When you have those feelings of purpose and passion, it’s easy (in my experience, anyway) to get really excited and develop high hopes, even expectations, as to what the future holds. It can feel so right, that you can’t imagine how it could possibly go wrong.

And then reality hits.

This is when your mettle will be tested, you get baptised in fire, the men/women get sorted from the boys/girls. This is when you need GRIT.

I love the double meaning of the word GRIT. It can mean courage and resolve. It can also be the irritating little piece of sand that gets into an oyster shell and gets coated in calcium carbonate to create a pearl, a rare and precious thing of great beauty. Here’s the story of how I made my pearl.

My Story

gritMy first voyage, the Atlantic, was horrendous. I had been so convinced that this was my true calling, fulfilling my life purpose, that somehow it was going to be divinely blessed, a wonderful, spiritual, enjoyable experience.

Not so much.

There is a lot to be said for naïve enthusiasm when you need to persuade yourself to leave harbour, but it is a hell of a shock when that naïve enthusiasm runs slap bang into harsh reality.

It was noon when I left the island of La Gomera in the Canaries to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Antigua. It was a lovely sunny day, and although there had been a hurricane blasting its way through the islands just a couple of days earlier, now all seemed well.

Not for long.

What Was I Thinking?

By sunset that first evening, I was hanging over the side of the boat, being violently seasick, wondering why on earth this had seemed like a good idea.

As it turns out, I had picked the worst possible year to row across the Atlantic. There would be more tropical storms that year than in any other year since records began. And pretty soon the rough conditions were taking a toll on my equipment.

During the next four weeks, two oars, the camping stove, and the stereo would break. By the time I reached the halfway point at about six weeks, all four of my oars had broken.

Although I had trained like a demon, spending up to 16 hours in a day on the rowing machine, specifically to avoid repetitive strain injuries, I got tendinitis in my shoulders within the first two weeks. Also saltwater sores on my bottom, which is a particularly miserable affliction, making it impossible to sit comfortably on the rowing seat.

So I was having lots of physical and technical problems, but it was maybe the psychological struggles that were the worst. After the stereo broke, I was left with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain me. I’m not sure if any of you have ever spent 103 days alone with your own thoughts, with no TV or music, and precious little conversation, but I found it incredibly tough.

There might be some people whose happiness setpoint is higher than mine, who don’t give in to negative thoughts and self-doubt and self-criticism, but wired as I am, for me it was a character-building (equals “hellacious”) experience.

(Here’s the short video. Warning: may involve excessive whining.)

But as time went on I started to develop what you could call grit, or perseverance.

Disappointment

I spent a large part of the early days of that voyage feeling disappointed. Disappointment is the gap between what you expected, or hoped for, and what you actually get.

My hopes had been SO huge, and hence so was my disappointment.

I was disappointed on two levels. First, I was disappointed in myself. I had resolved that I would not be one of those whining adventurers, always complaining about how miserable everything is. I was really determined to enjoy this, and thought that if only I had a sufficiently positive mental attitude, I could overcome anything.

So I was putting a whole additional layer of pressure on myself. I kept thinking, “I’m supposed to be enjoying this” (gritted teeth) (oh, wow, there’s another meaning of GRIT).

Finally I admitted to myself that ocean rowing really sucks, and that took a huge amount of pressure off. Instead of trying so hard to enjoy it, I accepted that I was going to be miserable for the rest of the voyage, and paradoxically that acceptance really cheered me up.

And then, I was really disappointed in the ocean. I suppose that because I was out there to raise awareness of the damage we’re inflicting on Mother Earth, and had even named my boat after the Inuit goddess of the ocean, Sedna, I thought I deserved some kind of special privileges, that the ocean might go easy on me and let me have a swift crossing.

I was wrong, so wrong.

Maritime Misery

grit-definitionI had done some sailing on relatively small boats in preparation for my ocean crossing, but even so it was a massive shock to the system. In a rowboat you’re not so much on the ocean as in the ocean. Everything is wet, all the time. My sleeping cabin was supposedly waterproof, but I don’t really believe in that word any more. Water has a knack of getting into all kinds of places it has no right to be.

Because the boat doesn’t have a mast and a keel it tips from side to side as well as forward and back, which is really nauseating, and makes everything take about three times as long as it should. You have to be really careful when you put things down, because with the rolling of the boat and waves crashing over the side, chances are it won’t be where you left it if you didn’t stow it properly.

And the ocean seemed to have a really unpleasant mean streak. Sometimes, towards bedtime, there wouldn’t be a big wave for a while, and I would start to get hopeful that I would be relatively dry when I went into the sleeping cabin. And then, just as I was stowing the oars for the night, a huge wave would come along and soak me. It was like it just knew.

