dirty as it sounds, as low as it sounds, almost base or animal. It is a mule pulling the plow of humanity. Those great Peters and Alexanders were black stallions prancing in a field of good fortune seized, but you are a mule breaking the sod of mediocrity with the compounding energy of patience.
The horse may have shaped the world, but it is the mule that built it.
So how does one have grit?
It comes from waiting for relief that never comes. From bootstraps, from anger, from bitterness, from pluck and arrogance and it comes from being so average that you decide greatness can be built instead with the slow stacking of stones over decades of hope and responsibility, rather than in one grand gesture of lucky drama. The gritty believe in themselves— not quite in that sappy motivational poster way, but in the sad acceptance that the world is designed to make them fail. Because make no mistake, the world wants you to fail. It is made to keep you mediocre, to feed you mediocrity and acceptance and to make your grit seem like something unnecessary and even selfish. And we either open up or swallow it or we grit our teeth. That’s what grit is.
To be gritty, we need to decide that it doesn’t matter what words people call us, to resign ourselves to our shortcomings, to understand that defeat is the grandest nourishment a man can have. So long as he keeps relentlessly battering himself against the cliffs, it matters not that he cannot reach the top of them. It is a choice to either crack at the overwhelming unfairness of the world, or to remain and continue to buttress ourselves against what rains down from above– this is the only control we have in the measure of our own greatness. All else is chance and circumstance.
In the end, grit is doing hard things because they are hard and for no other reason than they are hard. It is coming back to the table time and again, even if you know you will lose. It is not to do what is easy, to give up in that easy way that is forever tickling the back of your mind. It is to never slip into apathy or complacence or despair.
A new year is coming. Grit your teeth.