How Calm Beats Grit

Costa Michailidis -
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Grit was all the rage in the 2010's, but in a world of extremism, anxiety, and high stress, there is a very specific kind of calm that can triumph where grit fails.

Photo of Deep Calm by Andrew James Ferris

Photo by Andrew James Ferris

Revisiting Grit

Whether you came to grit in the psychology literature, or Angela Duckworth's popular TED Talk, or in your own life experience, you'll have seen its worth. Life presents you with challenges, oftentimes relentlessly, and sometimes the only way to stay resilient in the face of all of it, is by sheer will.

I'll amend a modern proverb and say, If you're going through hell, grit your teeth and keep going!

And yet... There are times when grit fails.

The simplest example is this: Grit fails when facing grit, political extremism and division for example. We often praise the activists on our side, honor their grit and persistence.... But we often despise the activists on the other side, even treat them with contempt.

The chief outcome of their grit vs our grit? Escalation.

We try hard, they try harder.

We fight, they fight back.

Grit wins battles, but can create wars.

Politics is an easy target, though. It can poison just about anything. Let's look at another example of where grit fails: The long run.

Grit can lead to burnout.

Atheletes that work hard are more likely to succeed, but it's common knowledge in the sports world that recovery time is essential. The business world on the other hand, less wise on the recovery front.

Many organizations, especially in competitive environments work their people to the bone, or simply allow their people to work themselves endlessly until they burnout from exhaustion.

Grit doesn't take breaks... until you break.

The Virtue Of Calm

I have this vivid memory of my father walking, one foot in front of the other, on the second story balcony railing, while eating his ice cream.

For myself, this same level of calmness under pressure became necessary when I was a competitive gymnast, swinging around the high bar, letting go at precisely the right moment, flipping backwards over the steel bar, and regrasping it.

I grew up in New York City. The pressure was always high, and calmness under pressure was always a virtue.

Calm is not right for every situation, let's call that out up front, but it is absolutely profound in many situations! Let's list just a few:

Stage Fright

Public speaking terrifies a great many people, and being able to tap into a deep sense of calm would absolutely transform their experience and the way an audience receives them for the better.

Negotiations

There are enumerable business meetings where panic, stress, or tension can cost you big time. And, the more hours of your life you spend stressed out, the less you'll live. Stress kills.

Creativity

There's a reason you have your best ideas in the shower: Because you're relaxed. So, that brainstorming session you hosted where everyone has to come up with great ideas in front of their boss, might not induce a level of relaxation equivalent to a shower. And, shower calm, by the way, is quite a low bar.

More examples?

Pitching for investor funds.

Interviewing for a job.

Performance reviews.

Teaching a class.

Taking an exam.

The number of situations where calm is king are all around us.

So, how do we cultivate a seriously ferocious level of calm?

In the ocean.

That's right, the ocean. Stay with me now!

The Most Relaxed People I Know

We were sitting at lunch in Kalamata, Greece (you know it for its olives, but it's a mini freediving Mecca), and the British freediving competitor I was sharing lunchtime with said something interesting to me...

Every time I think I have reached the maximum level of calm, freediving reveals a level beneath it, an even deeper calmness. My most recent new level of relaxation was while doing a 3-minute breath hold at 40 meters deep.

Yes, I know. That sounds mind boggling! Let's get technical.

Freediving is a sport/activity that involves breath hold diving under water. World class freedivers can dive past 100 meters on a single breath of air. That's over 300 feet, and back(!), on a single breath of air. Two football fields.

Their level of efficient oxygen use is insane.

Most of us burn more oxygen sitting on the couch watching Netflix.

What's most astounding is how accessible these aquatic superpowers are to all of us.

The Mammallian Diving Reflex

I am a freediving instructor with Freediving Instructors International, so the following comes from my experience with students and my instructor training.

Note: This article is NOT a stand in for proper training. Please do not try this at home.

The mammalian diving reflex is a set of physiological triggers and responses for the aquatic environment. It's a dive mode, that your body can enter in which your heart rate slows, your blood shunts from your extremities to your heart and brain, and your body prepares itself for extended submersion in the water.

I have freediving students on the first day of class who do training breath holds of two minutes in length, sometimes even three minutes, on their first day. I've had students from 18 to 62 years old. Some students make dives as deep as 65 feet on day two in the open water.

There is no level of grit that can take you there.

Tension under pressure will undue you, in freediving, in business, and in life.

Some things can only be achieved through relaxation and calm.

Actionables

The first actionable is just to take a deep breath... Right now. Enjoy 🙂

If you're excited to dive in the water, you can take a Level 1 Freediver class with Freediving Instructors International, or another agency that teaches safe and effective freediving techniques.

Meditation and mindfullness are another approach, and have grown quite popular.

Finally, if you're thinking about utilizing this for your team or company, check out our priemere program: Finding The Wild Within »