So I learned why sailors have a reputation for bad language. I don’t normally swear much, but it really did make me feel better to let loose a volley of very unladylike language or indulge in some primal scream therapy. On the ocean (as in space), no one can hear you scream.

There were many times when I felt really low. The voyage took me about twice as long as I’d hoped, and there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t wish I was somewhere else. My subconscious helped somewhat, filling my dreams with visions of friends and family and food, so I’d often wake up in the morning feeling like I’d been to a great party, only to realise I was still alone on my 23-foot rowboat.

We Always Have A Choice

grit-over-giftThere was one day that my mother gave me a kind of gift. It was a few days before my satphone broke, and we were talking. It was one of only two occasions I have ever been reduced to tears on my boat. Most of the time there’s not much point in crying. But this one morning I was really low. I’d been out there for so long, and still had so far to go.

I had even looked over the side of the boat, down into the two-mile deep water, and thought that I could just slip over the side and nobody would ever know what had happened to me.

It must have been really tough for Mum on the phone that day, hearing me so sad. She said, “Rosalind, do you want to give up?”

My first instinctive response was “YES!” I’d given it a good shot. Nobody would be that surprised if I called for rescue – it’s what the naysayers had expected all along.

But then almost immediately I realised I would never forgive myself if I quit. There was only one thing worse than carrying on, and that was to give up.

But what Mum did for me in that moment was to offer me a choice. I had been feeling so trapped – trapped on that tiny boat, trapped by my own commitment to do this – and Mum reminded me that we always have a choice. We always have a way out.

“Can I Do This?” Is A Bogus Question

grit roadI realised I’d spent a lot of time asking myself, “Can I do this? Do I have what it takes?” And when my mind searched my memory banks it didn’t find any evidence that I could do this, as I’d never done it before, so that answer came back, “No, we have no evidence that you can do this”. But now I realised that was a bogus question, that the only way to find out if I could do this, was to keep on doing it, to keep showing up and sticking my oars in the water. And only time would tell if I had what it took to get me to the other side.

So even if we don’t have the grit to do much else, if we can just find the grit to keep showing up and doing what needs to be done, day after day, then we’re still in the game, and success is still an option.

And I realised, eventually, that even the incredible, indescribable, almost intolerable degree of discomfort that I was in on a daily basis – physical discomfort, psychological discomfort, emotional discomfort – was in a strange way exactly what I wanted. In the run-up to the row I had quite glibly said to reporters and anybody else who asked why I was doing this, that I wanted to get outside my comfort zone, to find out what I was capable of.

I had conveniently overlooked that fact that getting outside my comfort zone was, by definition, going to be uncomfortable. When I had that moment of insight, I realised that this extreme discomfort didn’t mean I was failing, it actually meant I was exceeding my wildest imaginings of success.

Fantastic! I’m having the worst time ever! That means I’m succeeding in getting outside my comfort zone!

Believe me, if you can convince yourself that getting far outside your comfort zone is actually good for you – the world is your oyster (pearls again!). You will have the courage to face absolutely anything.

And you know what? I really believe that the harder you’ve struggled, the more you’ve had to grit your teeth and get on with it, the greater the sense of achievement when it finally comes good. So many times I thought I had hit my limit – of pain, frustration, boredom, exhaustion – and yet when I simply kept on showing up, I realised that the limit was really a mirage, and when I had passed through it and looked back, it had simply disappeared.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. When have you had to get your grit on? How did you make yourself keep going? What were the rewards?

 

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please check out the rest of my COURAGE series by following the links on the right. And to keep it fresh in your mind, you might want to download and print off the handy PDF one-pager summarising the Seven Steps to All-Conquering Courage. Stick it on your refrigerator! Live courageously!!

 

 

 

22 Comments

  • Dear Roz
    I had a family tragedy at the beginning of 2010 which led me to consider, in your terms “slipping out of the boat” and drowning myself (or similar suicidal-like thoughts). It wasn’t so much, as in your case, either consideration of my family or my own ‘grit’ that lead me to see sense, but the love of Christian friends that saw me through. I question whether challenging yourself and putting ones self in danger for danger’s sake , as you did, is a good idea? ‘Grit’ has its place in helping to save suffering humanity but for its own sake I’m not sure!
    Peter Lewis

    • The thing is with the “Slipping off the Boat feeling” is that we certainly don’t plan it, expect it or know about it until it arrives! I’ve learnt now to keep my goals more “realistic” and “achievable”to avoid that dreadful torture again.

      There are 2 pains in life. The pain of discipline or the pain of regret….

