Before my fiancé and I were officially dating, he took me rock climbing for the first time. When I was a kid, I had dangled from ropes off the side of a colorful, plastic rock wall during a friend’s birthday party — but this time, there were no ropes.
I watched him scale the imposing wall with just his body, trusting his arms and legs to keep him against its surface. It was mesmerizing.
When it was my turn, I felt a familiar rush of fear course through my body before starting something nerve-wracking.
I began to climb, my heart pounding, noticing with disappointment how weak my arms were. I looked up to the top and thought, there is no way I can make it up there without falling! And I was too scared to try, afraid my arms would give out.
While I watched my future fiancé continue climbing, I felt jealousy sink into the pit of my stomach. The ease with which he moved from one hold to another and the effortless swing of his body to each rock made it seem as if he coasted his way to the top.
When one route ended at the top of a boulder, he looked down at me with a grin and told me to climb up and join him.
For some reason, I felt ashamed. I knew I couldn’t climb as well as he could, but in that moment, his belief in my ability to make it to the top emboldened me. I took a deep breath and hoisted myself off the ground. Then, I just kept going.
As I neared the top, I didn’t dare look down for fear of losing my momentary courage. My body shook from the physical and mental effort — what if I lost my grip? What if I fell and got hurt?
But there he was, smiling down and encouraging me to keep going.
Before I knew it, I pulled myself up on top of the boulder. He reached for my arm and held me steady.
It took that initial ascent before I would feel confident enough to start climbing regularly with him. But if I hadn’t conquered my initial fear, I might never have started climbing at all.
When I think about being a writer, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had not had the courage to start putting my writing out in the world. There’s a chance I might never have pursued it as a career. It’s a scary thing to start, but once you reach the top of the boulder for the first time — maybe you win a writing competition or fellowship, or get published in a magazine — you’ve conquered the fear of starting.
All it took was a little something called grit.
Grit is the skill of putting in effort. It keeps you going, even when you think you need to stop. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverence and whose incredible TED Talk has around 14 million views, is an expert on learning grittiness. She outlined three steps to becoming gritty:
- Identify a burning interest
- Practice it (a lot)
- Develop a sense of higher purpose
When I first watched Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk, I was a sophomore in high school. Her words lit a fire inside my chest. I knew I wanted to be a writer ever since I was a little girl scribbling stories in notebooks. Later on when I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to study writing in college. Despite every obstacle and challenge I have faced, despite the odds against becoming a well-known author of a bestseller, despite the discouragement that I will ever make money from my words, I have kept writing.
Recently, I read an old review by the New York Times of Duckworth’s book. The review went over Angela’s formula for grit: talent x effort = skill, and skill x effort = achievement. Grit, she emphasizes, is the “effort” part of her equation — and it counts twice.
I couldn’t help but be reminded how applicable this is to an aspiring writer. If you choose to pursue a career in writing, you probably have at least some innate talent as a writer.
The trick is to put in the effort and hone your skill. But like the fear of the ascent in rock climbing, the initial fear of failure often keeps writers from even starting out. Having a higher purpose that can help overcome this fear.
As writers, isn’t it our goal to make the world a better place through our words? Isn’t it our purpose to write something that other people will take an interest in, relate to, or enjoy? No matter how hard we practice, if we don’t believe in what we are doing we simply won’t follow through.
That is why we need to have purpose.
I think there is a moment writers have when they realize what they are meant to write. I wanted to write fantasy novels for a long time, but whenever I entered a writing competition, my personal essays and nonfiction works placed instead. My fiction and poetry fell short, every time.
I fought it for a while, secretly hoping a sudden ability to write good fiction might manifest itself. But in college, I discovered how much I liked to write about science. Combining my knack for nonfiction, an enthusiasm for education, and a strong curiosity for science turned out to be a natural connection.
I found my sense of purpose as a writer: to share science with the general public.
It was in my first year of college I had that epiphany, and everything changed from that point forward. I was motivated towards a single direction with my writing and I knew where I wanted to end up with my career. I just needed to practice, to be gritty.
A number of things were working against me — needing to work and study part-time, financial and personal obstacles that set me at a disadvantage compared to my peers.
But the power of being gritty is that, if you are passionate and have a sense of higher purpose, you have the abilities necessary to achieve something.
I got a fellowship. Then an internship. I started a website. I’m still practicing every day, I’m still chasing down one opportunity after another. Every time I get turned down and every time I fall short is another chance to be gritty and keep trying. To put in the effort.
Why do I keep going? Why do I work minimum wage to keep putting myself through school, even though I am years behind my peers from high school? Why do I make time to read and write between everything else that demands my time and energy? It would make more sense to give up, to look for something easier, to spend my efforts on something with a more immediate reward.
But like any writer who is truly invested in her goals, I know I won’t give up.
I can’t, because I am learning to believe that my passion will positively impact the world. I look up to my role models, those who cheer on young writers as they climb slowly towards the top. I look up to the writers who shout out encouragement.
When I fall or make mistakes, I turn to those who will recommend better strategies and suggest ways to improve. Then I try again, because I want to be like the writers I admire — the ones who are changing the world with their words.
Being a writer takes grit. It means believing in yourself in spite of your own limited abilities. It means having courage in your passion, and having a sense of purpose.
I will keep reminding myself of that purpose every day until, like the moment I clambered on top of the boulder and looked down at the far-off ground with surprise and pleasure, I realize I made it.