      Thanks for another great blog Roz. x

    • The thing is with the “Slipping off the Boat feeling” is that we certainly don’t plan it, expect it or know about it until it arrives! I’ve learnt now to keep my goals more “realistic” and “achievable”to avoid that dreadful torture again.
      There are 2 pains in life. The pain of discipline or the pain of regret….
      Thanks for another great blog Roz. x

    • Sorry to hear about your family tragedy, Peter. I am glad you are still with us.

      To clarify – a huge factor in my deciding to row across oceans was that I had recently had an environmental epiphany, and had a desperate desire to raise awareness of environmental issues. I used my voyages as a way to get people’s attention for my message.

      I am not an adrenaline junkie that would willingly put myself in danger for danger’s sake. Not at all!

  • Wow…..feel just a tad pathetic…..after a bereavement and some difficult family dynamics followed by a few health concerns I don’t always feel that I have a lot of stamina left for life…..inspiration always comes along in one form or another….thank you roz
    X

    • I’m sorry for your troubles, Annie. Don’t force yourself to do more than you feel able. Life goes in cycles, and this may be a time for self-care and recovery. Rushing that process can be counter-productive.

      Wishing you all very best.

  • Hello Roz.

    I can’t tell you how glad I am in reading your blog on the Grit story. I had this relationship of almost 14 years and it is now over. I had an incredibly difficult time admitting that is over, letting go and accepting that it is the best for both myself and her. A truly remarkable individual who I got to spent some much time with and really tried my best to be happy and make her happy. This end came at the conclusion of a 3000 mile unsupported bicycle trip. People had asked me what was the most difficult part of the trip. I used to say it was the first pedal stroke, but as time went on as I went thorough the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was all alone everyday for weeks. I had to accept that I was like you said out of my comfort zone and that it was ok to be vulnerable but it was not ok to quit. Many times when I would call my ex and talk on the phone, she would tell me that it was ok for me to come home early. “We won’t tell you came home early, it is ok, I promise”. As much as I appreciate that feeling of needing me and wanting me back home, I knew that if I quit I would never forgive myself. I did not go through anything like you went through but now that I am walking on earth as Alex and not as Alex and my ex anymore, much fear has dominate my soul. Getting your email has been fantastically inspiring and nurturing because I realize that I am still the man she fell in love with and that no two human beings spent this much time with each other if there was no true mutual respect and a true desire to make the companionship succeed. I hope this email find you well and blessing to you for allowing to further realize that I am going to be ok and that I am in a transaction stage in my life and that I have to go and get something accomplished that I have not accomplished in the last years because I gave it the good all college tried and because it did not worked out to the end of my days, it did bring me so much joy, wonderful emotions and more happiness than sadness.

    Thank you.

    Alex.

    • Thanks, Alex, for being so generous – and COURAGEOUS – in sharing your story. Moving on from relationships is always hard, but I think it helps if we believe that everybody who comes into our life comes for a reason – they have something valuable to teach us. Sometimes that teaching will take a lifetime (I met a couple this morning who were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary!) – and sometimes it won’t. When it ends, we can take it as a sign that the lesson is learned, and/or that it will be learned in the way that we reflect on the relationship.

      After all, it’s not what happens to us, it’s the meaning and the learning that we take from those experiences.

      Thanks again for sharing your story. I was very moved.

  • Roz, I’ve been loving this whole series of yours, and this installment is no exception! I’m glad you reiterated what you said in your book about getting outside your comfort zone–that was one of my favorite insights!

    Keep up the great work. I know I’m not the only one who looks forward to these posts every week!

    • Thanks for the words of appreciation! So happy to know you’re loving reading these as much as I’m loving writing them!

  • Hi Roz, I too have been enjoying your blog series immensely. For a few years I have been trying to get my guts up to make a huge life change. I dream to sell our small business and get on the road to photograph birds and elephants for conservation causes. Not an uncommon aspiration. I have just turned 60 so fear is largely around age and risking financial security…also not uncommon in the realm of barriers that keep folks from living out their dreams. I’m always searching for that last tidbit of courage in the form of insight or inspiration that will allow me to leap off of the fence into the realm of uncertainty but adventure and passion for a cause. I have read lots of inspiring stories but most of them have been by folks that are younger such as your self so I still get very stuck on the age issue. I am aware, however, that the older one gets the more one has to loose in terms of not living your dream because time is getting shorter. Thank you for sharing your stories of passion, courage and grit!

    • Hey, Susan. I’m (ahem) 47, so not that much younger.

      You remind me of one of my loveliest friends, who is 62 and was recently rather unwillingly bounced into a big life transition. In retrospect, she has done an incredible job of finding meaning in it, and embracing the opportunity to start a new chapter of her life.

      So age is no reason not to start. I’ll stand by the words of George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

      Go for it, girl!!

  • Your comment, ‘slipping off the boat’, reminds me of a Mark Knopfler song, “Haul Away”, which begins: “It was a windless night when you left the ship
    You never were a steady bold one.”
    You clearly are a steady bond one, Roz! I believe that I am, too…but you won’t find me attempting to row or paddle across an ocean any time in this life. Your story is inspiring in so many ways.
    My steady boldness has emerged from tolerating disappointment in self and others. The issues are deep and not what many haven’t experienced – a bad marriage, a father who violated my daughter, adding to the spiral of opinion and story in the ‘family’ storm of a divorce. I’ll spare all the details.
    Through several years of the ending of the marriage, I managed to show up each day and keep my job; I was the breadwinner, while my -ex spiraled into drug abuse and was kept at distance. However, my work productivity declined, and I was ‘let go’ by a new boss who had little regard for the commitment of a 14 year employee going through the darkest days of her life. However, once I embraced the notion of ‘change’, his write-ups (determined to be discouraging) couldn’t touch my spirit. The job didn’t define me as a human being. Something NEW would happen in my life! I have always been an optimistic person, with a happy inner child, so I determined to stay healthy (was always a runner and water lover) and get a new line of work, hold onto my home, and finish raising my three children. I did slip at times, admittedly, into drinking too routinely. I would never let it take me, but with what my kids had gone through with their dad, it was selfish of me not to be stronger against how fearing my well-being would make them feel, or any embarrassment which I know they sometimes felt. I was adrift for awhile, emotionally. What I did right was have a loving mother, kept wonderful friends, got a fair amount of counseling along the way, here and there, where needed, to help keep my compass in balance, and stayed physically fit. Now, 20 years down the road, I have one child who won’t speak to me and won’t say exactly why, but have good relationships with the other two. So, I’m still gritting it out, you might say…my most important role, after all, is as Mother. But I won’t add fuel to whatever the exact reasons that my child stays away; I will continue to know that I can’t say I understand how she feels, any more than she could know how I felt when I was in the midst of my crises. I will respect her, continue to love her, and hope that she’ll grab my hand again one day.
    I do believe that patience and gratitude are the most important virtues in my life.
    Thanks for sharing your story, and providing a forum for others to share.

    • Cindy, you are the ultimate shower-upper, and what you have endured makes rowing oceans look like a walk in the park. I feel so humble when I read a story like yours – I did something that was kind of attention-grabbing (for a reason – the environmental mission) – and it’s nice to get the book deals and speaking gigs etc etc.

      But when I hear a story like yours, I feel so hugely respectful. You may never get the appreciation – maybe not even from your own child – but you have done the hard work, year after year, regardless. To me, THAT is heroic.

      Respect.

  • Hi! Roz, I once told you that you were an inspiration to me, that hasn’t changed, in fact I sometime think your blogging straight at me. My dream isn’t dead, I doubt that I will be able to quit this daydream! Thanks for your blog and your inspiration!

  • Hi Jim – it’s great to hear from you!!

    Interesting that you describe your ocean row as a “daydream” – it reminds me of this quote from T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia): “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

    Keep being dangerous, Jim!

  • Roz – Thank you for this column on grit. I am usually an optimistic and positive person, but during the last year I have changed. Due to some devastating personal losses, I am rather joyless and sad. However, your statement about “showing up” everyday resonated with me. That comment made me realize that change,improvement, and better days are a process, and don’t happen overnight. To me, this means that if I just “show up” everyday, I am moving closer to being myself again: positive, hopeful, energetic, artistic, and at peace. Thank you for your articulate insight and inspiration.

    • Very well said, Georgette. I trust that as you return to your default “self” of positivity and optimism, it may ultimately be revealed that there was a gift in the devastating personal losses that have made this year so hard.

      A friend of mine (who also went through more than her fair share of hardship, described it “you just keep swinging your legs out of bed in the morning”, even when just that simple act feels like the biggest challenge.

      Keep on keeping on….

  • Hi;
    I want to describe what grit means to me;

    Having to Grit on is to believe to be able to bike to work and back home every week day.(40 km. and in not good traffic condition)

    Having to Grit on is to be patient while waiting to be called by friends and to believe that they will eventually.

    Having to Grit on is not to be down psychologically when my therapist cancels the session.

    Having to Grit on is to write you a comment again and again,even knowing that I am the only one who did not received reply before

    I wrote this comment because;
    Every time I see or hear this sentence ;I ROW CROSS OCEANS.I start to feel like there is nothing impossible in life.
    Thank you very much.

    Akif KIRAL

    • Hey Akif. Sorry you didn’t get a reply before. Please don’t take it personally!

      You’re absolutely right – there is nothing impossible in life, except what we make impossible with our own limited thinking.

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